College Student’s Guide To Freelancing - Navigating Self-Employment While In School

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If you’re in or preparing for college, you already know how expensive going to school can be. With the average cost of college continually rising, this means you may have to work to contribute to tuition costs and cover living expenses. Though there are many ways to make money in college, freelancing can be an ideal option for students. 

Freelance work is now commonplace in the United States. According to 2020 estimates, there are almost 60 million freelance workers in the country. Given the appeal of being your own boss, this number is likely going to keep increasing in the coming years.

Freelancing may seem an accessible and appealing way to boost your income, but it isn’t as easy as it looks — especially when you also have to keep up with your studies. It’s vital to learn more about what self-employment entails so you can prepare yourself to succeed as a freelancer without compromising your education.

Freelancers vs. Independent Contractors

Both freelancers and independent contractors are self-employed, but several key differences distinguish one type of worker from the other:

Freelancers

Freelancers have the freedom and flexibility to operate as a business. They have complete control over the work they do and how they do it. They are also entirely responsible for the financial, legal, and administrative parts of their business.

Typically, freelancers work on a lot of smaller projects for many clients at a single time. These projects tend to be short-term, though they may work for the same client more than once or repeatedly. They create their own schedules, set their own rates, and determine their own workload.

Independent Contractors

Independent contractors can work similarly to freelancers, but they generally tend to have long-term relationships with clients. They may work with a single client at a time, completing an entire project rather than a single component of it. They find clients on their own or get work through a third-party agency or organization.

This can make it difficult to determine if an independent contractor is self-employed or an employee of the organization they work with. However, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) explains that “an individual is an independent contractor if the payer has the right to control or direct only the result of the work and not what will be done and how it will be done.”

It may seem fussy and pedantic, but it’s an important distinction to make, particularly when it comes to finances and taxes. The way a worker is classified impacts their pay, taxes, and benefits. Further, businesses can get in trouble with the IRS for misclassifying employees. You should thoroughly understand what type of work you’ll be doing to avoid any potential consequences and ensure your business gets a strong start.

The Pros and Cons of Freelancing for Students

Just like any other form of employment, there are both significant pros and cons associated with working contract jobs:

Benefits

Some of the biggest benefits of being a freelancer include:

  • Flexibility: You have the freedom to do whatever you want with your business. You can set your own schedule, decide your workload, and create a work environment you feel comfortable in. Depending on your line of work, you can even make money from your home.

  • Gain experience: You may use your work as a freelancer to gain skills and get experience that is relevant to your degree. This can help prepare you to enter the workforce after you graduate, either as an employee or a business owner.

  • Creativity and variety: As a freelancer, you have complete control over your work. You can be as creative as you want, both in the work you do and in how you run your business. You’ll also get a lot of variety, since you have to oversee every aspect of the business.

  • Earn money: Obviously, freelancing is a way to make money, but there is no ceiling on how much of it you can earn. Usually, you can earn more per hour than you would as an employee at a business (especially at this stage in your professional life). You can also take on more projects to boost your earnings. And, aside from the taxes you have to pay on your income, you get to keep it all.

  • Build a business: Freelancing is what you make it. If you’re entrepreneurially minded, you could create a small business, not just a side hustle. Instead of frantically applying to jobs after graduation, you can just devote more time to building your business, since you’ve already laid a solid foundation.

These advantages are what make freelance work so enticing for so many people — and why many want to pursue that type of work, despite the disadvantages.

Drawbacks

Some of the biggest drawbacks of freelance work include:

  • Responsibility: When you freelance, all the responsibility for running your business and getting your work done falls on you. This can provide a valuable learning opportunity, but it can also be overwhelming, especially if you aren’t confident in handling certain areas of the business.

  • Financials: Between figuring out taxes and the lack of benefits, the financials of freelancing are confusing. You may not know what records to keep or whether you need a 1099 or W-2 tax form. While you can do research and learn about these topics, you’ll likely have to figure out a lot of these things on your own.

