In 2015, my mom got really sick.
She’d lost a lot of weight. Insomnia was keeping her awake for nights on end. And none of the doctors she went to could figure out what was wrong.
Still, she was working two jobs. Day in and day out. A true superhero, really.
And if things weren’t bad enough, my father came home one day with even more bad news: he’d gotten laid off from work.
Which meant that my mom had to become the sole provider of our household until he figured something out.
But when you live in a small Romanian town like we did, finding a new job is never an easy task.
And so, my family and I were going through the bumpiest patch of our lives.
That’s when I discovered I could make
a sh*tload of money to help my family out
I hadn’t finished high school when I found my first copywriting gig. I hadn’t even turned 18 (the legal age to work full-time in Romania).
And I didn’t just wake up one morning thinking that I should search for a copywriting job.
In fact, I didn’t know the word “copywriting” existed in the English language, much less what it meant.
So I did what any 16-year-old would do in that situation – I Googled “how to make money as a high school student”.
Which led me to two websites I’ll always be grateful for.
Out of all the websites out there, Craigslist is where I found my first ever writing gig.
In between someone selling their old washing machine and someone else needing a chainsaw urgently (don’t want to imagine what for), I spotted the words “writer needed”.
Turns out some local arts magazine wanted a quick draft for their about page.
Mind you, I’d never written one before. And my “application” defied all copywriting rules in existence. Not to mention it was cringy AF.
In fact, here… I’ll let you read for yourself.
I warned you.
But because the job had such a small budget ($40)… or because no one else applied… or because the Universe just wanted it to happen that way, I got the yes.
My immediate realization? I had no idea how to do it.
That’s when I discovered the other most important website I’ll always be grateful for.
It’s the one you’re scrolling right now: Copyhackers.
I immediately came across a bunch of articles that just… mesmerized me: how to optimize a home page, how to write a killer CTA, copywriting dos and don’ts.
I felt like a kid in a candy store.
As a result, this is what most of my notebooks looked like all throughout high school.
This helped me turn copy project #1 into a quick win. With that under my belt (plus all the copywriting knowledge I was absorbing like a sponge), I went ahead and won even more gigs. And the projects kept getting bigger and more demanding.
Soon enough, I’d:
- convinced a tennis club to let me handle their email marketing
- convinced a restaurant to let me handle their social media ads
- convinced a Romanian marketing agency to hire me part-time
- convinced multiple companies on Upwork to let me handle their copy
- and started earning more than my mom, consistently (four figures in USD per month)
It made me wonder: why aren’t other high schoolers working as conversion copywriters too?
After reading through a bunch of Reddit threads like this one, I realized something:
Most aspiring conversion copywriters in high school feel as if they won’t be taken seriously when approaching companies to hire them.
And I get it, y’know?
Can someone with zero copywriting experience, no degree, who’s fairly young really go from babysitting for $20 to writing sales pages for $1,000?
It’s a valid question.
And now I can confidently say: yes, it’s possible.
But knowing how skeptical I am, I want to play the devil’s advocate here. Just in case you’re also finding it hard to believe.
Was I just lucky or is this truly a possibility for all high schoolers out there?
The truth about university degrees
(versus what clients actually need from you)
According to the survey Freelancing in America 2018, freelancers place more value on skills training than on college degrees.
“Only 79% of freelancers with a four-year college degree say their college education was useful to the work they do now,” it states, “while 93% pointed to their technical and professional skills as essential to their success.”
Similarly, the former CEO of Upwork Stephane Kasriel says:
“The future of work won’t be about degrees, but… skills.”
Okay, that covers freelancers – but what about clients? Aren’t they going to require that you have a degree anyway?
In my experience, no.
Nobody’s ever asked me if I had a college degree – not when I was 16, and not now when I actually have one. Jen Adams at the American Writers & Artists Institutes clearly explains why:
When you’re entering the world of direct-response or conversion copywriting, your success is measured in outcomes and results, says Adams. If the emails you write can get high open rates and make sales, you’ll get hired.
Who cares you haven’t finished high school if you can get someone, say, 20 new leads in one day?
In fact, this survey from ProCopywriters shows that freelancers with a high-school education have the highest incomes – on average ($70,259 per year, working full-time). For those with an undergraduate degree, the average yearly income is $63,959.
