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Upwork Proposal Tips That Will Get You Shortlisted

Ask any freelancer what it’s like getting work through Upwork and you’ll likely find two very different answers. There will be those who enthuse about how easy it is to get new clients, and there will be many more who claim that clients don’t ever read proposals, that getting work is almost impossible and that there are thousands of people competing for every job – and so what’s the point?

The problem is though that for the second type of person, the numbers aren’t in their favor. Yes, there are well over 12 million freelancers who are using Upwork right now, either as their primary income or to supplement their income, but there are also more than 3 million jobs posted every single year.

Work out the math and that means that there are, on average, only 4 freelancers for every job. Of course, some jobs will attract a great number of applicants, but equally, there will be jobs where the number of suitable applicants is very low.

So if you find yourself struggling to gain clients through Upwork, or you’re just starting out and want to learn how to be successful within the platform, here’s everything you need to know about writing an Upwork proposal that will get you shortlisted way more than average.

Upwork Proposal

What is an Upwork Proposal?

You can think of an Upwork proposal as a little like an application letter for a job you’re interested in. It’s your chance to connect with the client, and hopefully establish enough of a connection that they’ll be interested in taking your application to the next stage.

Just like a cover letter, an Upwork proposal should be a short, snappy way of getting attention. It’s not your life story, or a long speech about how much of an amazing person you are, and how lucky any future client would be to have the opportunity to experience your magnificence.

It’s your opportunity to make a first impression. To catch their eye. To spark an interest in what you have to offer.

And it’s astonishing how so many people get it so wrong.

First impressions count, and an Upwork proposal is exactly that – a first impression. It seems that many freelancers imagine a client seeing a proposal and immediately dashing off to look up the applicant’s profile, work through all of that, maybe even look for their autobiography on Amazon, or search social media to learn more about their amazing life. 

Clients don’t do that. Any of that.

The truth is that most clients don’t even read proposals. At least not all of them. They don’t have to.

Because so many freelancers make classic mistakes, rendering their proposal destined for the trash pile before the client has even taken more than a casual glance.

But while some freelancers know about these classic mistakes, and take care not to make them, they instead make entirely different mistakes, unaware of certain points which can doom an Upwork proposal almost as quickly.

So let’s look at the mistakes people make, and provide a comprehensive look at effective Upwork proposal tips that will get you shortlisted.

1. Speed Is Good, Except When It Isn’t

Many clients start browsing through proposals as soon as they start coming in. It may be that they’ve more or less created their shortlist within the first day or so of the listing going live.

When browsing work opportunities on Upwork it’s always worth looking at those listings which are fairly new. Making sure you get your proposal in quickly will be key.

Think of it this way. If you’re at a party and there are only about 3 or 4 other people there for the first half-hour, you’ll get to know them better. You’ll remember their names and something about them. Over the next few hours, more and more people arrive, and you’ll meet some of them, some you’ll just see briefly but have nothing really in common with them, and by the end of the party, you’ve all but forgotten most of the people you met, or at least, most things about them.

Except for the first few you had more time to get to know.

If a client receives 3 or 4 proposals on the first day, they may well have time to look at them closely, and then go away and think about them. But if, over the next week, another three dozen arrive, then they’ll be very much quicker in dismissing any that don’t immediately grab their attention.

So speed is good. And we recommend checking Upwork at least once a day, if not more, to make sure you see new listings as soon as they arrive.

But sometimes speed is not the best tactic.

There are two ways in which people trip up badly on the whole idea of getting an application in quickly. Because there are three ways you can do this, and two of them are disastrous.

The first mistake people make is to complete the ever-so-tempting template provided by Upwork. This is sheer laziness and will do everything to ensure your proposal completely fails to stand out. No originality, no individuality, no effort. Not a great first impression.

The second mistake people make is very similar. They may not use Upwork’s templates, but they do reuse their own. Perhaps they’ve spent considerable time and effort making the perfect proposal, and now send it off to every single client, perhaps taking a brief moment to at least change the name of the client at the top! Again, this will certainly send completely the wrong message to the client.

The third approach is the best one. It may take more effort and more time, but since the purpose of the process is to connect with a client, this is certainly the most effective way to get yourself shortlisted.

Read the job description carefully, and write a proposal specifically for that client. You may have a crib sheet of relevant facts and information, but be prepared to ignore some of this, and filter down to the core points which are uniquely relevant to that one job. Make it personal, and make it clear that you have taken the time to read the job description, and understand their needs.

2. Keep It Short

Clients aren’t wanting your life history. If they wanted that, they’d go to a bookshop and buy your autobiography. They neither have the time nor the inclination to learn your entire life journey detailing how you arrived at this precise point in your life ready to take the inevitable step of fulfilling their needs.

Many clients automatically ignore lengthy proposals. They just don’t have the time, and frankly, if you can’t get to the point quickly in your proposal, what on earth would you be like to work with?