  • Inconsistent workflow: In a regular job, you have to work on a consistent, predetermined schedule. As a freelancer, you may go through periods where you have a lot of work to do, and others with very little. This also results in an inconsistent cash flow.

  • Work-life balance: It can be hard to maintain a healthy work-life balance as a freelancer — particularly since it’s already difficult enough to do so as a student. In addition to an irregular schedule, you also have more earning potential if you take on more work. Even if you don’t consider classes, schoolwork, and extracurriculars, it’s all too easy to overload yourself.

  • Collecting payments: Collecting payments from your clients can pose a challenge. Some clients will happily and promptly pay what they owe, but others will drag their feet and make late payments. Asking people for payment can be uncomfortable, especially if you aren’t used to it. 

It’s crucial to understand the reality of what freelancing looks like. For some, these drawbacks may be completely off-putting. For others, they may not be. However, you still need to be aware of the challenges you may face and prepare yourself to deal with them before you commit to this career path.

Best Freelance Jobs for College Students 

The beauty of being a freelancer? You can do any kind of work you want. It’s your business, so it’s entirely up to you.

That being said, you should still think carefully about what kind of work you do. You’ll probably want to pick something that has minimal startup costs, is somewhat flexible, and aligns with your existing interests or skills. For this reason, jobs that may work well for you as a student include:

  • Writing and editing, including content writing, blogging, and copyediting;

  • Tutoring, either online or in-person;

  • Translating;

  • Administrative work, either online or in-person;

  • Digital marketing, including content creation, social media management, and SEO services;

  • Creative services, such as illustration, graphic design, photography, and videography;

  • Computer services or information technology work, such as web development, programming, or coding;

  • Hands-on work, such as landscaping, babysitting and pet sitting, or housekeeping.

When making your selection, think about your reason for becoming a freelancer. Are you trying to get a leg up with some hands-on experience in your field, or are you just looking to make some extra cash? If it’s the former, you should select something related to your major or desired career path. If it’s the latter, you should probably pick something that isn’t too demanding so you can still focus on school.

You should also consider what kind of work you could realistically make a business out of. What services are in demand in your area or online? Match your skills to those needs, and do your best to provide a solution for them. By taking a more strategic approach to freelancing, you have a much better chance of successfully finding work.

Getting Freelance Work

Once you’ve figured out what you want to do, you have to find clients who are willing to pay you to do that work. 

Freelance job boards, of which there are many, are a great place to start. Some of the most popular include:

Additionally, look at standard job-hunting sites, such as Glassdoor, Indeed, Monster, and ZipRecruiter.

You should use websites and job boards that are specific to your industry. For example, if you want to work as a pet sitter, post listings and look for work on sites like Rover and PetSitter.com. This helps to maximize your reach and helps you narrow down the pool of clients to those who are specifically interested in the services you offer.

Don’t forget to check out any job boards, either in-person or online, offered by your college or community. These localized forums may be smaller, but they allow you to reach potential customers who are unavailable to freelancers in other areas.

Finding and Building Your Clientele

Once you’ve started to find jobs, there are a few other ways you can reach even more clients:

  • Start with people you know: Offer your services to people you already know. Your friends, family members, and acquaintances know who you are and are more likely to take a chance on you than a total stranger. However, this isn’t an excuse to cut corners. You still need to charge a fair rate and do good work, so they will give positive references and help you build your portfolio of work. 

  • Create an online presence: Build an online presence so customers can find you easily and learn about your services. This includes social media profiles, a website or blog, and (if relevant) a portfolio of your work. 

  • Networking: Continually work to build a professional network. This includes people and businesses you may work with in the future, as well as other freelancers in your niche. They may be able to help you find jobs or hire you to help with a job they can’t do alone.

  • Cold calling: In the beginning, people aren’t going to come to you for work, so you need to let them know you’re willing and able to take on new projects. Cold call people and businesses you want to work with. Submit job applications, send emails, literally call people — whatever you do, just try your best to get your name out there.

