My “GPA” Upwork proposal template (works for all experience levels)

Written By Steven Alexander Young
June 21, 2022

There are 2 reasons it’s so tough to make a good Upwork proposal template:

1) Every job post is unique. Clients want to feel heard, so a generic one-size-fits-all message is going to fail most of the time no matter how well it’s written.

2) Every freelancer has different assets and experiences. “Insert super-relevant portfolio sample here” makes a template useless for someone who doesn’t have one.

That’s why a true template (where you copy/paste the same base message and “Mad Libs” all the details in) is always going to be terrible. We need something more flexible…

template word game

Yeah, you WISH it were this easy!

The template I made for myself is more like a modular framework. After writing so many proposals, I just organized what worked in order to teach friends and coaching students.

You’ll still have ~90% of the ease of a copy/paste template, with… I dunno… like a hundred times the results.

2 good reasons to trust my Upwork proposal template

1) Blah blah I’m very successful on Upwork. Here’s me making $3k from one phone call:

upwork testimonial

The testimonial is actually pretty relevant too!

2) I’m also really, really lazy. I understand that you don’t want to spend 2-4 hours carefully hand-crafting every Upwork proposal, cause I don’t either.

With these powers combined, my Upwork proposal template was born.

Let’s go over it:

The 3 core sections every Upwork proposal needs

There are 3 main parts to all my proposals. No, it’s not “Intro”, “Body”, and “Conclusion” (these actually mess people up – more on this later).

You can remember the three I use with the acronym “GPA”, as in: “Steven’s GPA was so bad that they dropped out of college and started freelancing instead”.

It stands for:

  1. Grab attention
  2. Prove yourself
  3. Ask a question

That’s it! Your goal is to hit each of these as best you can.

As for the part that makes this an actual template: I’m going to give you multiple options for how you can write each one. Just pick whichever one is the best mix of a) a good fit for the job post, and b) a good fit for your personal experience.

Don’t worry, there are beginner-friendly options too and I’m going to give plenty of examples.

Here we go:

Part I: Grab attention with a “hook” (+ why you shouldn’t introduce yourself)

An introduction is one of the worst ways to start an Upwork proposal.

When clients are sorting through freelancers in the Review Proposals screen, the interface already shows your name, title, country, etc. – all in plain view. What Upwork doesn’t show is more than a few lines or so of your actual proposal:

upwork proposal snippet

Total waste of a proposal snippet

If you waste this limited real estate on things like repeating your name, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage – or at least, wasting a big potential advantage over everyone else doing the same thing.

At this stage, clients are trying to quickly whittle down the number of proposals they need to review. No one wants to read more than they have to, and the interface for opening up full proposals can be slow and clunky (it also loads your entire profile underneath the proposal text).

That’s why if you don’t stand out, clients may never even open your full proposal. You might be pre-maturely judged for a bad Job Success Score, a low amount of total earnings, or something else you don’t have as much control over.

To grab attention, you need to start your proposal with some kind of “hook” to pull them from your snippet to your full proposal. Let’s go over a few that anyone can use:

Hook 1: Compliment the client

proposal hook 1: compliment

Flattery *genuine* compliments can be a great way to get people reading. Just don’t force it or you’ll sound lame – or worse, insult the client’s intelligence by complimenting something silly.

Examples:

  • “Wow, your company sounds so awesome to work with!”
  • “I love your logo! Can’t believe you designed that yourself…”
  • “What you’re doing is literally my dream life!”
  • “OMG, this product looks so cool that I would buy one myself if I could!”

Try to poke around the client’s website or social media pages (if you can find them), make note of something you can give a legitimate compliment to, and write about it in the same language you’d use in your daily life.

Some more examples, of tougher cases:

  • A client’s company / website / product aren’t the only things you can compliment. If they don’t give you enough information to find their site and do research, you can try complementing them on something like having a really well-written job description.
  • Even with a really vague job description, keep your eyes peeled for clues. For example: In one job post, a client mentioned that their business hadn’t launched yet, so I complimented their foresight in posting the job so early (“I think it’s really great that you’re building out your XYZ so early on… most people ignore this until the last possible moment, but the sooner you implement these the easier your life will be when…”).
  • If the client mentions a past project that didn’t go well, you can compliment their determination to get it right (“I’m so glad you haven’t given up on doing XYZ even after so many poor experiences… many people in your position would have stopped trying after such a bad experience, so I hope I can be the last freelancer you need to try…”)

It can sometimes take a bit more creativity, but there’s almost always something you can do. Compared to repeating your name and title, these have a much higher chance of getting your full proposal opened.

