How to make 6 figures as a freelancer right out of college, according to 3 recent grads bringing in over $100,000 a year

  • Gen Zers are increasingly taking on freelancing while navigating a tough job market during the pandemic.
  • Three recent college graduates shared with Business Insider their success stories and best practices on making six-figure incomes.
  • If you want to pursue freelancing full time, they suggested treating it like a business.
  • Once you're getting enough projects, work on consistent marketing, increasing your rates, and networking.
  • "It takes time to build a freelance business, so take it step by step — persistence is key," freelancer Michael Jajou said. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

According to a recent study published by Upwork, "Freelance Forward: 2020," an increasing number of young adults are turning to freelancing for career opportunities.

The study found amid a tough job market, made even more difficult due to the recent impacts of COVID-19, half of the Gen Z workforce between the ages of 18 and 22 have freelanced in the past year, and of those more than 36% started since the onset of COVID-19.

The study also found that Gen Z represents a greater percentage of the freelance population than any other age group, including millennials (ages 23 to 38) who make up 44%, Gen X (ages 39 to 54) at 30%, and boomers (ages 55 and up) at 26%. 

Additionally, 32% of new full-time freelancers polled indicated that they began freelancing while still in school or right after completing their education. 

This indicates a growing number of Gen Zers who are turning to freelance opportunities in lieu of traditional employment — and out-earning more per hour than 70% of their peers in the US workforce by doing so.

Three recent graduates shared with Business Insider how they got their starts in the freelance world and built up to six-figure incomes.

Ashley Mason graduated in 2019 and has already earned $130,000 this year as a freelance marketing professional

Ashley Mason graduated from Stonehill College in 2019. This year, at just 23 years old, her freelance business has already brought in over $130,000 in profit to date, and is projected to pass the $175,000 mark by end of year.

Mason's journey into the freelance world began when she was just a sophomore in high school after starting a fashion and lifestyle blog when she was 15. 

"I've been entrepreneurial-minded for as long as I can remember, and I was constantly trying to find ways to make money when I was younger," Mason said. 

As organic interest in her blog grew, opportunities for paid partnerships began trickling in. It was through these paid partnerships that Mason began to see an opportunity emerge. 

Many of the brands she was partnering with lacked an online presence of their own. 

"I knew from my own experience how important social media was for building a brand," Mason said.

And so, to test the waters, gain a bit of professional experience, and grow her portfolio as a first-time freelancer, Mason offered these brands marketing and social media services on a pro-bono basis. 

Read more: I'm a stay-at-home mom who went from making $8 an hour at Starbucks to over $100,000 a year as a freelancer. Here are 5 steps I took to build my client base and income from scratch.

By the time Mason graduated high school and began her freshman year in college, she began taking on paid opportunities and was already earning a small stream of part-time freelance income. 

But it was a life-changing event that would eventually give Mason the courage to fully pursue her dreams of running a successful marketing agency. 

A day after her 19th birthday, Mason received the devastating news that her mother had been diagnosed with Glioblastoma — stage IV brain cancer.

"It made me realize that life is short and we don't really have as much time as we think we do to follow our dreams," Mason said. "I decided right then and there that I wasn't going to wait any longer to start my full-time business."

Dash of Social was born eight months later.

Mason ran Dash of Social while simultaneously attending college and caring for her mother, who passed away in June 2018. 

By the time Mason graduated, her freelance business was already bringing in six figures, she said. She was able to pay off her student loans just six months after graduation. 

"I am very fortunate that my friends and family have always been supportive of my dreams," Mason said. "Far too often people don't receive support from those closest to them, and there was certainly some skepticism from others who asked how I was going to get health insurance, if I could earn a living wage, or if I would be better off waiting until I had 'real world experience' — as if I didn't already have that!"

"But I didn't really care about what other people thought because as long as my parents believed in me, that was all I needed," she added.

Mason credits constant networking, putting people before profits, and always being aware of the needs of her target market to her success.

"I am constantly networking in Facebook groups — that's where 75% of my clients come from," Mason said. "I am always trying to find ways to provide value to others."

Today, in addition to running Dash of Social, Mason has also just launched a second business, Student to CEO, where she helps young aspiring entrepreneurs by providing business resources, tools, and access to a like-minded community of peers. Mason also recently delivered a TEDx Talk where she shared her story in hopes of inspiring other young professionals.

Read more: 6-figure sellers on the freelancing platform Fiverr share how they landed clients and built successful businesses online

Michael Jajou graduated in 2020 and managed to pocket $120,000 this year as a freelance developer

Michael Jajou.Michael Jajou

Michael Jajou is a mobile application developer who graduated from Michigan State University in the spring of 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. But he didn't let that stop him from running a lucrative freelance business that allows him to pocket $120,000 a year at just 22 years old. 