  • Get references: Ask your clients to provide a reference, leave a review, or give a testimonial. Not only does this show potential clients that past customers were happy with your work, but it also shows that you’ve successfully found and done work. This makes your business seem more legitimate and further improves your ability to get customers.

  • Offer discounts: Give a small discount to repeat customers. Consider giving them 10% off of a project, running a special, or bundling several services together at a lower rate. This incentivizes them to come back, and though you’ll slightly reduce your income, you don’t have to go through the hassle of finding new clients. 

The more work you do, the easier it will be to get more work. It won’t happen overnight, but with patience and dedication, you will have a pool of clients to work with. 

Don’t take on more work than you can reasonably handle. As a student, your schoolwork should be your primary focus. It’s okay to push back on a client’s request or decline a project altogether. Just be respectful so you can maintain that relationship, in case they ask for more work in the future.

Setting Yourself Up for Success as a Freelancing Student 

There’s no guarantee that you’ll find freelancing success. However, there are a few things you can do to make the process go smoother and increase the chances that you’ll build a lucrative business:

  • Set goals: Set goals for yourself. Know why you’re freelancing, particularly during such a busy time of your life. As you start working, keep these goals in mind so you can stay on track.

  • Start small: Take small steps into the world of freelancing. Start with a few projects and see how well you manage them. If you discover any major hurdles, it’ll be easier to overcome them when your business is smaller. You can take on more work when you’ve become more comfortable and efficient in this new role.

  • Master time management: As a student and business owner, you won’t be able to get by without highly effective time-management skills. Between deadlines for work projects and midterms, it’s easy to get lost in your to-do list. Take some time to plan out your days, designating time for work, school, other commitments, and rest.

  • Motivate yourself: Just as a boss motivates their employees, look for ways to motivate yourself. Try productivity apps, reach out to other people when you need a pep talk, organize your home workspace, reward yourself, and find ways to make work fun. Keep trying new things until you find motivation strategies that work well for you.

  • Take breaks: Take frequent breaks from your work. With so much going on, you need to find ways to reduce stress and keep your business and education moving forward. During long stretches of work, step away from your desk every so often to rest. Similarly, be sure to take a day off from your work, or the occasional vacation, so you have time to decompress. You may feel like you can’t sacrifice the time, but by taking breaks, you’ll get more done — and probably feel better — in the long run.

  • Celebrate: Freelancing and going to school are both challenges in their own rights. Whether you got an A on a difficult test or extremely positive feedback from a client, you should celebrate all of your victories. This will help you stay motivated, remind you of your goals, and help you enjoy this exciting time in your life.  

By taking care of yourself and understanding what you need to do to make this work, you’re far more likely to succeed in your new venture.

Getting Paid for Freelance Work

Finding clients and doing work is only half the battle; figuring out your finances is the other. Because freelancing is so flexible, there are many different ways you can get paid. In some ways, this flexibility makes it easier to get paid. However, in others, it makes the situation more complex, especially if you don’t have a game plan to get the money you earned.

  • Never work for free: You should never complete any work for free or get paid in “exposure.” Your expertise and time are valuable. If clients want you to create a sample of your work, charge them a small rate proportional to the project. If they’re asking for free work, avoid working with them altogether. Look for clients that have a history of working with freelancers, or who at least recognize the value you offer.

  • Do research: Before anything else, do your research on how much existing freelancers and businesses charge in your line of work. You need to know how much your work is worth before you can agree upon a price with clients. As a beginner, it may help to charge slightly less than the current going rate; this will incentivize people to hire you, despite your lack of previous experience. After you’re established, you can raise them to reflect market values.

  • Protect yourself: Take care to protect yourself from unpleasant clients and potential scammers or swindlers. You can request and collect payment using a trusted third-party service, like PayPal. This way, if something goes wrong, you have some extra support to navigate the situation and make sure you get paid. Keep in mind these services typically take a cut of your earnings. Be sure to account for this in the rate you set for your clients.

