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Jeremiah Ajayi: All you Need to Know about Freelancing as an Undergraduate

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After acing her high school final papers, Jennifer got accepted into a premier university in South-Western Nigeria. “Don’t follow bad friends. Read your books and graduate with good grades so you can land a good-paying job,” Jennifer’s parents advised. Jennifer followed her parents’ advice. 

Four years later, Jennifer graduated with an Upper Second-Class Honours. Shortly after, she got countless job offers, finally choosing to work at the Nigerian Broadcast Corporation (NBC). Her career began, and she lived happily ever after.  An enviable career progression, isn’t it? Unfortunately, Jennifer’s story happened in the 1970s. 

In 2021, the 7.96% unemployment rate in Nigeria and the 5.42% global unemployment rate hinder millions of youths from achieving feats similar to Jennifer’s. Not only is the job market more saturated, but the standards for landing a job have also become ridiculously high. 

Between the prerequisites of two years experience for entry-level roles and the notoriety of ATS in disqualifying candidates before a recruiter even gets to make a final decision, landing a job is now similar to flogging a dead horse. The need to find an alternative route is stronger than ever and students seek to insulate themselves from becoming victims of the labor market’s gory situation. This is where freelancing comes in. 

At its core, freelancing means working independently rather than for a company. Undergraduates can try out freelancing to build their skills and experience and increase their income before graduation. Why should you freelance as an undergraduate? 

Freelancing helps you acquire relevant work experience before graduation

91% of employers prefer job seekers with work experience, according to NACE’S Jo Outlook 2017 surveyThis means that employers want job candidates who already possess the hard and soft skills required for success on a job. Fortunately, unlike academics that emphasizes theory, you acquire relevant skills and experience when freelancing. 

Freelancing serves as a complement to your studies

Book smartness is great. However, the additional quality of street smartness will accelerate your career progression faster than only book smartness would. Freelancing as an undergraduate can help you develop that additional quality. As a student freelancer, you get to learn the fundamental principles of street smartness due to constant marketing, negotiation, and client management.

It allows you to pursue what you love

“Do what you love” is a piece of advice that mostly works for young people, not adults who are already hustling. Unlike a typical older adult with a mountain of bills to settle and not enough time due to several obligations, you’ve fewer responsibilities and more time as a young undergraduate. As a result, you can easily monetise your passion with little or no risk.

If you love photography, you can quickly set up an online portfolio of your photos, get decent camera equipment, and start sourcing for clients. And if you love writing, all you need to do is set up an account on a freelance site and write away!

Freelancing is a rare opportunity for you to earn and learn while pursuing what you love. 

Before starting your freelance career…

Determine what you know, then niche down

Before you can earn a consistent, profitable income as a student freelancer, you need to develop a robust knowledge base and then specialize. Sure, your knowledge and skills would be next to nothing at the beginning. The endless career possibilities might even scare you. Notwithstanding, you will acquire new and more money-spinning skills as you advance. Independent work is just like any other career field. You grow as you gain more experience. 

For example, creative writing was my key expertise as a freelance newbie. But as I spent more years in the game, I found aspects of digital marketing such as SEO and content marketing interesting, and I’ve specialized in them ever since.

Consider your availability 

Before you launch a career as a student freelancer, self-reflect by asking yourself, “Can I handle the rigors of freelancing?”  Besides that, examine your schedule, including academics and extracurricular, to determine if freelance side hustle can fit in. 

Take few volunteering/starter jobs

Charged with excitement and enthusiasm, you might want to jump into freelancing without establishing credibility. Such decisions, sadly, always end in tears. As a newbie freelancer, you’ve to stoop to conquer by working low-pay jobs and sometimes working for free (volunteering). Yes. That is hard, but it’s necessary as no premium client would want to give a job to a novice who has no proof of credibility. 

If you are not comfortable with working low-paying gigs or volunteering, you can carry out personal projects. For example, if you want to be known as an SEO writer, start a blog and experiment with a series of low-competition keywords that you can easily rank high for. Once you achieve results, write a case study and attach it whenever you apply for jobs or send cold emails to potential clients. 

Set up a portfolio

After getting enough work samples, the next step is to create your portfolio.

Here are tips for creating a portfolio that wows your client: 

  • Focus on your niche. Try not to include unrelated works.
  • Prioritize quality over quantity. Feature only your best works.
  • Include mentions, press, and testimonials.
  • If you don’t have enough work samples, you can include your school assignments and essays, which scored you outstanding grades. This approach works best for freelance writers, though.
  • Always keep your portfolio up-to-date. Let it continuously reflect your present skill and experience level 

Pitch your services

It’s time for you to reach out to prospective clients and employers. If you have no idea where to begin, start by searching on sites for remote jobs

Asides from online platforms, networking at events and sending cold emails can bring you desired clients. To make it as a freelancer, you have to be shameless and confident. Don’t be afraid to market and pitch your services. 

As a freelancer…

Congratulations! After much error and trial applying the above tips, you’ve finally landed your first freelance job. The sky is not a limit anymore, yeah? Not so fast! 

Client acquisition is only a minor part of your entire journey. To continually stand out and ensure lasting success as a student freelancer, here are some recommendations to follow:

Avoid overpromising

As a student freelancer, you should remember that while you have to meet deadlines, you have other activities (e.g., academics) to juggle. As such, try not to overpromise. Instead, be transparent with your clients by letting them know if a deliverable is possible or not. The moment you overpromise, you risk under-delivery.

Seek retainers

Having too many clients might endanger your academics. So rather than working for the world and his wife, find a good-paying client and deliver beyond their expectations. Expectedly, this will make him/her retain you, thereby making your income and schedule entirely predictable. Once you’ve mastered the art of managing that one client, feel free to take another.

After establishing your credibility, adjust your rates

There are several clients in the freelance industry looking to exploit young people by getting the best services at ridiculous prices. Fight against that by charging a higher rate once you have gained enough experience. 

In my case, I had to take ridiculous sums from Nigerian clients (imagine taking 1 naira per word, $10 per original article) at the beginning of my freelance career. But the more experience I garnered, the more I improved my expertise and commanded a higher price. More importantly, I acquired industry certifications and achieved results for my past clients. To increase your rates, continually update your skillset, acquire relevant certifications, and change your mindset. 

Balancing the scale…

Life as a student freelancer can be tempting enough to lure you into unsettling the scale. But don’t let this happen to you. Try to avoid letting freelancing overwhelm your academics and vice versa. 

Here are some actionable tips that will help you achieve that:

Learn to prioritize 

In certain situations, you might have both school assignments and pending deliverables. Multitasking won’t help in these cases because it makes your work shoddy. Instead, pick either of the two tasks by determining which is most crucial and do it one at a time. 

Spend your holidays wisely

Sometimes, a semester schedule might be too tight to accommodate your freelance job. Don’t fret, simply let go of freelancing in that semester and use the semester break to freelance instead. 

Whether you’re seeking quality work experience, sustainable income, excellent business skills, or even a good usage of your spare time, freelancing is a rewarding path to consider. 

Have you ever freelanced as an undergraduate? What has been the highlight? If you haven’t, is freelancing a path you’d love to try?

Jeremiah Ajayi is a writer, SEO professional, and career coach. His goal as a writer is simple: he wants to help young people to define their own version of excellence and give them the strategies and insights to achieve it. Sign up for his newsletter to get life-changing advice and global opportunities delivered to your inbox every week:


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