You may have heard that Upwork is a great place to start a side hustle, or even to become a full-time freelancer.
You heard correctly!
The platform features thousands of new freelance gigs every day, with well-paid work-from-home opportunities in almost every niche imaginable.
I know, because before launching The Ways To Wealth I was an Upwork freelancer, taking on a wide variety of jobs and eventually billing over $100 per hour for my services.
Many newcomers to the platform wonder how to get started and land their first client on the site.
This guide aims to answer the question “How do I get a job on Upwork with no experience,” and provides a step-by-step guide for getting started and winning your first contract.
Let’s dig in…
What is Upwork?
Upwork is a gig economy platform that connects freelancers with people and companies that need work done. After signing up for the site, freelancers create a profile that includes a photo, a list of skills and a portfolio of work samples.
Users then search through the tens of thousands of job opportunities listed on the site, which are organized into various categories. When you find a job of interest, you’ll submit a proposal that usually includes your desired rate, a short cover letter, and brief answers to a few questions about your skills, experience and fitness for the project.
Clients (i.e., the people who are looking for freelancers) can also search for freelancers who might be a good fit for their project. After being invited to apply, the process looks the same as above: you’ll review the details and submit a proposal.
Freelancers and clients communicate on Upwork through a built-in messaging platform, which has chat, voice and video-call capability. Interestingly, unlike some other freelancing platforms, off-site communication (such as email) is not expressly prohibited.
Billing and payments are handled by Upwork, which provides a measure of protection to both parties. In most cases, clients are required to place funding for the project in an Upwork-managed escrow account in order to initiate a contract.
Upwork charges freelancers 20% for the first $500 billed to a client, but that fee drops to 10% once you’ve billed your client at least $500. Some jobs are paid at an hourly rate, while some are paid a flat fee. Usually, you’ll have the opportunity to negotiate the rate and terms during the proposal process.
You’ll find plenty of that type of gig on Upwork, but there are Upwork jobs that fall into dozens of other categories, including web design, mobile app development, data entry, copywriting, remote customer service and virtual assistant.
You’ll even find listings for what might be considered “professional” careers, like architecture, chemical engineering, and law.
So while you can find one-off writing gigs that supplement your existing income, you can also find legitimate Upwork careers! And many people do just that: rates on the platform tend to be relatively high, so freelancers are often able to build a full-time income with just a handful of clients.
Sound interesting but also a little bit intimidating? Don’t worry if you’re a newbie and don’t have a ton of experience. There are plenty of prospective clients interested in hiring new freelancers. You just need to know a few tips and best practices.
How to Get Your First Job on Upwork
Upwork features legitimate clients, good pay rates, plenty of flexible work-from-anywhere job opportunities in dozens of categories, and payment protection. Sounds great, right?
Many new freelancers learn about the opportunity offered by Upwork and get a rush of excitement that is gradually replaced by frustration and disappointment as they fail to actually get a job on the site.
So let’s be honest about one thing: getting your first job on Upwork is the biggest barrier to success on the platform.
Why is it so hard to win your first contract?
There are a few reasons, but first and foremost is your lack of feedback. Upwork relies on a five-star rating and feedback system.
When a project is completed, freelancers and clients grade each other and have the opportunity to leave a publicly-displayed comment.
These ratings serve as a form of social proof: they show that you’ve successfully completed projects and that you’re not going to waste clients’ time and money.
They also contribute to your “Job Success Score” (JSS), which is a publicly-displayed metric that Upwork users to determine how satisfied your clients are with your work.
When clients are searching for freelancers to invite to projects, they have the ability to filter potential applicants by JSS (often opting to only consider people with a score of 100%). Also, your JSS is prominently displayed when you submit a proposal.
As a new freelancer, you have no feedback and no Job Success Score. So, you see the problem: clients have no way of knowing whether you’re a reliable person who can actually deliver the skills you say you can deliver. This makes them much less likely to hire you.
Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to counteract this.
