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Suggested Salary Negotiation Guidelines for Recent College Graduates

Salary negotiation for many students or even more experienced workers, can be an emotional experience. Yes we want the job, but we need more money, or we simply want to feel that we're getting paid what the job is worth from a prospective employer yet we might be a bit reticent about being more assertive.

To add to this dilemma how do you negotiate a higher salary or improved fringe benefits, as a graduating student, if you have little or no experience? The answer is, that while you don't always get what you want it is important to understand the negotiating process and how it works and to start integrating yourself into a more active role, if only to feel more in control and perhaps make more money in the process.

Understanding the process

Let's start with a definition of what negotiation is. Very simply, it's meeting and discussing a subject with another person in order to reach an agreement. The art of negotiation is based upon mutual agreement of issues, not confrontation.

While salary negotiation begins after the interview process, it really starts for you with the initial interview. Because it's what you tell the company about yourself, your accomplishments and what you can do for them, that will increase your value when the time to offer you a job comes. Use active words in the interview to describe your accomplishments such as: I initiated, I oversaw, I created, I took charge of, I followed up on, I actively contributed to, and I developed. The ability to handle details, multiple projects or excellent time management and follow up skills will also contribute to your value.

Negotiating is not merely saying, "I want more money". You will need to have answers to certain questions prior to discussing your salary, to know if there is even a chance to get more. Among the questions to which you should have answers are:

Some places you might go to get salary information are National Association of Colleges and Employers, your college career services office, people who work in that industry or at that company, libraries, job hunting web sites on the internet, trade associations and trade publications.

Even if you know the answers to these questions, there will most likely be some objections to your request for more money. Among those:

  1. you don't have enough experience
  2. other employees aren't making more
  3. the budget won't permit it and, of course, the ever popular
  4. that's what we're paying new hires.

Think about how you would respond to these objections in a way that continues the discussion on a positive note without backing yourself into a corner. Remember you're asking questions not delivering an ultimatum. For example in responding to the "other employees aren't making more" statement, you might follow up with a response such as: "I see. (a little pause) What is the range for this position? What would it take to get to that higher level within that range?"

Remember you're looking for a way to reach a common accord and often you have to ask a few questions to see if there might be a way to reach an accommodation. In many cases, especially at this level, the person offering you the position has already gotten approval from someone else, so you have to give them a pretty good rationale to go back and ask for more money.

The interview

There are certain thoughts, which might help you during the interview process itself, that pertain to the salary issue. Among them:

  1. Good listening skills are critical to understanding what are the needs of the company and the individual doing the hiring. Directing your answers, during the interview, toward making your eventual supervisor feel that you can do more to solve his or her problems will go along way in having them try to get you top dollar. The listening process involves not interrupting and allowing them to finish their thoughts as well as repeating back to that person a part of what they've said, in the course of your answer so that they know they've been heard. Additionally, such things as establishing good eye contact, nodding after a statement to reinforce that you've heard it, are common communication devices that say: I heard you and I understand what you're saying."

  2. Try not to be the first one to mention money. The concept here is that you may inadvertently, 'low ball' yourself and have to settle for a salary lower than the company might have offered you.

  3. If asked what salary you're looking for, say you have a range but that it really will depend upon the total package, including fringe benefits.

  4. If pushed on the subject, have a range in mind, with the bottom of the range what you must have and the top 10%-15% above what you'd take. ("I'm looking at a $27,000-$32,000 range". The range could be based upon other people with whom you are interviewing as well as what you feel you're worth, based upon your analysis of the market.

  5. If asked what your current pay is, tell the truth, however, if you're up for a raise in a month, mention that also.

The Offer

  1. If you receive an offer and you're interested, say that you're very interested and excited about the opportunity and will get back to them in 24 hours. Generally 24 hours is the minimum just to think about other things you may want to know, or to have some negotiating room. You might even ask to have a little more time to get back to them, especially if you are in the process of interviewing and have already made other appointments.

  2. Once the base salary has been discussed, but before accepting the job, ask them about the other important fringe benefits you might be entitled to such as:
    • health insurance
    • vacation time
    • annual salary review
    • retirement savings plans
    • bonus plans
    • college tuition reimbursement plans
    • stock options

  3. Avoid telephone negotiations unless you are calling to accept and ask for the offer in a letter.

The Negotiation Process

  1. Here are several examples of how a salary conversation might go, if you want to try to negotiate for more money, either at the time of the offer or after you've thought about the job for 24 hours. 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.

    Company: "We'd like to offer you a salary of $10,000/year."

    You: Alternative answer #1: "I'm delighted that you are interested in me and I am very interested in the position. Based upon my experience and also because of a variety of expenses I'll have when I graduate, such as paying off my college loan and having to get a car, I'd like to be making around $30,000. How do you feel about that?"

    Alternative answer #2: "I really like the opportunity, and I know that I could contribute, but I have several other opportunities that are in the $30,000 range (don't say it unless it's true) is there a way we could work this out?"

    Alternative answer #3: "I'm out of school now and on my own and really need $30,000 as a minimum. Is there a way we can work that out? I love the opportunity and would love to work here if I can get that number. What do you think?"

  2. If you don't get a salary that is to your liking, but you want the job, ask if you can get reviewed in three months or six months instead of a year.

  3. As the statements above have indicated, try to mention a positive or reinforcing statement about your liking the company or the job, before asking for other things. Your words say to them: "I appreciate the offer and I'm almost ready to join you, if I can just get this one last thing to make it perfect."

In summary, remember that you will be spending the next forty to fifty years working and it's important to find a job that you like and for which you are qualified. If you get an offer with a company you love or feel has great upward potential, but the salary is a little lower than you wanted, remember that it may still be worthwhile specially if it's a company where you can learn and grow over the long term. The process of negotiating, however, is an important skill, which, if learned early on, can pay handsome dividends over the course of your career, not only monetarily but also in your own self-esteem.

-- David Gordon is the Director for Advertising/Promotion Internships in the Marketing Communications Department of Columbia College in Chicago, Illinois.