So keep your proposal under 500 words. Yes, it might hurt. Yes, there will be plenty about you you’ll need to leave out. But if you want clients to actually pick up and read your proposal, you stand a far better chance if it’s short and to the point. It still needs to say everything it has to, but not at the risk of becoming a paperback.

3. Use The 3-Point Structure

Your Upwork proposal needs to have three main parts:

The Acknowledgement

Right from the start, you need to make it clear that you understand the client’s problem or need. Identify their problem and make it clear you understand it. Don’t just quote from the job description – explain it your way.

The Evidence

Now you’ve made it clear you understand the client’s specific problem or need, provide them with the evidence of your expertise and experience that makes you the ideal person to be able to address those needs. Don’t just describe every previous job, but pick out examples that are relevant to the client’s needs, and show them how you have been able to successfully address similar needs or solve similar problems previously.


At the end of the proposal make sure you include a call to action. This could be an invitation to discuss the job or their needs in more detail, perhaps over the telephone or even virtually using Google Meet, Teams, or Zoom.

4. Make It Personal

Sometimes the job description includes the client’s name, but not often. But if you take a look at the client’s reviews you will frequently find that previous people who have worked with them have used their names in their reviews.

This makes sense because once you have been offered the job, you’ll be communicating directly with the client and using names in emails or messages. Using the client’s name in a review is then quite a natural thing to do, but by taking the time to go and check the reviews for this piece of information you will certainly make sure your proposal stands out.

If you address the client by name, even when they haven’t included their name in the job description, you’ll quickly and easily demonstrate that this is not a template and that you have taken the time and trouble to do some research on the business. 

In fact, it will only have taken a few moments, but it can still seem very striking, and making your proposal more personal will certainly increase your chances of being shortlisted for the position.

5. Read The ENTIRE Job Description (To Find The Secret Word!)

Quite a number of clients can be very sneaky! They obviously want to make sure that they only receive applications from people who are suited to the job, and the best way of making sure applicants are suited is to make sure they read the job description fully.

But so many people just skim read and don’t read everything. In part, this is understandable because many of the jobs people are applying for are similar. But to assume that ‘similar’ means ‘identical’, and to fire off proposals that are identical is to potentially waste the client’s time, and completely scupper any chance of getting your proposal shortlisted.

So to combat this many clients have begun including secret instructions buried within the job description. If you only glance at the description or skim-read through bits of it, there’s a high chance you’ll miss the secret word or instruction, and this will be immediately obvious to the client.

For example, the client might include instructions such as:

  • Write your name and address in capital letters.
  • Mention the secret word ‘blancmange’.
  • Make the first line of your proposal the job title.

It then becomes easy for the client to scan through proposals, and ditch any that don’t have the applicant’s name and address in capitals, or is missing the job title on the top line, or that don’t contain the word ‘blancmange’ (a quick Ctrl + F will quickly identify any omissions!).

Since many people do skim read or glance at the first few sections of a job description before applying, you can significantly improve your chances of having your Upwork proposal shortlisted by simply reading the whole of the description very carefully, and making a note of any ‘secret’ instructions like these.

But you can take this a step further. Although we don’t recommend being witty or entertaining, certain subtle humor can be allowed if the client has asked for a code word to be included, and that word is unusual, such as in our example – blancmange.

So for example, your opening line could include a reference to this word in a slightly humorous way. Don’t overdo it, but it certainly will make sure the client is fully aware that you have not just read the description fully, but that you understand it well too.

It’s important to strike a balance between being overly witty, and professionally dull. Try to make sure the client sees the human connection and doesn’t just feel as though your proposal is simply another automated copy-and-paste job that has taken the computer more time to process than the human.

6. Include A Free Tip

It’s important that you make it very clear in your Upwork proposal that you are the perfect candidate for the job, and that you understand their needs and are able to bring the solutions they are after.

One way in which you can achieve this is by including a tip in your proposal. It’s important to be careful here as you don’t want to come across as patronizing, but you might for example include a comment such as:

“I notice that you are currently using reCAPTCHA on your website to help prevent spam, which is certainly highly important. But I tend to recommend the hCaptcha alternative as this has a greater focus on user privacy, and can be set so that visitors needn’t be presented with image-based challenges as often.”

This has a double advantage, in that you are clearly showing your relevant industry knowledge, but at the same time demonstrating that you have spent time researching their business thoroughly already, showing commitment and professionalism.

7. Avoid The “Me, Me, & More Me” Trap

All too often clients receive Upwork proposals which read more like autobiographies. It’s an extremely easy trap to fall into, because as someone looking to secure a client, you are naturally going to tend towards talking about you, your achievements, your qualifications, your experience, your goals, and so on.

But this approach is not effective. In fact, it’s often a reason why proposals don’t get shortlisted.