Step #1: Craft a Knockout Profile
When you have no feedback and no JSS, your profile comes under extra scrutiny. As an Upwork beginner, it’s your primary means of selling yourself to potential clients. But many newcomers make the mistake of rushing through the profile creation process, which makes them much less competitive.
Here are the keys to creating a great Upwork profile that will make clients want to learn more about you.
1. Use a business-friendly photo
First impressions matter, and an appropriate photo is an important part of your Upwork profile. Because the photos on the site are small, you want a close-cropped image showing your head and neck (and possibly the tops of your shoulders).
Freelancing is very different from a traditional job, so while a suit is appropriate for a traditional job interview, it’s a little too formal for your Upwork profile. If any portion of your clothing will be shown in your photo, stick with business casual.
You also want your photo to be friendly. You’re not posing for your passport — you’re trying to draw in prospective clients. Research into what makes an effective profile photo has shown that smiling and a confident posture can significantly influence clients’ perception of you.
Here’s an Upwork-produced article that outlines some of the recommended best practices.
2. Write a compelling, keyword-rich job title and overview
Whether you’re trying to land your first job on Upwork or your 100th, you want to make it easy for potential clients to find you. This means crafting a detailed description of your skillset that’s filled with keywords relevant to the kind of jobs you want to be hired for, as well as an overview of your experience.
You also want to focus on highlighting benefits in these sections.
What do I mean by “benefits?”
Here’s a screenshot of my own Upwork title and overview from back when I was a freelancer on the platform.
In the title, I didn’t simply describe what I do. That would have looked something like:
Copywriting and Landing Page Design Services
Instead, I added two important pieces of information to help potential clients understand what I was all about: a niche (Unbounce, which is a specific type of landing page software) and a benefit (increased ROI). Then, I reinforced the benefit I provide by talking about it in the overview.
When you’re just starting out, you may not have a niche yet. However, you can absolutely underscore the benefits clients would gain by hiring you. Don’t just say what you’re good at; think about how your skills translate into specific, tangible returns.
That said, you should always be thinking about you future niche(s). Because there’s so much competition on Upwork, appealing to a particular niche within your wider area of expertise can help you win more clients and earn better rates.
For example, if you’re a social media guru who has worked with many restaurants, highlight that fact.
3. Consider adding an introductory video
Most of the jobs on Upwork are remote work. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever meet a client in person, and you may not even speak to them on the phone. Most of the time, it’s pretty impersonal and transactional: you get an assignment, and then you submit the deliverables.
That’s part of the reason why feedback is so important — to a client, you’re one anonymous face out of thousands and thousands.
But if you’re able to shift that dynamic (even slightly) you can gain an edge on your competition.
One way to help yourself stand out and be less anonymous is by adding an introductory video to your Upwork profile. It’s an infrequently-utilized option, but it can have a big impact on the success of your proposals.
Tell potential clients who you are, a little bit about the services you offer, and how long you’ve been involved in your profession. Note the kinds of projects you want to take on, and the kind of clients you like to work with. You don’t need to cover much ground here — 30 to 60 seconds is ideal. The goal is to simply show your face in a way that demonstrates you’re a real, reasonable person.
4. Match your “skills” to the type of work you’re seeking
Your Upwork profile allows you to add up to 10 “skills” from a predefined database of options. Here are the skills listed on the profile of a freelance SEO editor I work with here at The Ways To Wealth:
As you can see, his skills are directly related to the work of an SEO editor. But here’s the thing: prior to becoming a freelancer, he spent over a decade working as a journalist and music critic. If you ask him, he’ll tell you that some of his primary expertise is interviewing sources, researching stories, and drafting creative first-person content.
But none of that is relevant to working as an SEO editor, so he didn’t include it.
The skills you choose help potential clients find you on the site, and also affect the placement of your proposals when applying for jobs. Freelancers whose skills better match the “desired” skills (set by the client when they created the job post) will appear higher up in the client’s list of applicants.
Many new Upwork freelancers make the mistake of listing their 10 top skills, regardless of what those are. But since you’re limited to adding only 10, you need to think carefully about which of your skills specifically match the type of work you’re looking for.
