How to Write a Killer Freelance Resume
As a freelancer, you are (or should) be constantly looking for new gigs. Your resume, the classic workhorse of the job search, is still the way that many freelancers do that.
Let’s talk about how to bring the resume into the modern era, combine your pitch with your resume, and land gigs you’re not quite qualified for.
The Resume and Beyond
A resume is never going to fully represent who you are.
This is especially true for freelancers. You didn’t just work at a series of jobs; you built your own business. You’re a jack/jill of all trades. You probably can’t even fit all your gigs on one sheet of paper. But here’s what you should have:
1. The right resume style
There are many resume options, but no matter how creative you are, most clients will prefer “traditional” formats with creative content rather than a creative/non-traditional/innovative format. Keep it simple.
Option 1: Organize by chronology
Your freelance experience appears as one item in your chronology. You should include a short list of your best recent work experience below that.
Option 2: Organize by skill/function and then chronology
This means you’ll first give a list of 4-10 your skills and projects/titles by that skill. Something like this:
- Increased FishFriends membership by 4,000 members in 3 months
- Developed community guidelines for all 40 SuperFishy franchise Facebook accounts
- Designed new graphic strategy that increased click-through by 39% at GuppyMobile
This is good for freelancers because project and skill are often more relevant than timeline. It can also be good for people with gaps in employment. However, you should follow this with a standard chronology -- not having any dates looks like you’re hiding something.
2. Your best (recent) work experience
No matter what the style of your resume, freelancers need to be careful to highlight their best experience -- not necessarily all of it.
- Constantly be recording your projects and a writing a 1-sentence description of each. Once you’ve been freelancing for a while, it becomes difficult to remember all your gigs.
- Whenever you want to apply to a gig, pick the projects or clients that are most relevant to the gig you’re applying for.
- Include at least three-five gigs/clients, listing the most “impressive” ones first.
- What do I mean by impressive? Honestly, I mean namedropping. Yes, you probably completed a more interesting, higher level project for X small business. But employers (especially the big corporate HR departments) would rather see the high calibre of companies you’ve worked for, even if the project was less intensive. It’s a cheap trick, but it works.
- Remember, you come up with your own job title -- clients are not legally allowed to give you a job title. Pick something that is representative and recognizable. There are a lot of “cool” job titles that no one understands. (You can show a potential client how hip you are in other ways.)
- After you list your freelance experience, you should still list your “traditional” work experience, unless you’ve been freelancing for so long that it doesn’t matter.
- Use verbs to begin each description. You’re a do-er, not a be-er. (That was awkward, but you get what I mean.)
- Include testimonials, if appropriate. Just one little box with a quote from someone who loved you in the top right corner can breathe life into a resume.
- Include $ figures of your clients if you have them. Saying that the company you did marketing consulting for is a company that does $1 million in ad sales a year shows that you know how to manage large projects.
- Don’t overload people with details. There’s nothing more annoying than a 3 page resume. Actually, in my opinion, 2 pages is almost always overkill.
- If you were employed in a traditional role less than 3-5 years ago, include both a description and a few project details.
- For older jobs, just include job title and 10-word description.
- For jobs from more than 10 years ago, just include job title.
- Don’t repeat the same action verb too many times. “Create” can become “develop,” “generate,” “produce,” “innovate.”
- Don’t exaggerate your contribution. This should be a no-brainer, but in this day and age, anyone can look up what you did or email that person they know who happened to work where you worked.
- Did I mention that you should try to stay on one page? If you really want to include some corollary stuff or samples, then you may go onto a second page. BUT THAT’S IT! Seriously.
Side question: Should you include experience you’ve had with a company’s competitor? _Answer: Y_es! Working for two competitors is normally not an issue. In fact, it may be appealing to your prospective client that you’ve been behind enemy lines. It also shows that you understand their niche, and don’t need a lot of onboarding to get the company’s mission.
3. Your pitch
As a freelancer, you’re not just an individual. You’re a business. And business don’t provide skills, they provide services. Tell a prospective client what service you will provide them, not just how awesome you are. (But also tell them how awesome you are.)
The thing to remember is that sometimes clients hire freelancers because they don’t know how to do what you do. Often they’re not even clear about exactly what you do or have a vague idea of what they need. So all your experience sounds impressive, but they need to know how you’ll help them.
You should of course include this in your cover letter/email. But also include it at the top of your resume, where people normally put “objective” (which by the way is fast becoming outmoded).
Please don’t include the following words, because they don’t mean anything anymore: experienced, professional, detail-oriented, sales-oriented, driven, creative. Your portfolio and references should show all of these things. Let them speak.
4. Your online presence
For many jobs, especially creative/maker jobs, this can be the most important part of your resume.
- Your website (every freelancer should have a website)
- This should have your portfolio or samples of your work. This may be the single most important item in your resume.