The thing is that for any job or contract it is never about just one half of the deal. You might have fourteen degrees, 250 years’ professional experience, and the ability to time travel. But if none of that is of any direct relevance to the job itself, then the client is going to choose another candidate.

After all, you wouldn’t hire a plumber, no matter how qualified and experienced, to rewire your home, just as you wouldn’t get even the most qualified and experienced electrician to fix your leaking toilet.

So when completing your Upwork proposal you need to think about the client’s perspective. What is it that they are needing? How do you have the skills or experience to address that need?

Instead of writing this:

“I am a published writer who can write in 7 different languages and produce 10,000 words a day”

Say something like:

“I understand that your business needs somebody to produce high-quality SEO content for their blog. I believe that my experience as a blog writer at Blogs’Я’Us for 7 years’, during which referrals from Google increased by 2,500%, helps to demonstrate my ability to produce engaging, optimized content for the “Big New Business LLC” that you are looking for.”

Although a little contrived, this example shows the power of using the pronouns “you”, and “yours” in the same volume as “me”, and “I”.

8. Don’t Include Your Life’s Work As A Portfolio

Whether you’re a freelancer looking for a writing gig, coding, graphic design, or anything else creative, don’t fall into the trap of sending dozens of examples of your work.

It’s easy to look at your favorite twenty blog posts you’ve written recently, and send them all to the client along with your proposal. But the truth is that the client simply won’t have the time or inclination to read them all.

If you’re not going to make life easier for them, then what’s the point? After all, that’s why they’re looking to hire somebody. To solve a problem, make things easier, and help move the business forward. If you’re bombarding them with piles of examples of your work, you’re inevitably slowing things down and making things more challenging for them.

And the truth is that most of those documents are either irrelevant to the specific needs of the client, or only relevant in a very peripheral way.

Look long and hard at your portfolio, and at the client’s job description, and select only the very few which demonstrate exactly what the client is looking for. Sending just two or three examples at most, but all of which are absolutely nailing the client’s specific needs will massively increase your chances of being shortlisted.

Again, this approach demonstrates to the client that you have read the job description fully, you understand their needs exactly, and have a portfolio that makes it overwhelmingly clear how exactly your skills match their needs, making you the ideal candidate.

9. Don’t Rely On Your Profile

It’s amazing how many freelancers assume that clients will read both their proposal and their profile. And for this reason, they deliberately avoid repeating content that’s part of their profile while composing their proposal.

The trouble is that the overwhelming majority of clients simply don’t have time to read people’s profiles. At least, not until they have shortlisted them.

But since we’re here to identify ways to get your Upwork proposal shortlisted, this is definitely not a trap you’ll want to fall into.

At the same time though, we’re not advising that you simply copy the entire contents of your profile across either. But where you feel there is information that is directly relevant to your proposal, don’t be afraid to include it, even if it is on your profile too.

In fact, we’d suggest that you do go back through your profile and decide, for each item of information, whether it would help demonstrate its relevance to the client and your unique suitability for the job.

10. Make Sure Your Price Is Right

Many freelancers try to outprice the competition by pricing themselves low. By bidding way below anyone else, or at least below the average, they feel that the client will be more tempted to at least shortlist.

This isn’t the case. Rarely will clients base their decision solely, or even largely, based on price. In fact, by pricing yourself absurdly low you are giving the client a clear message – you don’t value your skills and experience very highly.

If you don’t respect everything you can offer, you can’t exactly go complaining that the clients never shortlist you.

But there’s a danger too in overpricing yourself. We’ve seen people make this mistake too, feeling that by significantly increasing their price, perhaps to the point of standing out as being particularly expensive, they’ll impress the client. But by doing this you may be in danger of giving the impression of overconfidence. Or arrogance. Or even ignorance about the value of such skills within that field of industry.

Have a look not only at the current bids but also at bids on similar products. Have a look at the past projects the client has awarded, and think carefully about the time the task will take, and what a fair reward for your skills, experience, effort, and time would be.

Be neither cheap nor extravagant, but somewhere in between. And make sure it’s a fair reward for what you can do.

In Conclusion

These ten tips will certainly increase your chances of having your proposal shortlisted. But don’t overlook the basics too. Always proofread your proposal and any accompanying documents. Make sure it’s been checked for spelling, grammar, and punctuation (you can use a tool such as Grammarly to help if you’re not entirely confident yourself).

But in the end, remember that patience is important. You’re simply not going to be shortlisted every time. Yes, these tips will make a big difference, but it may take a while to get started if you don’t have many (or any) previous reviews for example.

Our advice is to keep on applying. Apply for as many as are relevant, and send off your proposals promptly. But once sent, avoid the temptation of dwelling on them. Keep looking to the future, and once one proposal is sent, refocus your mind and enthusiasm on the next one. But always keep an eye on your messages, and be prompt in replying, regardless of the client’s decision.

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