  • Predetermine parameters: Similarly, make sure everyone is on the same page regarding the project and payment. Your client should know how much they are paying for the work, when and how they are expected to pay you, and the consequences of breaking this agreement. Use contracts and invoices to communicate these expectations before you begin working. 

  • Follow up: Follow up with your clients until they pay you. You may be a college student, but you’re doing real work for your clients and should be compensated appropriately. If a client continually refuses to pay, stop doing work, or withhold the completed project until they do. Once you’ve resolved this issue, it’s probably best to avoid working with that client in the future.

  • Record your income: You may be a freelancer, but, come tax time, you still have to provide proof of your income to the federal government. Depending on the scope of your work, your clients may be able to provide a 1099 form. If they don’t, there are still ways to report your income, such as creating your own pay stubs or your own 1099 form. Regardless of how or how much a client pays, you need to keep thorough and detailed records of your income.

Figuring out money may not be as fun as the work you do, but it’s a vital part of being self-employed. You will struggle to succeed as a freelancer if you don’t stay on top of your finances before, during, and after doing the work.

Managing Taxes as a Freelancer

Taxes are an inevitable and, at times, expensive part of life as a student freelancer. You aren’t just managing your own finances, but your business finances. To make matters even more confusing, they may be the same in the eyes of the IRS. 

You’re considered both an employee and an employer, so you have to pay a tax rate of 15.3%. You may also have to pay estimated taxes each quarter, instead of once per year. It helps to set aside money from each project you work on. That way, when taxes are due, you don’t have to scramble to come up with the funds all at once. And that’s just federal taxes — though some states don’t have income tax, you may have to pay state income tax, too.

On the flip side, you may be able to deduct certain business expenses. This lowers your taxable income, and, hopefully, decreases the amount you’ll have to pay the IRS. Since money tends to be tight for college students, even a small reduction in your taxable income can go a long way.

To properly sort out your taxes, you’ll also need to gather all relevant documents for your business and education, which may include:

  • Form 1040: Also known as the Profit or Loss from Business or Schedule C form, Form 1040 reports how much money you earned or lost from a business you operated.

  • Form 1099-Misc: Many freelancers have relied on this form to report their income to the IRS. However, the IRS recently reintroduced an updated version of this form: the 1099-NEC, which stands for non-employee compensation. Going forward, freelancers and independent contractors must now use the 1099-NEC to report their earnings.

  • Form 1099-K: If you accept payments via debit or credit card, you’ll also have to file a 1099-K, or Payment Card and Third Party Network Transactions form.

  • Form 1098-T: If you or your parents paid qualifying educational expenses (including tuition), you can use the 1098-T to claim certain tax credits. If you qualify, this can offset the cost of tuition, textbooks, and other expenses.

  • Form 1098-E: Form 1098-E is the Student Loan Interest Statement. If you’ve paid at least $600 in interest on your student loans in a year, you may be able to deduct part of those interest payments from your income.  

  • Receipts: Keep copies of all your business receipts, especially for large purchases. You may need them if you plan to deduct any business expenses.

  • Invoices and pay stubs: Both invoices and pay stubs can document the compensation you’ve received from clients. You may need this to prove your income if you don’t have the necessary records listed above.

The specific forms you need, as well as the steps you need to take, depend heavily on the structure and size of your business. If you aren’t sure about what to do, it’s best to work with a tax professional. The possible consequences of making a mistake on your taxes will almost certainly outweigh that cost.

Between finding clients and untangling your finances, working as a freelancer while going to school can be difficult and overwhelming. However, if you take the time to properly prepare for self-employment, you can establish yourself as a freelancer, stay on top of your schoolwork, and find the work-life balance you need to succeed in both areas.

Additional Resources and Further Reading 

For more information on the financials of freelancing, check out the following resources:

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College Student’s Guide To Freelancing - Navigating Self-Employment While In School
Samantha Clark

A Warrington College of Business graduate, Samantha handles all client relations with our top-tier partners. Read More

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