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How to Handle the ‘What Are Your Salary Requirements?’ Question

April 9, 2015
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How to Handle the ‘What Are Your Salary Requirements?’ Question
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Few questions strike fear in the hearts of job seekers like the bombshell “What are your salary requirements?” Give a number that’s too low, and you risk selling yourself short; offer a number that’s too high, and you could take yourself out of consideration for the job. But if you give the right answer, you’ll win points with your potential employer and set yourself up for the salary you deserve. Here’s how.

Give a broad salary range

Some employers ask about your salary expectations in an online form when you first apply for a job. Others request that you list your salary requirements in a cover letter, or a recruiter will ask you about it during the first phone screen after you’ve sent in your resume. While it might sound scary to suggest a number so early, it’s better to give your potential employer a salary range than to avoid answering at all, says Pattie Kim-Keefer, assistant director of career services at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

“They don’t want to go through the application process and interview process if your expectations don’t align with theirs,” she says.

Respond with a wide range, one that covers about $10,000, so you have wiggle room during negotiations later on. But how do you come up with the right range for the position?

Know what you’re worth

Putting your cards on the table can backfire if you haven’t researched how much your employer is likely to offer you. Ask other students or your school’s alumni what they’ve been offered for similar positions. Many colleges collect salary data from students and recent grads on the job market, Kim-Keefer says, which can help you figure out the going rate for the job you applied for.

You can also search online for salaries that others have self-reported in your industry. Make sure the numbers you find are in the same ballpark as your possible salary. Compensation takes into account your experience, the location of the job, the size of the company, your potential responsibilities and how the company is doing financially. So tailor the information you find to your own position.

If you discover that the average salary for a paralegal at a midsize firm in Chicago is $50,000, for example, give a range of $45,000 to $55,000. If you feel extremely qualified for the position, consider suggesting a range on the higher end, such as $48,000 to $58,000. Employers are likely to offer you a salary at the bottom of your range down the line, so be mindful of how low you’re willing to go.

Leave room for negotiation

Always couch your response with the explanation that your salary is flexible. If you’re asked to provide a number in a blank text box on an online application, add “negotiable” at the end. If that’s not possible, make sure you state it elsewhere on your application. You want to let your employer know that you’re willing to have a conversation about compensation, and that you recognize there are factors beyond salary that make a job offer attractive.

“Salary is important, but just think more broadly about the position and what you’re going to get out of it,” Kim-Keefer says.

Before locking yourself into a salary range, Kim-Keefer recommends taking into account what experiential benefits you’ll get out of the job, like mentorship opportunities and career mobility. The company is likely to pick up the tab for other benefits, too, like health care, vacation days and travel to professional conferences, which will bump up your overall compensation when a job offer comes.

Also, while it’s a good idea to stand firm on your salary range, don’t assume a higher-paying job is automatically better. The experience you’ll get in a position that pays $70,000 isn’t necessarily going to be more beneficial to you than what you’ll learn at a job that pays $50,000, Kim-Keefer says.

“It’s like applying to colleges,” she says. “Just because it says ‘Ivy League’ on it doesn’t mean it’s going to be the best fit for everyone.”

Brianna McGurran is a staff writer covering education and life after college for NerdWallet. Follow her on Twitter.

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