If there really isn’t anything you want to compliment (or maybe you just think it’s too cheesy), that’s ok – there are other openers you can use. The next one is just as accessible, whether you’ve been freelancing for 10 years or 10 days:

Hook 2: Strategically summarize the job

proposal hook 2: summary

Here, you’re summarizing the job in order to show you really understand it.

Examples:

  • “Ok, so you need someone who can ___”
  • “I understand you want to do both ___ and ___”
  • “Sounds like you’re looking for someone who can ___”
  • “If I understand you correctly, you basically need to ___”
  • “Just to clarify… so you need ___ but without ___? If so, that’s simple…”
  • “So essentially, you need ___ but for ___. Great, I can…”

This is something that anyone can do, but it’s one of the most commonly botched openings I see. You need to understand why this works for it to be effective.

One example of a great time to use this is when a client has a long, rambling job post where they seem like they don’t fully understand what they’re looking for. For example: “I need someone who can change the little icon thingy that comes up next to the website name in the tab.” >>> “Ah, sounds like you’re talking about a ‘favicon’! I can fix the one you have or make you a custom one using blah blah…”

Give the client some clarity right away and they’ll love you for it.

You can also use this to show you paid good attention to a client’s detailed job description. For example, if a job post says: “I need a freelancer to compile research on topic 1, topic 2, topic 3, and topics 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 with X, Y, and Z constraints. You must meet A, B, C, and D experience requirements. The deadline is in 48 hours.” then you can respond with something like: “Sounds like you need a veteran copywriter to do a rush job on a variety of different pieces…”

The key thing is to SUMMARIZE the job IN YOUR OWN WORDS. For the above example, you don’t want to say, “I get that you need someone with A, B, C, and D experience requirements to research topic 1, topic 2, topic 3, and topics 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 with X, Y, and Z constraints within 48 hours.” That’s just parroting their exact words back. It will be way too wordy and you’ll sound like a robot.

I’ve seen some people justify this robotic reply by saying that it’s “mirroring”, which is a negotiation technique that’s supposed to be good and proven. To save you the google, mirroring is basically a fancy term for copying stuff the other person does in order to make them unconsciously like you more or whatever. This is a whole other discussion, but long story short: Repeating a bunch of stuff word-for-word in an Upwork proposal is not good mirroring.

Another common pitfall: make sure you’re addressing the important stuff.

For example, say a client lists out a bunch of requirements: “I need someone to write a sales page. An ideal candidate will have experience in the ABC industry. It must be under XYZ words to fit in the template. We’re on a tight deadline, so I need this by the end of the week. BTW: only apply if you’re a native English speaker.” 

Do NOT write: “I see you’re in need of a native English speaker!” This may technically be correct, but that’s just a terrible summary for what should be obvious reasons. You’ll make the client feel like you didn’t understand the description well enough.

Those are enough hooks to get you started. Let’s move on…

Part II: Prove yourself by “showing” (not “telling”)

Now we get to the juicy part of a proposal. But just as the last section wasn’t an “intro”, don’t think of this one as a “body” either. The terminology is important, and not just cause I have an acronym to match!

If you think of it as a “body”, it becomes a catch-all for all kinds of filler like giving yourself superlatives (“I’m super detail-oriented”) or talking about how much you want the job.

A golden rule of writing is: Show, don’t Tell. And that’s what Proof is all about.

We’ll start with a classic: How to properly include a sample in your proposal. But I’ll cover some that are more beginner-friendly too.

Proof 1: Present a Sample

proposal proof 1: sample

Whenever you include a sample, you need to “sell” the client on it. If you just drop the link with no context, it won’t be as effective. 

Remember: There might be dozens of other freelancers providing samples too, and clients may only open a few. Just assume that yours will be skipped over unless you give a good reason to look. And for cases where clients can’t open it for whatever reason, describe your sample (or the importance of it) with enough detail for them to be impressed even without actually looking.