- A good, professional website also shows that you have your crap together as a freelancer and have made a significant investment in your business (i.e., that you’re a successful freelancer)
- Your field-specific profile. If you’re a designer, a dribbble account is a must for a resume. If you’re a developer, you probably need to include your github.
- Your LinkedIn account
- Twitter/Facebook/Pinterest/etc. account?
- Only include social media if it will enhance your prospective client’s opinion of you, not because you hear that you should.
- A good test of this is: a) Am I my full professional self on social media? and b) Am I interesting on social media? Sometimes clients are looking for a personality fit as well as a skills fit. If you maintain a positive/useful social media presence (learn how to do that here), then this is a good time to show it off. If you have 40 followers and are always talking to your two friends, leave it off.
5. Work samples
There are several ways to include work samples in your resume:
- “See my full portfolio on www.thisisme.com”
- Attach work samples along with your resume to the email
- Since many clients will look at your website from their computers, include a selection of links directly to your previous clients/work/products
- Add a second page to your resume with thumbnails of your projects (note: this works only if you’ve got a visual product)
Should you include work samples even if people don’t ask for them? YES. It can’t hurt. If they don’t look at them, they don’t look at them.
Remember, again, less is more. Don’t overload them with projects in your resume -- save the complete list of projects for your website.
6. Your side businesses/specialities
If you do have an side interests, don’t be shy about including them. The fact that you’re a food photographer who also builds furniture in your spare time could be the deciding factor for a client who wants to make sure that the photographs have the right “vibe.”
In your resume as in all things, present your “whole” self, not just your business self. At the end of the day, this is humans hiring humans, not “company” hiring “skills.”
Include a blurb at the bottom, including links to your secondary portfolio/Etsy shop/instagram/e-book. I once hired someone who (along with having the right skills) included a link to her art blog, which had funny drawings on it (but was totally unrelated to the skill I was hiring for). Knowing she was creative and had a sense of humor made her stand out.
For most gigs, you’ll need to include your education. But put it at the bottom, small. The farther you are from graduation, the less relevant it is. Don’t include your GPA unless this is your first/second job after graduation.
Along with a few testimonials, include the name and email address of two or three of your regular clients. You could do the whole “References upon request” thing, but for freelancers, it’s pretty standard to include them at this stage.
Do you know how many boring resumes exist in the world?
A lot. A lot of boring resumes by people who seem like they don’t really care about where they’re applying or the field they’re in, and don’t convey that they enjoy what they do.
I recently was looking through a stack of resumes. There were probably over 100 resumes there. I was scanning through one resume, and I saw that one woman had almost the experience we were looking for. I was about to put her in the “no” pile, but then I saw the second page of her resume.
At the top of the page, it said “This is why you should hire me:” and then it went on to list some of the skills she had. But underneath each skill was a funny example of that skill unrelated to what she was applying for. Something like “I’m detail-oriented: I can explain the difference between a robot and a cyborg.” How refreshing to get this after a slew of people who just listed off adjectives like “detail-oriented, professional, experienced”! She went into the yes pile immediately.
What if you put a border on your resume made of binary code? What if after you explained how great a proofreader you were, you included a line at the bottom that you marked up in red ink? What if you included 5 ways you could transform their business in the cover letter or on a 5-slide PowerPoint? (see more ideas below!)
You don’t have to have an extra. But always remember that you will be one of hundreds of resumes.
What to do if you if you aren’t qualified for a gig you really want
Things to keep in mind:
- A company rarely expects you to qualify for 100% of their requirements.
- Personality, creativity, and culture fit is sometimes as important as skills. Research the company you’re applying for! Read their mission statement. Read their blog posts. Read their social media feeds. You should get a good sense of company culture. Then convey that in your resume or cover letter, either through tone or by picking samples that you think align with their mission. Congratulate them on the company’s recent successes or send them an interesting/relevant link they might want to look at.
- If you’re applying for a job that’s a stretch, you need to do extra work.
- Send along a 5-slide PowerPoint pitch of how you’d revolutionize X aspect of their business. If you spend half an hour on this and get a 100-hour gig, isn’t that time well spent? Check out these awesome
- Find a 2nd degree connection on LinkedIn and personally email your connection to ask how they know that person/for more information.Break down previous roles -- perhaps you didn’t write for a financial services organization, but you have written annual reports and you’ve written finance advice articles online. Each of those two gigs have component tasks that make you better able to complete a financial services writing job.
- Draw up a sample of what you’d produce for them and send it along (good for designers/writers/decorators etc.)
- You can always send your resume anyway and explain in your cover letter that you think you’re a great fit for the organization, and are interested in something in that department, but not necessarily that job.
- The only thing that is usually more strict is years of experience. Like it or not, 2 years of experience does not equal 8 years.
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Many thanks to resume expert Niccos Andrade for research and support.