The millennial side business is making six figures a year, and it costs almost nothing to get started

This story is part of CNBC make it Six-Figer Side Hustle series, in which people with lucrative side businesses break the routines and habits they used to make money on top of their full-time jobs. Got a story to tell? Let us know! Email us at

When Carter Osborne needed extra money to cover his graduate studies, he decided to monetize his strongest skill: writing.

It was 2017, and Osborne realized he could get paid to advise high school seniors on their college admissions essays. He himself asked an advisor to review his personal statement before entering Stanford University in 2013.

He went back to that mentor to help him make the sideways progress. Because the demand for admissions counselors was high, she referred three of her clients to him.

Osborne had planned to close the side business after he finished his master’s degree in public administration two years later, but at that point he realized that helping kids with their essays would do the trick. Plus, it was profitable. By 2021, Osbourne had 40 clients and made $113,550, according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It.

He has whittled the operation down to 33 clients in the past year, primarily because of the growing expectations of his full-time job as a public relations account manager. He still makes $77,120, and Osborne says his average income over the past two years is just over what he earns at his full-time job.

The plus side: He says it costs almost nothing to get started in the side business. Osborne, who works with clients remotely, estimates that he spends $50 a year to maintain his Zoom and Squarespace subscriptions. The extra money pays off, Osborne says: He recently used his savings to buy a house with his girlfriend in Seattle, Washington.

However, the side hustle is not completely free of cost. From October to December, when application deadlines loom before high school presidents, Osborne works a combined 70-hour week between his two jobs.

“There’s no getting around this,” Osborne, 28, tells CNBC Make It. “When we hit deadlines, you have to push.” “I often say to my friends: Hey, I’ll see you in January.”

Here, Osborne details how he got his start in the six-figure business and how he has gone on to maintain it:

CNBC Make It: Do you think your side business is repeatable?

Osborne: I think it’s completely reproducible for anyone who wants to take the time to learn how to break down and engage with the college essay writing process.

But you need two things to get started: You need a good mentor, someone who’s been in the field and knows how to do it all. You could ask a private counselor like me, or school counselors who are trained in this.

Being on the acceptance and counseling side is a different game than applying yourself. It takes knowing the specific ways admissions readers will approach these essays, and how schools are looking at things today versus 10 years ago.

The admissions process seems to be constantly changing. Without revealing any trade secrets, how can you stay on top of what schools expect of students?

You need to know what is changing in the world of college admissions. This year has been crazy, with the Supreme Court ruling (overturning affirmative action) and schools talking about old admissions. If you’re not on top of the news cycle, you’ll be left behind when students ask you questions like, “Should I be talking about race in my personal statement?”

I also subscribe to a lot of college newsletters and am working on some independent articles. Working on the pieces forces you to be critically involved and requires me to do a lot of research on mental health and college admissions.

How do you help students improve their essays without making them your own?

There is a moral line. My first meeting with the students is an hour to 90 minute interview where we brainstorm as many ideas as we can. I record their answers, but I just act as a sounding board and ask them questions to help them think critically about how they can incorporate their life experiences into a personal statement.

When people start writing a text for students or suggesting new content, this is where you can get into tricky territory. Rough drafts aren’t great at all, and I can’t write articles for them. If I need them to dig deeper into an idea, I just take notes and make suggestions based on the things they’ve told me. I wouldn’t create an entirely new idea on the page here without running it through them. It will certainly be woven from the things they have already told me.

How do you set boundaries to maintain work-life balance during peak admissions season? Do these limits help you prevent burnout?

During the off season, i.e. the month or two when it gets really hot, I don’t maintain a good work-life balance. In 2021, my busiest year, I never took a day off, and I started to feel burned out. My biggest symptom is that I’m starting to lose focus. I was logging into a full-time job in the morning, and within 30 minutes, I was feeling distracted. I was a little nervous, forgetting things more easily. Friends were reaching out to me, and I was totally missing their text messages.

But this year, I’ve made an adjustment: I do my full-time job during the day, take a half-hour break, and then start three back-to-back meetings, which takes me until about 9:30 p.m. It may seem counterintuitive, but the reason I do this is to keep the weekends open and give myself two days off, something I never used to do. Now, I can go on short trips with my girlfriend, visit family, or just take a real break and recharge.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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