Securing that very first job right out of college is an exciting time for any new graduate. This means you’ve successfully navigated the job search and interview process and your potential employer has deemed your talents fit for the position. Although this is time to celebrate, there’s still one last hurdle standing between you and this next phase of your life—deciding on your salary. According to a recent Salary.com survey, only 31% of job seekers say they always attempt to negotiate their salary when the topic is brought up, while 20% say they never do.
Though many newcomers to the job market hesitate to ask for a higher salary, discussing your compensation is actually a normal—and generally expected—part of the interview process. In fact, employers will often have more respect for you, as long you approach the situation professionally.
To help further demystify the salary conversation, NerdWallet asked career experts to weigh in on how and when you should attempt to negotiate pay with your potential employer. Consider these tips before you sign on the dotted line.
1. Know your worth to the company and the industry.
As a new graduate in a tough market, it’s easy to feel as though you should take whatever offer comes your way. But similar to any seasoned professional, you also have a wealth of experience to draw from, such as past internships, campus involvement and volunteer opportunities. Research what others in your industry are making, says Godorov. She suggests looking at data from sites such as the Wage Project, NACE Salary Guide, Salary.com, and Glassdoor. “Compare ranges and definitely use tools on these sites that allow you to break it down by location and decipher cost of living expenses, including taxes.”
2. Consider the total offer, not just yearly wage.
When trying to determine whether you should spend time negotiating your salary offer, be sure to consider the additional benefits potentially available to you, Jones says. This might include overtime pay, educational services, signing bonuses, and health or retirement plans.
With the additional benefits tacked on to your yearly compensation, you might not feel the need to ask for a higher salary. But Patty Bishop, director of career development at St. Mary’s College, urges students to “think beyond just base salary; consider negotiating a signing bonus, negotiate a shorter frame for a performance review, moving expenses, tuition reimbursement, and paid vacation.” Being offered better benefits could be an even bigger help than simply a higher salary.
3. Research what you’ll need to earn to pay for your expenses.
Whitten says, “it is incredibly important to understand what your salary expectations are and your monthly budget” before you start any discussion about salary. Spend time thinking about the compensation you’re seeking and the reasons for your proposal.
According to Pennington, job seekers should keep in mind cost adjustments they may have to make to live in their desired city. For example, you may need to earn a higher base pay for an entry-level job living in New York City than you would for the same position in a smaller town.
When having the salary conversation, Pennington also says to discuss “merit pay, performance pay, and bonuses.”
For more information on what it will cost to live in your desired city, check out NerdWallet’s cost of living calculator.
4. Map your strengths to the responsibilities of the position.
The first step, which is also helpful during the in-person interview process, is to identify the key responsibilities of the position and what skill sets will help you achieve success in the role. This preparation “will help affirm your worth,” Godorov says, as well as why you’re asking for a higher salary.
Discuss your strengths to negotiate compensation based on your level of skills and past experiences—what is called merit pay and performance pay, adds Pennington. The more you can show your skills are an asset to the company and should be rewarded with higher pay, the more likely you are to convince your potential employer to extend a better offer.
5. Practice your pitch beforehand.
Once you’ve done your research and have a better sense of what salary range you should expect to be offered, Whitten advises students to rehearse their proposal before tackling the real conversation. “Practice your salary pitch with a career coach, since the most important part of this discussion is how you communicate the information,” she says.
Role-playing with a career coach is another helpful way young adults can practice their negotiation skills before putting them to use, Godorov says. “As a career development professional, I need to empower students to move through both the practice and emotional processes of salary negotiation.” In role playing a common salary discussion, she says, “I let the student be the employer first to relieve them of the stress of being the potential employee, and then we switch after they’ve had the chance to be in the employer’s shoes and talk out their strategy.”
6. Request extra time to consider the proposal.
It can be tempting to accept an offer on the spot—especially if this is the offer you’ve been waiting for—but consider mulling over the terms before you sign on the dotted line.
According to Whitten, “if you accept before agreeing on a salary, you might not be happy with the final amount, and that puts you in an uncomfortable position, since you have already committed to the role.”
Postponing your final decision also gives you more time to gather your thoughts instead of trying to negotiate on the spot. For best practice, Godorov says, “always thank [the employer] for their offer and be prepared to ask for some time to consider the offer and review its terms. If they are offering you a contract, you want to fully understand its terms before signing it.”
As an added bonus, Godorov suggests seeking help from a career services expert at your college or alma mater who can advise you on what a good offer should be.
7. Accept a good offer and negotiate when necessary.
Whether or not you should try your hand at negotiating your first salary most surely depends on your situation and what you’re being offered. According to Bishop, “part of your job as a job seeker is to know the market well. Is the field you are about to enter a super competitive one or a glamorous type and therefore people are eager to break into it at any cost? If so, you may want to consider accepting what you are offered.”
“If you are completely satisfied with every aspect of the offer, salary is on par with industry standards plus benefits are good, you probably do not have to negotiate,” says Godorov. “However, I challenge you to always consider it.”
Gorodov adds more sage advice: “Many recent college graduates feel as though they deserve a lot of money. It is great to have high ambitions, but a young person must also be real about the current state of the economy. If you have an opportunity with a company that pays less than your desired salary, and no other option, take the job. Once you have work experience at a reputable organization, you will be a more marketable commodity.”
8. Ask, don’t demand.
“One technique that seems to work in salary negotiations is to ask for things as a question rather than a demand, since it avoids the potential for sounding arrogant,” Bishop says.
Bishop gives an example: “’I’m delighted that you are interested in me and I am very interested in the position and believe I could contribute to the organization, but I have several other opportunities that are in the $50k range, is there a way we could work this out?’”
Another tip is to “phrase requests that make it easier to say ‘yes’ than ‘no’,” says Jones.
Pennington advises an even simpler tactic to approach the situation: “Tell the truth.” If you think you should be earning more than what is offered, being frank about your intentions might yield the best results.
Patty Bishop is the director of career development for Saint Mary’s College of California and has been with the College for 17 years. Patty currently serves on the Board of Directors as Past President of MPACE, the Mountain Pacific Association of Colleges & Employers.
Meghan Godorov currently serves as the assistant director for career development and Pre-Law Advisor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. She also owns a career consulting business called MLG Career, which she started in order to educate and support millennials and career changers with the job search process.
David Jones is a marketing professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Jones has been helping students and graduates with their career development for over 30 years and has been on both sides of the hiring/getting hired fence.
Michael Pennington, MHRM, M.Ed., is the assistant director of career services-Alumni/Employer Liaison at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. He is also nationally certified as a master career development professional by the National Career Development Association.
Jennifer Whitten serves as the director of the graduate career center at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. She has more than 15 years of experience in career coaching and human resources in higher education and government and has extensive experience working with students in all stages of their careers.
Image of man signing contract courtesy of Shutterstock.