So the question isn’t whether they’ll hire you without a degree. It’s this:
How can you prove you can do the job, even when you’ve never done it before?
This is the easiest way to leverage your experience as a high school student to win copywriting work
It’s the biggest catch-22 of all time:
Getting work requires you to have a history of work, which you cannot have unless you get work (say whaaat?).
Except… you can totally bypass this issue with one little secret Joanna Wiebe shared in a blog post I was lucky enough to find six or seven years ago. Ready for it? She wrote:
“Everything you do has the potential to be BIG. It means it’s up to you to milk every piece of experience you have. To wring it dry in your self-marketing. Even if it’s small, it can be big in your marketing.”
This advice worked perfectly for me.
‘Cause although I didn’t have any client or real work experience I could bring forward, I did have a few high school projects that helped:
- I started a book blog for a project in my literature class
- I once volunteered to write for the local newspaper (that I’m pretty sure nobody was reading).
Yep, even that type of “work” proves some level of experience. And that’s exactly what Joanna was referring to in her blog post.
Whether you were, at some point, required to create a mock website for your IT class, an argument for the annual debate competition, or a poster to get more babysitting gigs in your neighborhood… guess what!
You’re a copywriter.
A newbie copywriter, but nonetheless, a copywriter.
And if you can position these seemingly insignificant experiences to work in your favor, you can get in front of lots of potential clients.
For example, that unknown newspaper in Romania I wrote for? It got me my first email marketing job.
I didn’t show them my newspaper contribution. That’s not the point.
The point is to be able to say you’ve done something like what the client requires of you. And that’s exactly what I did.
Here’s how I executed this idea and how you can too.
How to find clients and get hired for conversion copywriting work in high school
When it comes to finding paying clients, there are two main routes you can take:
1) Quick, but temporary wins that get you money pronto
2) Or slow but steady growth that pays off in time (and brings you clients forever)
Let’s start with the quick-win route.
1) Quick, but temporary wins that get you money pronto
Technically, you could get a new copywriting project by the end of this week through cold pitching or freelancing platforms like Upwork or Fiverr. That’s the good news.
The bad news?
Both practices have received a lot (and I mean a lot) of criticism from copywriters over the years. Here’s what SaaS copywriter Kayleigh Moore says about freelancing on Upwork:
“The problem with using sites like Upwork to find copywriting clients is that the pay often sucks.,” she writes. “Much of the time, these sites aren’t linking freelancers with their dream clients. There’s not much sustainability there. It’s just a quick buck.”
And Jesse Nickels’ experience on Upwork as a college student proves exactly that:
“The amount of time I invested into Upwork during those first 6 months was absolutely insane in light of the unremarkable net profit I pulled in, although I fully expected (and was willing) to make sacrifices to get my profile juiced up nicely,” he says. “But even when charging $33/hour – far above the average on Upwork – and picking up several long-term clients along the way, the numbers truly didn’t add up when considering the overall time, expense, stress, scheduling, and annoyance that Upwork caused me.”
But then there’s Danny Margulies, who built his six-figure copywriting business on Upwork with zero prior experience and no college degree. According to him:
“All of the anti-Upwork arguments are about what most freelancers and gurus observe when they look at the platform. Unfortunately for them, there is plenty more they can’t see. And it’s precisely in this unseen area that the real money is being made on Upwork, right under most people’s noses.”
What Danny is referring to is getting private invites to jobs that nobody else is able to find on Upwork’s dashboard. I’ve received such invitations myself.
Not all of them were worth applying to. But the vast majority were pretty enticing.
That’s why every time I needed more moola fast, I’d just pop back into the platform and send a few more proposals.
So if you’ve never worked with a client, getting onto Upwork is a decent first step.
But to do that, you first need to get really good at writing proposals. That’s because, on Upwork, clients post jobs and you try to win them by selling yourself.
Here’s how to write winning proposals on Upwork, according to Morgan Overholt:
- Use the client’s name whenever possible
- Display your understanding of the requirements
- Display an interest in the work
- Include relevant portfolio examples
- Include a call to action
- End with a question
And here’s what not to do. Try to avoid the mistakes that most freelancers make on the platform, such as:
- Bidding too cheap. Instead, stick to the hourly rate you’ve already set on your profile. Don’t negotiate the client down.
