How to Negotiate Your Salary: A Guide for Recent Grads

Early Career How to Negotiate Your Salary: A Guide for Recent Grads

When I graduated from college, the only experience I had in negotiating was haggling for a better deal on cat trinkets in a Chinatown shop. I was certainly proud of scoring the pair of ceramic felines for a fraction of the stated price. But it didn’t prepare me to sit straight-backed in a conference room with a potential future employer, asking for a better job offer. 

For most, the practice of asking for a higher salary than what was initially offered is bewildering and scary. Fresh-faced and new to the working world, one would simply feel lucky enough to land a job in the first place.

As you might expect, I’m not alone in having a case of the negotiation heebie-jeebies. According to a survey by the staffing agency Robert Half, only 39 percent of job candidates negotiated for a higher salary. What’s more, 70 percent of hiring managers don’t anticipate candidates to take the first offer. 

Knowing and doing are two completely different things. Even though you might know exactly what kind of compensation you’d like, it can be hard to ask for what you really want. You might be afraid of appearing greedy, or that your ask will be met with uncomfortable silence. 

Being good at negotiating isn’t necessarily an inherent trait. It just takes a bit of practice and know-how. Whether you’re freelancing, or applying for a full-time job at a company, here are some dos and don’ts on negotiating a job offer: 

Don’t: Just Chase a High Salary 

While a decent salary is important, you’ll also want to factor in personal growth, expanding your professional network, and adding to your skillset. “If you have more than one job [offer] that pays you enough, don’t pick the job that pays more,” says Jason Patel, founder of Transizion, a college and career services company. “Instead, pick the job that’s a better investment for your long-term growth.”  

Once you have several offers with a competitive salary, Patel suggests selecting the job that offers more expansive in-company growth, on-the-job learning experiences, and a chance to meet smart, successful people. “You’ll be able to swap business cards, learn from senior-level talent, and explore what a true professional in your industry does,” he says. Instead of trying to nab the highest entry-level salary you can find, think of your first job as an opportunity to put more money in your pocket several years from now.  

Don’t: Undercharge Yourself

Freelancers, in particular, are notorious for undercharging themselves. “Every first-time freelancer goes through it, but it’s part of the learning curve,” says Carissa Lintao, the 22-year-old CEO of Apptuitive

“When it comes down to it, freelancers can ask for however much they want—so ask for whatever you want.” The worst they can say is that it’s too high for their budget, and ask if you might be willing to lower your rate. Lintao offers a hot tip: If you don’t feel comfortable tripling your current asking price off the bat, you can start by increasing your rate by 10% to get comfortable. You can then bump it to 20%, and so forth.  

Do: Factor in Living Expenses 

It turns out that a high percentage of recent college graduates students don’t factor in living expenses when negotiating a salary. Sure, you were able to sustain yourself off cheap ramen and day-old pastries during college, but when you graduate, you’ll most likely have higher living expenses—not to mention student loan debt. 

Factor in groceries, rent, commuting expenses, and the cost of an emergency fund when researching how much you should make. And if you relocated for a job opportunity, you’ll want to make adjustments to your personal budget to adjust for any changes in costs in the new city. Don’t lowball yourself simply because you’re desperate for a job, advises Patel. “A job with a low salary that doesn’t cover your bills will only add stress and other costs to your life,” he says.  

Do: Do Your Research  

In our modern digital era, you don’t have to go to the career center and pore over massive tomes with outdated data to figure out how much you’re worth. It’s called the internet—take advantage!  

Go to a major career or salary comparison site such as PayScale, Comparably, and Glassdoor, and look at the entry-level salaries for your field, recommends Patel. Next, look through forums and talk to people about the salaries offered at the company (or other similar ones) with which you’re negotiating. 

It’s also important to just pick a specific number in that range. For instance, instead of saying you’d like to be paid $50,000 to $60,000 a year, ask for $55,000. “Don’t give a salary range when negotiating, advises Patel. “That’s because if you offer a salary range, the company will probably offer you the lowest number in that range.” 

Do: Focus on How You’ll Contribute to the Company 

When discussing what you have to offer to your potential future employer, think of results for the company, says Patel. Sure, you’re kind, charming, and graduated with honors, but never talk about how great you are. “Simply put, the company doesn’t care,” says Patel.  “The hiring manager and department heads have their own company-related problems to address, and that’s why they’re hiring you.”  

Instead, focus on how you will boost sales, improve things like efficiency, productivity, or customer retention, or otherwise help the company and its bottom line. “Don’t discuss the achievements featured on your resume—unless it relates to the job,” says Patel. “Instead, always think about how you will benefit the organization. They will be much more receptive to your point of view and say ‘yes’ to your ask.”  

Don’t: Use Personal Reasons to Persuade

So you have tons of student debt to pay off, or your car is in serious need of repairs. But don’t add your personal woes to the litany of reasons why you’re deserving of a better offer. “You need to have factored in those reasons beforehand,” points out Patel. If you couldn’t reasonably live off the salary range you were expecting, why apply for the job in the first place?“ The company has enough business-related problems, and aren’t looking to make your problems theirs,” says Patel.

Do: Lean on Recommendations and Testimonials 

What’s better than tooting your own horn? Having others toot it for you. Ask your supervisor at an old internship or job to write a letter of recommendation or a testimonial on your LinkedIn profile. Flattery gets you everywhere, according to Lintao. “Do your due diligence and give credit where credit is due before mentioning price,” she says. 

“Whatever number you throw out, they’ll most likely say yes if you and your services are as great as they seem to be,” she says. “A few compliments will help you close the project quickly and your newfound client will be in love with you—or close to it.”

Don’t: Say Anything After the Ask 

Once you ask for a better offer and state your position, don’t say anything. It’s hard to be met with radio silence a few days after you ask for more. “Negotiation in good faith is about compromise with dignity, but you can only do that when the other party respects your position,” says Patel. 

“If you state your position and then try to justify on why you’re deserving of the salary, it’s a sign of insecurity and surrender, that you aren’t confident in your position.” (The freelancer equivalent is saying that you’re flexible in your rates and willing to work with their budget.) “That’s why you want to explain why you’re worth it and state the number thereafter,” says Patel. “Then keep your mouth shut and let them speak!” 

So when considering an offer for your first gig after you graduate, prize long-term growth over short-term cash. Do your research on the company and factor in your own expenses well in advance. Emphasize how you can help the company, not how they can help you. And once you’ve made your counter-offer, sit tight and stick your guns.

Learning to assert the value of your work and contributions is a lifelong skill that will serve you well for your entire professional life. The best way to learn is in trying. Over time, it will be less painful and get easier. 

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