How to apply for Jobs on Freelancing Sites

So you want to want to find freelance work online on a site like oDesk or elance or any other freelancing site. It can be tough at the beginning. Work tends to go to those people with already established profiles with lots of great reviews. They are proven performers. Of course those with competitive rates also can appear to do well (but we’ll get to that). How do you go about winning any freelance online work at all?

The key is simply to get some good feedback early on. Win two or three oDesk online jobs, get some great feedback and winning the next oDesk job (or elance job, or 99designs job) becomes much, much easier. This article aims to give you some advice on how to get a job on oDesk, that crucial first or second job, to get that ball rolling. Much of the advice discussed here is application across all freelancing sites.

Make your profile shine

Want to get an oDesk job? It all starts with your profile. We’ve covered how to make the best oDesk profile in a separate article. If you haven’t already read  it – do it! Why? Well your profile does a lot of the work for you. It can showcase your skills and how good a fit you are for an oDesk job, even if you don’t have the proven track record…yet.

Quizzes, a portfolio of past work (if you have one), and the skills in your profile all help to showcase what you can do. The fact is that many people on freelancing sites just do not put in the effort to make a good profile up front. This gives you a huge advantage if you do.

Tip 1: Complete a kick ass profile

Be selective in your applications

Resist the temptation to apply for anything that matches any part of your skill set. Instead, especially at first, apply for jobs that are close to, if not are, perfect fits for your skills and experience (especially those you’ve listed in your profile).

oDesk makes this easier by limiting the number of concurrent applications available for new profiles especially if you haven’t yet completed the oDesk readiness quiz.

Some prospective clients will understand that you can adapt, or some skills equate to others and be happy to accept a non-perfect fit. However, many others don’t have enough knowledge about the work they are listing as an oDesk job to do that (which is why they need help in the first place). For a job with multiple freelance applicants, the closer the fit the easier it is for the less-knowledgeable client to pick you.

If a job asks for skills A, B and C then don’t apply if your profile says A, B and W. For example, if a job asks for skills in customising WordPress with a plugin and some custom Javascript and CSS, don’t apply if you know Javascript and CSS but aren’t a WordPress guru. “But hey, I know PHP, and that’s what WordPress is written in. How hard could it be?” isn’t the platform for a good application.

Likewise, if you are a writer that knows English and Spanish don’t apply for translation jobs unless you’ve got that translation experience – it’s just not a perfect fit. And a waste of time and an application.

Given oDesk gives lots of different ways to express the same skill or knowledge, there’s no harm in adjusting your profile to go after certain oDesk online jobs. If you know you’ve got the skills then adjust your profile so that the client can see you’re a great match for their needs.

Tip 2: Apply for jobs that match your skill set perfectly.

Smaller jobs first

While you want something big and juicy when freelancing online remember: we’re here for feedback to get the initial runs on the board. Go for smaller jobs to both hone your skills in applying and getting as much good feedback as quickly as you can. Quick wins is the name of the freelancing online game – at least at the beginning.

Tip 3: Only apply for small jobs at the beginning.

Tailor your application

This is simple: don’t copy and paste the same application cover letter for every oDesk job application. Like applying for work offline, the way to get a job in oDesk requires you to write something specific for each application. Boilerplate applications tend to come across that way. They are too generic, and reflect the fact that the applicant couldn’t even take the time to write something specific.

You might start with a template you’ve found or developed, but make sure you have addressed what the task needs to be done. Prove you’ve read and understood what you’re potential client has written. After all, you want – or need to appear to want – to solve their problems and meet their needs. If you’re freelancing online you won’t win much work if you don’t.

A good example is the “test word,” where a potential client asks you to use a certain word in your application (something simple like “glasses”) to show you’ve actually read their brief. Believe it or not, but most applicants do not even bother to do this.

This may seem obvious but proofread your application carefully. Typos and errors just look bad.

Tip 4: Write a tailored cover letter for every job.

Write a compelling bid: Demonstrate you can do it

This is an extension of the points above. Show you’ve got the skills, understand the problem and can apply your skills to produce a solution.

Outline how you’d go about completing the task. A step by step plan is a great way to highlight that you know how to go about getting it done. A rough design or indication of what the finished product might look like, is another. For example, for technical work you can outline what frameworks, tools or components your solution would use. For a design task, a wire frame or screen mockup shows you’ve thought about what needs doing.

It isn’t appropriate for every job, but it usually doesn’t hurt to put in an estimate or timeline for how long this will take. Break down any time estimate to demonstrate how you arrived at your figure. In short, you want to project “I can do this work, and here’s how.”

It will help to mention some less “tangible” aspects. Don’t limit yourself to dry solution descriptions. Mention your commitment to the task, to customer satisfaction, to excellence or whatever it is you’ll bring to the table. This is more the “why” you’d be a great choice rather than the “how”. Be careful not to overdo it though.

It is important, crucial even when trying to find freelance work online, to make your application is easy to digest. You want impact, and details, without length. It is very easy to go into great length and depth outlining solutions and making sure you’ve comprehensively addressed any and all criteria. You need to make sure you don’t. Your oDesk job application needs to be both lean and comprehensive; it’s not easy to do but very important.

Particularly for technical work, there’s a risk you’ll have too much (technical) detail for the person reading your application. Some people will love it, for others it’ll be off-putting or confusing. Read the job description to get a feel of how much technical understanding the job-lister might have and how much detail is appropriate.

Tip 5: Address how and why you are the best person for the job in your cover letter.

Get in early

This is self explanatory and obvious. Be one of the first to apply to improve your chances.

See multiple jobs you feel worth applying for? All else being equal, go for the job that has the least applicants so far. If your application is bad it doesn’t matter whenever you apply, but write a stand out, compelling, application and if you’re first – or close to it – then it’s your application that becomes the one to beat.

Tip 6: Apply for jobs as soon as they come online.

Make your rate competitive

Like I mentioned in the profile writing article, rate setting is tricky. A fair rate is very specific to the work being undertaken and the circumstances of the freelancer. However, sometimes, in order to win those first oDesk jobs, you need to compete with people whose circumstances allow themselves to charge a lot less. I’m not saying work for nothing, but when you want to win work and get your first feedback you may need to charge less that what you want your long-term rate to be.

This is another reason to go for smaller jobs first. Don’t commit yourself to 80 hours at half of what you think you’re fairly worth. Five or ten hours is obviously better. With better feedback you stand a better chance of landing a bigger piece of work at the rates you’re after.

If you’re charging less than you would want to normally because you’re starting out then perhaps, subtly, mention this in your profile and the oDesk job application. Highlight you’re good value… for now.

Tip 7: Quote a competitive rate.

Get that ball rolling

And that is how to get a job on oDesk (or similar sites). Remember, we’re after as much five star feedback as quickly as we can get it. Get that and it’ll be easier to apply for bigger work, or work that doesn’t perfectly match your skill set. oDesk increases how many concurrent applications you’re allowed once you’ve got some good feedback, making it easier.

It’s quite common for people, especially for those with some sort of advantage (like the same timezone or the same language/culture/country of origin as a prospective client or highly relevant professional experience), to be offered work with a small number of quality reviews. Plant the seed, watch it grow.

However your next work comes to you, it is the first few jobs that are the hardest to win. Hopefully this guide will help you to win them.

What tips do you have to win your first freelancing jobs online?

About the author


Joshua is a freelance programmer who loves the flexibility that working online provides for him.