- Focusing on years of experience. Instead of mentioning your years of experience in the cover letter, talk about any relevant work that demonstrates you know what you’re doing.
- Being a sleazy salesperson. Instead, focus on the client’s goals and build rapport.
- Writing your proposal upside-down. “Additional Questions” are the first thing clients see when they receive your proposal. That’s why you should write your Cover Letter only after you’ve answered those.
- Using a canned cover letter in your proposal. Write unique proposals for each job post to increase your chances of winning the project.
- Not looking the part. Use a professional photo for your profile.
If this sounds like a lot, don’t fret!
Remember the application I wrote for my first copywriting job? My first Upwork proposals weren’t very different from that (read: cringe-worthy). But the more proposals I wrote, the better I got at writing them.
Here’s a cringe-worthy cover letter that failed me:
Now here’s a badass cover letter that got me $3,000 in work from one client:
The quick-and-temporary-wins route goes beyond freelancing platforms like Upwork, though. Cold pitching is another way to get yourself a new project fast.
But first, I’ve gotta tell you the bad news. Or, in fact, Neil Patel will:
“Fewer than 24% of cold-outreach emails get opened.”
Not only that but as Guillaume Cabane adds:
“The average cold email response rate is 1%, which means for every 100 people you email, you’re getting through to one person (and probably bothering the other 99).”
Unless you’re Bree Weber, of course, and you personalize your emails like a champ. Which gets you a 100% response rate and a whopping 60% conversion rate.
How does she do it? By using her own take on the Rule of One:
- One recipient: find the decision-maker (usually a marketing manager or founder)
- One Problem: find the one problem they’re dealing with right now
- One Solution: find a specific solution that you can offer and then position yourself as the product
- One Call to Action: move the conversation forward with a question
Here’s what a regular cold email looks like – where the whole thing becomes a numbers game:
Compare that to a highly-personalized email that talks about one pressing issue the recipient has in their company. Plus your fail-proof solution for it:
But what if you want to take the slow and steady growth route instead?
2) Slow but steady growth that pays off in time (and brings you clients forever)
The slow and steady growth route may not get you a new copywriting project by the end of this week. Yet, in time, this path will be even more profitable.
So what is this slow-and-steady route to building a sustainable freelance copywriting business in high school (and beyond)?
It’s all about building your authority online.
We’ve already established that being taken seriously has less to do with your degrees, age, or years of experience and more to do with how skilled you are.
And when your name gets published in blogs that marketing managers, founders and other decision-makers like to read, you’ll be able to convince them that you do know your stuff.
That’s something I understood once I joined the 10X Freelance Copywriter course and community.
As the course teaches you, guest blogging is one of the most – if not the most – effective ways of building your authority.
For many freelancers, though, guest blogging may feel intimidating. I know it did for me. So Joel Kettle recommends you start out like so:
“My first piece of content would be a cornerstone asset – something big, like an ebook or ultimate guide, that requires a lot of research and writing. Then, I’d plot out how I would repurpose that content into smaller pieces: Blog posts, videos (and transcriptions!), slideshares, social posts, images (for stats and quotes) and other smaller pieces of content that I could use the same research for.”
Once you have that going on, you can start thinking of a place to publish your work. However, not all blogs accept guest posts. To find guest blogging opportunities, start with the websites you already visit frequently. As Ali Luke suggests, look for:
- Guest posting guidelines on the blog. You might find these in the sidebar, on the about page or the contact page. Alternatively, search the site for phrases like ‘guest post guidelines’, ‘submission guidelines’ or ‘write for us’.
- Authors with guest bios. If you read a new post that begins “This is a guest post by…” that’s a good sign the site owner accepts guest posts, at least some of the time.
- Information on the blog’s Twitter account or Facebook page. You might see the blog mention that they’re looking for guest posters, for instance, if you glance through their recent posts.
When you start building your authority online, clients come to you instead of you going to them:
Now, building authority online is not just about blogging. It’s showing up on a social media platform of choice – LinkedIn, Instagram, even Facebook.