For example, let’s say you spent five years working as a virtual assistant but are looking to get started as a freelance video editor. The skills you developed as a VA are very likely among your top skills in terms of expertise level. But those skills are probably not relevant to a client looking for a video editor, so you shouldn’t include them.
Your goal here is to think about what attributes potential clients will value and choose your skills based on that. If you’re unsure, browse a few listings within your target category and see what’s in demand; chances are you’re at least proficient in some of those areas.
5. Upload relevant work samples
Your portfolio is without question the most important part of your Upwork profile, as it provides an opportunity to show clients what you’re capable of through work samples. There’s no need to include dozens of items in your portfolio — four to six is just right.
What if you don’t have a portfolio? Create one! There’s no rule stating that only paid work can be part of a portfolio. If you’re hoping to score writing jobs but don’t have any published work, write some articles on the niche subject you know the most about.
Of course, published work is always better. In the example above, consider writing a couple of articles and pitching them to blogs as guest posts. They’ll get free content and you’ll get a valuable byline that will help you land clients.
I would even go so far as to say that you should mention the fact that you created samples specifically for your portfolio. This shows initiative on your end, and as someone who has hired their share of freelancers on Upwork, this is something that’s rarely seen in a job proposal!
See Also: 23 Great Jobs That Require No Experience
6. Add your work experience and education
Much like a standard job application, clients want to see your work experience. So, it’s a good idea for all Upwork freelancers to include this information. But it’s crucial to include it when you’re starting out on the platform, because it helps legitimize your profile.
If you’ve been working for many years, you don’t need to include every job you’ve ever had within your profession. Listing the last three or four jobs is sufficient. If you don’t have much work experience, you might want to include all of your past jobs (even if they aren’t relevant to the freelance career you’re building).
The same is true for your education. Not all jobs on Upwork require a college degree, but having a degree can help you stand out over competing freelancers who don’t.
Step #2: Search For the Right Kinds of Jobs
Many new Upwork freelancers get derailed because they’re looking for (and applying to) the wrong kinds of jobs. Here are some ways to avoid that common pitfall.
1. Be patient and selective
There are a lot of jobs on Upwork, and new ones are posted literally by the minute. The first time you search the site for jobs in your niche, you’ll probably be floored by the number of opportunities.
But when it comes to landing your first job, you need to be a little bit strategic and avoid the urge to submit a proposal for the first gigs you find that fit your skills.
Yes, there are an abundance of opportunities on the site… but there are also an abundance of freelancers — the majority of whom have feedback and plenty of hours billed, leading to solid Job Success Scores. Those freelancers have a built-in advantage, so you need to be realistic when deciding which jobs to compete for.
Why not apply to everything?
As a freelancer, your time is your money. You could spend hours applying to jobs that are out of your reach, but that’s a poor use of your time (and a good way to get burned out).
Plus, there’s a hard cost element at play: “connects” — Upwork tokens that you use when submitting a proposal — are 15 cents each, and most jobs require two connects to submit a proposal. That’s not much, but it will add up fast if you start applying to dozens of jobs per day.
So, which jobs should you target? See below…
2. Focus on small, one-off projects
Your objective is to get a few quick wins under your belt to build up a feedback profile. In order to do that, you’re probably going to have to bid on projects for less than your time is worth.
Making your services less expensive relative to other freelancers is a good strategy for getting clients to give you a chance. Yes, you might be a risky hire, but their potential savings might be worth taking that risk.
But like I said: your time is your money. You don’t want to take on a 30-hour job at a rate that’s half of what your worth. Instead, look for small, one-time projects that you can knock out relatively quickly.
There are a couple of advantages to this approach:
- It limits your exposure to exploitative rates. It stinks to work for less than your worth, but doing so can help you establish a foothold on these platforms relatively quickly.
- It’s better to work on multiple small projects than one big project, because a five-star review carries the same weight whether the job took 30 minutes or three days. A profile with great reviews from five clients is more competitive than a profile with a great review from one client.
