Why am I not getting jobs on Upwork: 6 mistakes most freelancers make

A couple of years ago, I found myself in need of a little extra help around the ‘virtual office’ and decided to begin searching for a new, part-time, entry-level graphic designer.

I had a lot of expectations about what the hiring process might be like.

We expected applicants to be competitive and to be inundated with portfolios to browse through.

What we didn’t expect was that our search for a new designer would turn into a case study on what NOT to do when applying for a job.

In fact, over the course of about 24 hours, and 203 applications, only a single candidate stood out above the crowd. Think about that – 1 out of 203. So what did he do so differently? Read on young padawan, read on. 

In this article, I’ve summarized seven of the biggest real-life mistakes that applicants made when applying for our recent job posting that you might be making right now.

And by the way, the following insights can be utilized by both freelancers and “regular” job seekers alike.

Without further ado, here are a few reasons why freelancers aren’t getting hired on Upwork.

Reasons you aren't getting hired - you need experience

1. They had no experience

This one baffled me. A surprising 17 out of 203 candidates had no experience in graphic design. None. Nunca. Zip.

Even if you’re applying for even an entry level position, especially in graphic design, you have to at least know the basics. If you’ve never opened Photoshop before – that’s gonna be a problem.

When I was a young newbie designer, I spent my free time going through tutorials online, making silly geocities web pages (it was the late 1990s, no judging) and working on my high school’s yearbook staff. I also worked for a school newspaper while in college – that’s real experience people – not to mention a great way to learn if you’re just starting out.

And with SO many free tutorials and courses you can take online nowadays there’s really no excuse not to familiarize yourself. (Pro tip: For newbie designs, the big 3 programs you really need to focus on are Photoshop, InDesign and Illustrator.)

Reasons you aren't getting hired - include a portfolio!

2. They did not provide a portfolio

A shocking 55 out of 203 candidates provided no sample work or a portfolio of any kind. 

I realize if you’re new to graphic design, building that first portfolio can be a daunting task, but it is absolutely necessary. 

Keep in mind, your portfolio doesn’t have to feature real client work, it just has to demonstrate your ability to perform the work. If you have no clients, challenge yourself to create mock-ups for made-up brand XYZ or offer a bit of free work to your family and friends if needed. Fake it til ya make it baby!

Now with that said, notice I said to only use made-up brands – don’t slap Coca-Cola’s logo on a flyer and pretend like you were commissioned for some important campaign if you weren’t. Always be truthful and transparent.

Reasons you aren't getting hired - Include a cover letter!

3. They did not include a cover letter

This one floored me – 116 out of 203 applicants didn’t include a personal note or cover letter. 

Listen up ya dang whippersnappers – A cover letter, even if you aren’t explicitly asked to provide one, is considered standard practice when applying for ANY job. (I actually have no idea how old these applicants actually were but for some reason, I just imagine them being a group of people that didn’t walk to school barefoot in the snow uphill both ways like I obviously did). 

Clients and companies want to see some initiative from their applicants. If you can’t even take the time to write a short cover letter about why you think you’re a great candidate for the job – are you really going to be the kind of employee who goes the extra mile at work? 

Reasons you aren't getting hired - did you read the job post?

4. They provided no indication they actually read the job post

While this stat is a bit more subjective than the others – we noticed that less than half of the people who actually wrote cover letters (which remember was roughly only 43% of applicants to begin with) actually referenced something specific to our listing. Most were so generic that it left us wondering if they even read the job post.

And yes, I get that applying for jobs can be a time consuming task – heck, I use a template all the time when I’m applying for work. But I also CUSTOMIZE that template and tweak it for EVERY client. Add a personal note, or a compliment or express an interest in the type of work mentioned in the listing. Make the hiring company or client feel special, and prove to us that you actually took the time to read the listing all the way through. 

Reasons you aren't getting hired - you need a professional resume

5. They had resumes that were just plain ugly

Admittedly this is another subjective one – and luckily there were really only 5 or 6 applicants that sent over resumes so bad that we wondered if we were on some sort of practical joke hidden camera show. We’re talkin’ neon color schemes, squished photos, bad cutouts, difficult to decipher typography … etc. Talk about a quick way to find yourself in the discard pile. 

I don’t care who you are or what kind of job you’re applying for – don’t send in a resume that makes it look like a 9 year old put it together in Microsoft Paint. A classic, simple, clean resume is perfectly fine – even for a graphic design position.

Keep it professional people.

With that said, if you are a graphic designer and want to use your resume to show off your skills a little bit that certainly never hurts – just be certain your skills are up to the task.

Reasons you aren't getting hired - send a followup

6. They failed to send a follow-up message of any kind

This is the biggest game-changer. A whopping 201 out of 203 applicants didn’t bother with a follow-up message. And out of the two that did – one was a casual facebook message, which was better than most – but social media just isn’t the same here kids.

I don’t care what industry you’re in – or what kind of job you’re applying for – you should ALWAYS send some sort of formal, but brief, follow-up via e-mail (or Upworkers – use the messenger if the job was sent via invite).

Spoiler alert – the guy we hired – was the sole candidate that sent the follow-up. He even sent a formal thank you e-mail after his phone interview. We fell in love with his attentiveness. We had several candidates with excellent portfolios and his was no exception – but it was his excellent habit of following up that catapulted him to the top of the list. 

And if the e-mail address or contact isn’t listed directly on the job posting, do a bit of homework – google the company name, find the website and get in touch. It doesn’t require a lot of extra effort – and just imagine what might happen if you are the ONLY person to do so out of a crowded field of hundreds – as was the case during our little hiring experiment. 

I hope you found at least one of these insights helpful. What are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve made when it comes to applying for jobs? Share your stories in the comments!

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