So strategically show up in the communities you want to reach. For example, if you want to be a copywriter for coaches, start posting thoughtful comments in their social feeds. When you share valuable insights without asking for anything in return, they remember you. Which makes the market’s perception of your value go up.
Plus, it gets your name out there. So when you do pitch your services, your name is recognizable. And ideally – because of your thoughtful and strategic comments – they already like you. And likability sells.
You now know how to find a plethora of copywriting opportunities.
You also know how to convince companies to hire you even if you have no experience. And how to prove your worth to any client even if you’re still in high school.
So let’s say you’ve won your first copywriting project (yay!). Now what?
The step-by-step process to mastering conversion copywriting in high school
When it comes to studying copywriting, I had no idea what I was doing back in the day.
I’d discovered Copyhackers, the holy writ of conversion copywriting.
And I was simply reading and taking notes on every single article I could find.
Doing that alone helped me get the train moving before I finally paid for the gated content in Copy School five years later.
Here’s what you can do right now as a beginner copywriter:
Step One: Ace the Basics
When I was in high school, this didn’t exist.
But today, Copyhackers actually has a free course on getting started with conversion copywriting. Plus, here’s a summary of the basic copywriting rules by Henneke Duistermaat:
- Match features with benefits
- Be specific to boost credibility
- Use proof (such as testimonials) to get people to believe you
- Overcome objections
- Nudge people to take action
- Be bossy in your call to action
Also, here’s every copywriting formula in existence. You never start putting random words on a page – instead, you use a formula to guide your message in the most persuasive way possible.
And lastly, put your detective hat on. ‘Cause from now on, research is going to be the most important part of your process. Especially voice-of-customer research.
Step Two: Read Some* Copywriting Books
When you’re just starting out, people are going to throw lots of books at you.
Read this, read that, read everything.
But the truth is… there’s a lot of hype with some of the old copywriting books out there. As in, you’d probably learn a lot more by checking out the resources I linked to in Step One than you would by reading Gary Halbert’s letters to his son (for example).
That’s why, before investing hours in reading random copywriting books that random people recommend you, check out this resource on 2022’s Best Copywriting Books + 14 Overrated Books to SKIP first.
Step Three: Hand-copy Sales Messages
Before I’d written a single word of copy, I hand-copied a bunch of landing pages to my black notebook.
Why? ’Cause I was reading each landing page thinking “whoa, how did this person know exactly what I want and exactly what I’m thinking about?”
I thought I could never write like that. The copy was conversational, authoritative, and just… so effin’ compelling.
Me? I was still in the academic writing mindset: never start a sentence with a conjunction, do not address the reader directly, write complete sentences etc.
So in an effort to at least pretend I could be that cool, I started writing sales messages on paper, word by word.
Here’s what that did to my brain.
According to this study, when you’re copying text by hand, you activate areas in the brain associated with memory retrieval, semantic integration, free association and spontaneous cognition.
In other words, as Sandy Franks, AWAI’s Copy Chief explains:
“You actually see the little nuances throughout the sales letter … the choice of words the writer used, the transitions from one thought to another, one paragraph to another, you understand how the golden thread is woven through the letter. All of this happens on a subliminal level … you train your brain to see things in copy you don’t pick up simply by reading it to yourself.”
However, Dave Navarro makes a good point in saying that:
“The point of copying down other people’s writing isn’t to become a parrot – instead, it’s to evaluate why your copywriting peers and “superiors” write like they do.”
With time, you will develop a writing style that’s unique to you. But when you begin copywriting with a mindset that’s anchored in academic writing, you need to break out of that habit fast.
Hand-copying sales messages is one of the easiest ways to practice conversational writing and get comfortable with different styles, tones and voices.
But it’s not enough.
Step Four: Deconstruct Great Copy
To understand how pro copywriters write messaging hierarchies that get the yes, you need to get good at deconstructing their copy as well.
Here are some of the questions you should try to answer when studying a sales letter:
- What is the goal of this page?
- What action should the reader take?
- Is that action clear?
- What arguments are provided for taking that action?
- How are features and benefits communicated?
- How does the page build credibility and trust?
- Why do you believe the content?
- How is the information arranged?
- Is the most important information communicated first? And the least important information last?
And here’s what that looks like on paper (well, digital paper):
When you sit down to craft a sales page for the first time, you’ll know exactly what to focus on and when to introduce it, instead of staring at that blank page with no idea what to say next.