Keep in mind, you only need to employ this strategy a handful of times. Once you have even two or three successful projects under your belt, you’ll be able to raise your rate and compete for better gigs.
3. Look for clients who can give you your second Upwork job
It’s much easier to keep a good client than to find a new one. And the same is true from the client’s perspective: they would rather work with the same search engine optimization expert, copywriter or editor on each project. It’s time-consuming to post a job ad, sift through applications and bring somebody new onboard.
What’s great about Upwork is that when you view a job listing, you can see the other (past) jobs that particular client has hired for.
So when you’re starting out, a good strategy is to target clients who consistently hire on the platform. For example, if you’re a graphic designer, try to find a client who has a record of hiring people for graphic design projects.
If a client has never hired on Upwork, or usually hires outside of your field or niche, the chances for developing an ongoing relationship are much lower.
Step #3: Submit a Can’t-Miss Proposal
Your proposal is your opportunity to “wow” the client. Take advantage of the opportunity to show off your talent and tell them exactly why you’re the best person to hire.
1. Fully read the job description
Some of the job listings on Upwork are pretty straightforward and just a few lines long. Others are much more involved. Be sure to read the entire job description. You don’t want to take a job that you’re not qualified for, or which involves something you just prefer not to do.
More importantly, you want to make sure that you’re crafting a custom proposal that specifically addresses the clients’ needs.
Plus, they sometimes contain code words.
Yep, that’s right — many clients put a code word somewhere in the job post and tell you to mention it in your proposal. If you don’t, you’re automatically disqualified.
2. Provide social proof
Feedback and ratings are a form of social proof. But when you’re new to Upwork, you don’t have any. So it’s important that you include some other form of social proof that shows you’re qualified for the work you’re seeking.
Ideally, you will have some published work samples to point to. While these may be part of your Upwork portfolio, you should also specifically call them out in your cover letter.
It can also be helpful to include a link to your LinkedIn profile (which should be up-to-date and professional). If you’re active on Twitter, Stack Exchange or another social site, you might also want to include a link to your profile there. All of these things help the client form a better picture of you as both a person and a professional.
Note that while work you create specifically for your portfolio can serve that purpose well, it does not constitute social proof. In the client’s eyes, there’s a huge difference between a published article with your byline and the same article uploaded as a Word document. And the same goes for sending a resume: it’s better to put that information on your LinkedIn profile rather than submitting a PDF resume, because publishing it online makes it more credible.
If you’re reading this and you’re worried that you don’t have enough social proof to offer, that’s just a sign that you should make sure you’re focused on cultivating an active and professional online presence, which will support and fuel your success as a freelancer.
3. Include links to similar work you’ve completed
A shocking number of applicants don’t follow the advice above, and submit proposals with no links to their past work.
But even those who do often make another common mistake: they send samples that are unrelated to the project.
If I’m looking for personal finance writers, I want to see samples that demonstrate the ability to write about personal finance — not history or literature.
Your samples don’t have to be a perfect match. Keeping with the example above, an article about business, economics, the stock market, global trade, or anything in that vein would be completely reasonable. But a college essay you wrote about “The American Dream” would not.
The more closely you can align your samples with the needs of the client, the more likely you are to get hired.
4. Suggest an actionable next step
By closing your proposal with an actionable next step, you’re taking some of the decision-making burden off the clients’ shoulders by making it easy for them to say “yes” to continuing the conversation.
This is not an example of an actionable next step:
- Thanks, and please contact me with any questions!
What if the client doesn’t have any questions? What if they liked your proposal, but weren’t 100% sold?
That closing isn’t actionable because it doesn’t clearly and directly state what you want to happen.
On the other hand, try something like this:
- Let’s schedule a call or video chat to discuss the project!
Here, you’re specifically underscoring what should happen next, and you’re giving the client a clear yes/no option. If they’re interested, why not say “yes” to a quick call?
But here’s an ever better pitch:
- Let’s schedule a call or video chat to discuss the project! I’m available between 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. EST every day this week, or I can schedule something at your convenience.