Examples:

  • “Check out this page I wrote for a client in the same industry…”
  • “Here’s a design I created for someone with a very similar product…”
  • “You can see how I did this for another client who asked for the same specifications…”
  • “This sample was for a recent client in an equally tough industry to break into…”
  • “This piece here shows my ABC style: <link> and this piece shows my XYZ style: <link>”
  • “Take a look at this project I did for another Upwork client that doubled their sales…”
  • “I created this piece from scratch in just 2 hours, so I’m confident I can meet your tight deadline…”

Most times, one sample is enough. If you need to show range, you can include two. Don’t include three or more unless you have a very good reason. Too many samples can be daunting – don’t give the client a bunch of homework right away. You can always show more samples once you get into the interviewing stage.

The best way to include a sample is to link to it, either in a Google Doc or on a live webpage. Clients are sometimes wary of downloading samples, so avoid adding attachments if you can. 

You should also avoid attaching a Word Doc or anything else that needs a specific program to open, if you can help it. No matter how common you think the program is, you never know – maybe the client is on a different device or something. Just stay on the safe side.

Proof 2: Show off a Testimonial

proposal proof 2: testimonial

A testimonial is very similar to a sample. For both of them, you need to sell the client on looking at it:

Examples:

  • “Here’s a testimonial from a similar client…”
  • “I did a project just like this one last week, and the client had this to say…”
  • “Another client who found me right here on Upwork wrote this about me…”

If it’s a standard testimonial, just paste the text directly into the proposal – no need to attach a screenshot. Pasting the text in makes for a much smoother experience, which is an advantage over work samples. The only time I include a screenshot is if the testimonial is in a weirder format, like an email that’s way too long or other edge cases.

Keep in mind that you don’t really need to include the name/company of whoever gave you the testimonial at the end. Unless it’s a really big name, I almost always leave it off cause no one really cares.

A note on edits: A testimonial is NOT a news article. If there are typos in the testimonial, you can correct them without using [sic] or putting a footnote like “this was edited for spelling.” If the testimonial is 5 paragraphs long or contains an irrelevant detail in the middle, you can cut it down without using […]. 

Just don’t misrepresent whoever gave you the testimonial by adding flourishes that weren’t there (like changing a period into an exclamation point) or omitting key context (like changing “Bob is the best freelancer I have ever hired for transcription” into “Bob is the best freelancer I have ever hired”. If the person who wrote it wouldn’t recognize it as their words, you’ve gone too far.

If the testimonial is mediocre, it might be better not to use it. For example: “___ was a pretty decent freelancer who got the job done. I was satisfied with their work.” is too blah sounding. “___ did a great job for a beginner, we didn’t need to make too many edits.” will make you sound amateur. Better in this case to not show anything. Use your judgment and put your best foot forward.

Don’t have any testimonials yet? Keep in mind that they don’t have to come from Upwork clients. You can use testimonials from other freelance clients who have hired you elsewhere. 

Don’t have any of those either? Well, they don’t need to come from freelance clients at all. You can use a testimonial from an employer. Or grab something a coworker said about you on LinkedIn. Or just ask around your network. 

My first testimonial came from unpaid work I did through a website for charity volunteers. Almost anything goes – just make sure it’s a professional connection and not something your mom said.

Proof 3: Tell a “War Story”

proposal proof 3: war story

This is basically telling the client about some relevant project you completed (or are in the middle of). You can think of this as “selling” a sample or testimonial, but without the actual sample or testimonial.

For example: 

“I just wrapped up a very similar project for an XYZ-type client. They had ABC constraints, so I couldn’t use any DEF tactics. Instead I took a 123 approach and we got 456 results.”

At least, that’s the ideal War Story. But you can still get away with something like:

“I’m currently working on another project that’s just like this. An important thing for that one was getting the XYZ right – because they were dealing with ABC, I decided to do 123. For your project, you might want to explore something similar.”

And don’t worry, not every War Story needs to be from a super similar project. Maybe you can write:

“I once worked on a project in the XYZ space, which has all kinds of restrictions and special considerations. Since your project is just for ABC, it’s going to be a lot simpler. You’ll be saving a lot of money as long as we can keep things within 123.”

And no, you don’t need to be a grizzled veteran either. You can tell a War Story even if it’s not about an some epic triumph:

“Hmm… this is actually a pretty complex project, so you need to be really careful with the execution. I once worked at a company that messed their XYZ up because of ABC reason, which caused all sorts of major problems like 123. If I were to tackle this, I think we should consider doing it with 456 approach because…”

Tips for telling War Stories:

  • Exclude irrelevant details. For example: Maybe only mention the industry if it’s the same industry as the client you’re talking to. Otherwise, it can potentially weaken the power of your story by drawing extra attention to the fact that you never worked on something in the same industry (otherwise, wouldn’t that be the story you tell?).
  • Sell the story just like a portfolio sample or testimonial. Don’t make the client read a bunch of text before they understand WHY you’re telling the story. Start with why it’s relevant and impressive before you go into the details of how you did it.
  • You don’t need to make the story too long. It can honestly be as short as a sentence or two like the examples above. If you make it significantly longer, make sure to establish why the additional details are relevant.