Jajou's freelance journey began in an unexpected way. 

As a junior in college, he knew he would need to beef up his resume with a bit of real-world experience before graduation and thought internships would be the way to go.

"I decided it was time to go to the corporate world, get an internship, and then get a corporate job when I graduated," Jaojoi said. "I spent the entire second semester of my junior year interviewing and finally got an offer from a pretty good company. My friends and family were so happy that I got the offer, but honestly I felt that I wasn't headed in a path that was meant for me."

Two days before the decision deadline, he shared, he emailed the company to decline the opportunity. Instead, Jajou turned to freelancing. 

"My family and friends were all against the idea and thought I was making a pretty stupid decision," he said. "But all the pressure gave me no choice but to succeed."

Jajou set up a profile on online freelance marketplace Upwork.

"It ended up being the best decision I ever made," Jajou said. "Freelancing was supposed to just be a summer job for me. But going into my senior year, I was fully booked for six months with more projects to take on than I could handle."

"I realized I had just (accidentally) created a full time career for myself," he added. "That's when I finally started looking at freelancing from a long-term perspective, which fueled me to work harder than ever before."

Halfway through his senior year, Jajou had enough work to keep himself fully booked through graduation, and was earning $60 per hour on the platform.

"My friends and family were in so much shock at what I had done in six months," he said. "That's the point where we all knew that this was a far better option to pursue versus a traditional job."

Jajou made a goal for himself to start earning $100 per hour by the time he graduated. Prior to receiving his degree, he accepted a project at $130 per hour.

"That's when I knew I had officially made it," Jajou said.

Jajou credits starting small and working his way up to be one of the many factors crucial to his success. It took him over three weeks to earn his first job on the platform and was only earning $14 per hour in the beginning. 

"I knew that price was just temporary," he said. "I just focused on building my credibility, portfolio, and reviews. That's what I used to build up my rate. And I wasn't afraid to take on projects that were a bit out of my comfort zone."

He suggested being patient. "It takes time to build a freelance business, so take it step by step — persistence is key," he said.

Jajou also pointed out it isn't just the money that makes freelancing such a lucrative alternative to traditional employment — it's also the freedom. 

"The ability to select projects I want to work on, the ability to choose when and where I want to work: that is priceless in my opinion," he said.

Read more: Freelance writers, designers, and marketers reveal how much they charge clients for their services — and the strategies they use to set their rates without being underpaid

Alyssa Goulet graduated in 2017 and built a freelance career as a copywriter and content strategist earning $100,000 a year

Alyssa Goulet.Alyssa Goulet

Alyssa Goulet graduated in 2017 from Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, and is already earning $100,000 a year as a freelance copywriter and content strategist.

Goulet started freelancing to get away from a job that was leaving her feeling unfulfilled. 

At the time, she was going into her sophomore year in college and looking for part-time remote work. 

"I knew that I wanted to try remote work so that I could be in control of my environment and my schedule," Goulet said. "At the time, I didn't know much about freelancing but I was interested in writing." She said she took the one sample piece she had in her name at the time and used it to start pitching to clients on a mixture of online job boards and freelance marketplaces.

"It took me about two weeks to land my first gig — for just $8 per hour at 10 hours per week," she said. "But it didn't take me long to realize that I could keep pitching and land more work. So that's exactly what I did."

She said she faced some skepticism from family and friends who thought the idea of making money online was a scam. "However, over time they saw that I was able to support myself and pay my school expenses, so that skepticism subsided," she added.

For the next three years, Goulet worked as a part-time freelancer while finishing college. Upon graduation, she decided to go full time.

Today, about 70% of her work comes from Upwork, and she's now earning an average of $100 per hour.

"There's a big difference between those who freelance on the side for extra cash and those who do this full time," Goulet said. "If the latter is your goal, don't treat it like a side gig, treat it like your business. That's what you have to do if you want to make a career out of freelancing."

Goulet credits being open-minded about the type of work she took on in the beginning as key to her success.

"For the first couple of years I had clients across several different industries — this is what helped me discover the types of clients I liked working with and what I was good at, " she said. 

"Also, many freelancers fall into the trap of getting 'too busy' to market themselves after they land a few gigs," she added. "But you have to market yourself, all the time, and you have to do it consistently."

She also recommended rethinking your rate after each new project you take on.

"My initial rate of $8 per hour was fine for a college kid just trying to scrape by, but it wasn't going to work long term," she said. "If you don't have a lot of experience, it's okay to start low, but don't get comfortable with that."

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