“Hold on, Emilia,” I hear you saying. “Shouldn’t I get a mentor, though? Wouldn’t that be a better use of time instead of struggling to do it all alone?”
It can be. And in most cases, it is.
But here’s the problem with that.
Why nobody worth listening to is ever going
to mentor you… for free
People who tell you that you should get a mentor if you want to learn copywriting conveniently leave this one detail out – the money.
Sorry, but that’s the reality of it.
Because as Alex Cattoni puts it:
“The experts who you wanna get access to have put years, thousands of hours and countless dollars into growing their careers. They’ve learned that in order to be successful, they need to protect their time and energy, and give it to those who are willing to offer something in return. The best mentors and coaches are not gonna hold your hand and tell you what to do, and do it for free.”
Instead of frantically asking people if they’re going to mentor you for free, try:
- Building relationships with top copywriters you admire: engage with their social media posts, send them an email to introduce yourself or pay to join their private communities
- Offering your skills in return: what can you do to make their lives easier? Think of any other skills you have beyond writing copy that your fave celebrity copywriters might benefit from
- Getting in free copywriting communities: sometimes exchanging feedback with a bunch of dedicated copywriting friends is enough to help you rethink your copy from unique POVs and make progress faster
Alright. We’ve talked about finding clients, convincing them to hire you and learning how to do the job like a pro.
Now it’s time for the fun part: the money.
How much can you really earn as a conversion copywriter without even having finished high school?
Here’s the truth about this profession: it pays shockingly well.
One thing you have to realize from the get-go is that you’re not trying to get work as a freelance writer.
You’re trying to get work as a conversion copywriter.
And not only is there a difference in the type of writing you’ll be doing, but also in how much you can get paid.
According to this report from Venngage, most freelance writers make less than $0.25 a word. So, for a 500-word blog article, you’d struggle to make $125.
I used to think that was a lot when I first started (‘member my $40 about page gig?).
But then I came across the Copyhackers calculator for a different project and my mind was blown.
With no direct prior experience, 5 hours of professional-level training (e.g., taking a complete program in Copy School) and minimal research, you could charge as much as $1,200 for a home page.
The calculator is by no means perfect, but it’s still a pretty strong starting point to figure out your rates for various projects.
Now the only question left is…
How on Earth do you balance being a conversion copywriter and a high school student at the same time?
I’m not gonna lie – studying copywriting, doing actual copywriting work, attending classes and doing my homework every day was… tough.
The only way I could manage was to either do my homework in the breaks between classes (so I could study copywriting at home). Or to study copywriting during the classes I was already acing.
I realize this approach is a bit extreme. And it may not work for everyone – it may not work for you.
Maybe you have a little sister at home that you need to care for every day after school. Or maybe you already have a part-time job you need to go to right now.
If that’s the case, here are some of Copyhackers’ top tried and tested time management strategies for 2021:
- Learn how to say no: don’t raise your hand to organize the next Halloween party at school just because your friends are involved
- Eliminate distractions: turn off Instagram, TikTok and other social media notifications
- Plan your day differently: use Google Calendar to schedule essential tasks into your day
- Define the hours you work (and the ones you don’t): only plan for 4-5 hours of focused work per day, including homework
- Track your time: use RescueTime to see how long it actually takes you to do each school/copywriting task (and optimize by removing distractions where necessary)
If I’d known all these things at 16,
I’d be a lot farther down the line right now
I’m no longer a high school student. Heck, I’m no longer a uni student either.
I’m 24 and working for myself as a full-time conversion copywriter.
I’m charging bigger bucks for projects. And I no longer have to do that much convincing with clients these days.
That’s because now I know what the fruck I’m doing.
But the truth is… I could’ve gotten here a lot sooner if I’d had this very resource back then.
You, on the other hand, can skyrocket your freelance copywriting journey at an even faster pace than I did.
Because unlike me, you won’t feel the need to second-guess yourself at every stage of the process.
You understand that degrees don’t matter.
Clients will take you seriously if you can make them money.
And that you can earn a sh*tload of money from an early age, should you choose to do so.
You’ve got your roadmap. Now all you need to do is put in the work.