Making the most out of working for free as a student

Let’s face it, if you don’t have any work in your portfolio to prove your worth, most employers or clients aren’t willing to take a chance on hiring you. But working for free can be a drag as a student, especially if you’re struggling to make ends meet or just want some extra cash to have on-hand.

However, when you’re just starting out in your career (a.k.a. you have no experience), free work might be the only option in order to gain the necessary experience and knowledge to land a job after graduation.

Whether that be for an internship or doing work for a friend, you can make the most out of not getting paid for your services. Here are some things you need to know while working as an unpaid college student:

Gain that experience

This one is obvious, but a lot of students turn down an opportunity because they won’t get paid. An unpaid internship is basically having someone teach you invaluable skills for free. You probably won’t get chances like that again once you graduate.

In the case of doing unpaid work for people you know, they assume you know what you’re doing or else they wouldn’t have approached you in the first place. They have no reason to believe you’re learning as you go along, so this is an excellent opportunity to treat them as if they were a paying customer. Not only are you obtaining work for your portfolio, but you will have some idea of what to and not to do when you eventually get a paying client.

Freelance is an option

Like I said before, working for free stinks, but who says you can’t earn money on your own as you learn? As a graphic design student, I freelance here and there myself. I used school assignments as work samples to put in my portfolio and obtained clients from talking to my instructors who knew someone or through word of mouth.

If you’re having a hard time finding clients in person or through references, there are plenty of freelancing websites out there. Platforms like Upwork offer opportunities for numerous categories such as designers, writers, virtual assistants and many others. And Catchafire is a volunteer site where you can use your skills to help organizations as well as obtain experience.

Compensation can be a catch-22

Making money while being a student can be invigorating, but there are a few traps students should be aware of once they start getting paid for their work.

Less room for mistakes

Once you start getting paid for your services, you are seen as a professional, especially in the case of freelancing. Unprofessionalism and cutting corners may have been okay when you were doing a job as a favor for your cousin’s startup, but not when you’re being paid by a legitimate customer or employer.

If you’re a paid intern, there may be some leeway, but you’re still working on your employer’s dime and using the excuse that you’re just a student will only fly for so long.

The line between student and employee is blurred

Sometimes, employers hire interns so they don’t have to hire employees who will demand more money. I have been in a situation where I was a paid intern – the only “intern” – and all the duties that would be typically distributed between other staff in my position were put solely on me. I gained plenty of experience, but I was being overworked at the same time.

Be wary of paid internship postings on job boards that don’t include phrases such as “students will have the opportunity to learn…” or “students will grow their knowledge in….”

Also, pay attention to the list of duties, skills or hours required for the position and whether they exceed the expectations of an actual student.   

Know your worth

Experience in exchange for little to no pay gets old fast. Some say doing too many unpaid internships may actually hurt you in the future. Statistically, paid internships secure students more employment opportunities and allow them to negotiate a higher salary.

If you’re at the point where you have completed a few internships, a decent portfolio of work and are comfortable with your skills, it’s time to start getting paid!

Featured image by Alexis Paige