Proof 4: Tell ANY story

proposal proof 4: tell story

This is the same as telling a War Story, except the story doesn’t even have to be yours! 

It still makes you look good if you can demonstrate knowledge rather than personal experience. So if you don’t have any past client projects to talk about, you can substitute them with a story from a book, article, podcast episode, or just stuff you experience in life.

For example, you can tell a story from a well-known company:

“Apple faced a similar situation when they launched the first iPhone. XYZ was happening but they couldn’t do ABC so they did 123 instead, and got 456 result. When you launch your product, you can also…”

Or really just any company:

“I actually follow an XYZ business that started out doing ABC in 123 way. But then they started having problems because of 456. Eventually they switched to doing 789 though, and that’s when they really started to take off. I think something similar could really work for you too…”

Part III: Ask a question (to push the client to act)

If you end your proposal with something like “Looking forward to hearing from you” or “Let me know if you have any questions”, you’re wasting an opportunity to move the discussion forward. It’s a lot better to end your proposal by giving the client a specific “next step” to take.

Question 1: Ask for a call

call

Here, you ask clients if they want to do a short phone (or Zoom) call.

For example:

  • “If you’d like, I’m happy to hop on a quick 5-10 minute phone call. You can ask me some questions, and we’ll see if we’re a good fit.”
  • “Want to hop on a quick Zoom call? We can discuss the project some more, and I can screenshare an example of XYZ.”
  • “If you’re available now, I can do a short call today. I have some clarifying questions I’d like to ask you that might be quicker over the phone – just grab a spot on my calendar here: [LINK]”

When using this technique, it’s always a good idea to “sell” the client on why they should do the call, just like when you sell the client on opening a portfolio sample:

  • “Even if we don’t end up working together, I can at least give you a few pointers.”
  • “I have some questions before I can give an exact quote and timeline.”
  • “Rather than going back and forth on messages, you can ask me as many questions as you want in real-time.”

Phone or Zoom? Keep the client’s country and time zone in mind – I usually only use the phone call option if we’re in similar time zones and countries. Otherwise, I default to Zoom. And don’t get hung up on me saying Zoom, the other things like Google Meet are totally fine too.

How do you set it up? To reduce back-and-forth of scheduling, sometimes I’ll just include my phone number and tell clients to text me anytime to set up a call. You can also use a scheduling tool like Calendly and let clients pick from a list of open time slots. Just try to make it easy for them. Asking “what times are you free?” makes it more likely you’ll get ghosted.

Are you allowed to include contact info? While you’re not allowed to include your contact information in your profile, Upwork DOES allow you to share things like your phone number in proposals (yes, you can ignore the automated warnings). 

How long should you talk? Try to keep the calls short. I never offer more than 5-10 minutes because I don’t want to devalue my time. Especially since one of my services is consulting, AKA getting paid to talk on the phone. Of course, you can always stay on the phone a bit longer if you need more time to close, but setting the expectation for a shorter call will help that along.

To phone or not to phone? I absolutely hate getting on the phone, even with my own friends. My generation grew up with texting, so calls give me anxiety. Even though I’m actually really good at closing on phone calls, I try to avoid it unless the client asks me for it first. If you happen to be comfortable on the phone, take advantage of it! Otherwise, maybe try the next question:

Question 2: Ask a “Moneyball question”

moneyball

This is my favorite way to end a proposal. It’s super easy for anyone to use, can give you a huge advantage over all the other applicants, and the strategy helps you get work even if the client doesn’t hire you.

I wrote a whole separate blog post about this, which breaks down the strategy and shows a bunch of examples.

Check it out here: How to write Upwork proposals when everyone is better than you

Putting it all together

Now that we’ve covered all 3 sections, all you need to do is pick one of each and stitch them together.

Author’s Note: This guide is still a work-in-progress, I have more sections to add and I’m going to add some examples of my proposals soon. If you aren’t on the email list already, make sure you join so you can get all the updates and bonus content.

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