In the example above, you’re not only defining the next step, you’re also taking control of the timeframe and pacing.
That limits potential back and forth (“when works for you,” etc.). Because you provided specific time availability, the client can commit to the call in the next message — which makes it much more likely that you’ll actually get the interview.
Note: If you’re a freelance writer, we wrote a dedicated guide that explains how to apply for Upwork writing jobs.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are a few of the most commonly asked questions about getting started on Upwork.
It can be somewhat difficult to land your first couple of clients on the platform, but putting the steps outlined in this guide into action will make the process much easier and faster.
When new freelancers struggle to get hired, it’s almost always because there’s a problem with their profile or they’re applying to the wrong jobs. Once you have a couple of projects under your belt, you’ll have no trouble getting hired for more.
At one point, I was making $150 hourly designing landing pages on Upwork. But pay on the platform runs the gamut. Writers and editors routinely make $40 to $80 hourly, and certain types of highly-skilled freelancers — like web developers and designers — can make even more than that.
On the other hand, pay for menial, tedious and low-skill tasks like data entry can be relatively low. As with any remote work platform, there’s competition for those jobs from people in developing nations who may be able to afford to work for less than the average American.
Skilled workers tend to pull the best rates. Clients are willing to pay top dollar for in-demand skills like software developers (especially if you’re good with artificial intelligence and machine learning) and data science experts.
But it’s possible to earn an above average salary in almost any category. The key is to build a top-notch reputation with a proven record of delivering return on investment for your clients. As noted in the article, one of the best ways to do that is by developing your reputation within one or more niches.
Anyone can join Upwork, create a free profile and apply for jobs. But there are a few programs and features you’ll need to qualify for.
First, note that clients have the ability to limit projects to only freelancers who are based in the United States — and many do.
Second, you’ll want to strive to become “Top-Rated” which requires a Job Success Score of 90% or higher, a 100% complete profile, and earnings of at least $1,000 over a 12-month period. Top-Rated sellers get a badge added to their profile, reduced fees on Featured Jobs, exclusive invitations to submit Upwork proposals, and are generally much more likely to get hired.
Finally, Upwork requires some freelancers to verify their identity via a video call. In order to work on the platform, you’ll need to be able to prove your identity and your location. You’re usually asked to verify your identity after a couple of months.
There are a number of other legitimate freelancing sites. FlexJobs is great job board for those looking for remote work, as most of the jobs on the site are online work at home jobs.
Guru is similar to Upwork, but typically has fewer listings. And Fiverr can be great for those just starting out as remote workers/freelancers, as many of the clients looking to hire on Fiverr have less stringent requirements than those on Upwork.
Fiver is slightly different in that freelancers post specific gigs (e.g., “I will edit 1,000 words for $150”) and clients browse the marketplace for the services they need.
Upwork clients tend to be more professional. They include entrepreneurs, small business owners, well-funded startups, and even corporations and government agencies. They’re looking for freelance professionals, which means the pay tends to be relatively good and the projects you’re assigned are of relatively high quality. It also means it can be harder to score your first few contracts.
On the other hand, Fiverr caters more to individuals (such as solo bloggers who need proofreading, Etsy sellers who need a logo designed, or college students looking for editing help). That means it can be easier to get started, but the pay tends to be lower and you’re often dealing with clients who are new to hiring remote workers.
Getting Started on Upwork: Summary
If you were wondering how to get jobs on Upwork, hopefully you now have all the information you needed, and a specific action plan to put into place.
The site is a great resource for those just starting out in the world of freelancing, for those who want to expand their skill set, and for those who want to transition from a traditional job to a full-time freelancing career.
Dedicating the time to properly set up your profile and take on a few jobs at comparatively low rates will be worth it: while you can make a descent side income with side hustles like Postmates, Upwork offers a realistic way to parlay your skills and talent into a long-term freelance career that matches or exceeds the average salary you’d pull in a traditional work environment.
If you’re looking for ways to improve your work-life balance and embrace the digital nomad lifestyle, this is a great place to start.