If stocking grocery store shelves until midnight or being chained to a cash register all day just isn’t right for you, why not consider freelance work instead? Some students opt to be their own bosses and market their unique skills in order to make money as they go through school. The Varsity spoke with four students about their experiences working freelance jobs while studying at U of T. 

Choosing a service to sell 

If you’re lucky, you could just start charging people for the activities that you already like to do. Alayna Jang, a second-year student double majoring in cognitive science and sociology, for instance, started doing photography as a hobby before taking on paid jobs. 

A similar progression happened for Scott Joliceur, a second-year music student who also teaches private guitar lessons. “When I was about 15 years old, I was told that I was at a level where I probably could just start teaching,” he explained in an interview. 

Other work, such as tutoring, may not exactly be a fun hobby you get paid for, but can allow for more flexible work hours and provide fulfilling work experience. Olivia Sun, a second-year student majoring in ethics, society, and law, who tutors high school students in English, enjoys her job. “I personally like working with people, especially with kids, because they can be so cute sometimes. And it’s still fulfilling in some sense, because you feel like you’re helping people,” she said.

Finding clients 

It’s not much of a job, however, unless someone is paying you. 

Sun told me that she uses the platform Superprof to find students. “Slowly, students started to reach out to me. And then from there, I kind of built a base where people would give recommendations and I got more students,” she said.

Meanwhile, Jang uses social media to advertise her services: “On Facebook, there’s a Hong Kong teen part-time page where students or other young adults or teenagers can put up a posting saying that they’re looking for work, and [I’ve been] able to build connections that way.” 

Strangers on the internet aren’t the only potential clients. Jang explained that she got her first photography job through a friend of hers. Similarly, Vanessa Yu, a second-year music student, who teaches piano lessons, said that most music students get into teaching the same way: “Family friends and your parents’ work friends, they start finding out that there are opportunities for their kids to get lessons from someone they know. And so [then] they started asking. So my first couple of students were mostly family friends.”

Having skills that people are willing to pay for is one aspect of freelance work, but if you want people to hire you, effective personal marketing is crucial. Jang describes the impressive efforts that went into building her online presence, such as making a website, navigating Instagram’s algorithms and hashtag systems, and strategically including sample work in her Facebook posts in order to attract clients. 

Sun explained that on platforms like Superprof, potential tutors are selected based on their education, a personal bio, and their purported “teaching methodology,” among other factors. I asked Sun what attracted students to her profile. “I think it’s probably the fact that I got [a grade of] 100 [per cent] in grade 11 and 12 English,” she replied. 

Setting the terms of service 

One of the most attractive aspects of freelance work is the freedom, but it’s also a bit of a double-edged sword. 

On one hand, it can make the job more enjoyable. Sun noted that designing lesson plans for her students from scratch allows her to be creative. Joliceur told me that he has a particular way he likes to teach guitar, which would be something he would have to compromise if he opted to teach through a school.

Being in charge of your own schedule is also particularly useful when you’re a full-time student. Sun said, “I did a lot of tutoring in the summer. I think I had [around] 10 students at a time. But then once school started, I dropped a lot of them.” Similarly, Jang told me that she spaced out her photography bookings during the school year to give herself enough time to prepare for all of them. 

With great freedom, however, comes great responsibility. “When you’re working freelance, a lot of [your business] is up to you,” Yu described. “And in some ways, that can be harder because you have a lot more roles to fulfill. And you’re the one imposing deadlines upon yourself. If you don’t follow them, that’s also up to you.” 

Final step: cash in! 

Well, hopefully. But getting rich doing something you love seems too good to be true, and it sometimes is. Finding work is often contingent on being discovered on networking platforms, being selected over your competitors, and building and maintaining connections. 

For Jang, this meant having to start all over from zero when she moved to Toronto from Hong Kong. “I have not been able to find work in Toronto. And so I kind of put freelance photography [to the side],” she said.

In the absence of contracts, freelancers are also at the mercy of their clients’ whims. “I feel like [the number of students] really went down in 2020 when COVID-19 started,” Joliceur recounted. He added that many of his students did not want to transition to Zoom lessons once in-person sessions were out of the question. He picked up a retail job later that year. 

In the end, if it’s any consolation to the shelf stockers and cashiers out there, freelance work isn’t exactly easy, either.