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How to Negotiate Salary as a Recent Graduate




​In our previous guide, we discussed the reasons why all potential employees have value and explored what an employer looks for when hiring an entry-level employee. In this piece, we'll examine the interview process and how you can convince an employer to offer the salary you want.

Shaping the Narrative

To prove to an employer that you're going to be an asset and not a liability, you'll need to articulate why you want the job. You want to convince a company that this job is important to you and that you have a personal connection to the organization. The following pointers will help you in this process.

Do your homework. You'll need to do some research on the company. Know what the company does, who its customers are, what its mission statement is and so on. What has this company done that sets it apart? Demonstrate your knowledge to the recruiter and hiring manager.

Communicate your intrinsic motivation. A company wants to know what is going to motivate you to get up every day and give the company all of your attention and focus. Reflect on your college application essay, and think about how you expressed to that college why you wanted to go there. What made that institution so special to you personally? Explaining your internal motivation for wanting to work for a particular company is very much the same concept. "I want you to tell me a great story about how you know that this is a place where you're going to be inspired to work every day," said J.T. O'Donnell, founder and CEO of the online career coaching service WorkItDaily. "Because if I know you have that, it's going to be a lot easier to teach what I need to teach you. I know you're going to be self-directed, I know you're going to be resourceful. So it's on you, the recent student, to talk about your intrinsic motivation."

Write a disruptive cover letter. Putting your intrinsic motivation on display begins long before the interview—and before you even hear from a recruiter. If you want to get your foot in the door, you need to write a cover letter that makes a recruiter take notice. While your resume should list information on your schooling, as well as any internship and prior work experience, your cover letter is your first chance to connect with the company on a personal level. Use your cover letter to tell a story about why you are passionate about that company.

Highlight ways you will add value. During the interview process, it's a good idea to ask the recruiter and especially the hiring manager about certain obstacles that the department is facing, noted Romina Muhametaj, a current HR student, president of the Society for Human Resource Management's student chapter at Florida State College at Jacksonville and founder of consulting firm Six 7 Radius. "Then ask how would your position help [the department] in overcoming those obstacles," she said. That way, when the conversation turns to salary, you've already shown the employer that you're focused on adding value.

Negotiation Tactics

Once the interviews are concluded, the salary discussions can begin. Remember, you have some leverage here; if the company is making an offer, that means it wants you. So don't be afraid to negotiate. "Even if a salary offer is higher than expected, you should still negotiate," said Vicki Salemi, a career expert at Monster. "I don't think many college grads realize they have power."

Indeed, college students and recent graduates tend to be pessimistic about their job prospects and negotiation power. And the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting recession have only dampened their outlooks. New research from Monster found that 45 percent of 2020 graduates are still looking for work and nearly 70 percent of recent and soon-to-be grads expect lower salaries as a result of the crisis.

But Salemi encourages students and recent grads to shake off the pessimism. If you go into a negotiation process prepared, there's no reason why you can't be compensated appropriately. The following tips will help you navigate the salary negotiation process.

Research salaries for similar positions and similar skill levels. Don't go in blind. Talk to professors, advisors, alumni—anyone who might have knowledge on a similar position. If you have a contact at the company, see if he or she can provide you with some information. It also helps to know what other people at your skill level are making by looking at average salary reports. Resources like this report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers provide projections on what salaries new graduates can expect to make. That way, if you want to negotiate up from the initial offer, you can realistically make the case that the position merits higher compensation.

Get a sense of the geographic location. Ask the recruiter and the hiring manager whether the job is intended to be done in the office, remotely or a hybrid of the two. As Salemi noted, the pandemic has changed the way many companies are doing business, and some organizations are more open to hiring remote employees. That can bode well for an entry-level applicant. If the job is based in an expensive area like New York City but is fully remote, you may be able to afford to take a lower salary because you can live in an area with a much lower cost of living.

Don't be afraid to ask about the salary range early on. Although salary negotiations typically take place after an offer has been extended, it's OK to get a sense, at the beginning of your interviews, of what the job will pay. Don't be afraid to ask employers about the salary range. It probably shouldn't be your first question, but you want to make sure you and the prospective employer are on the same page. If the salary the employer is offering is significantly lower than what you were expecting, it's best to move on and not waste anyone's time.

Don't lowball yourself. Once the actual salary negotiation begins, a recruiter might ask what your expectation is. If you know the salary range for the position, it will give you an idea of what you can ask for. If not, this is your time to fall back on the research you've done. Either way, don't throw out a number that's too low.

Keep your expectations in check. Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of the nationwide staffing and consulting firm LaSalle Network, advises recent graduates to consider what a potential job has to offer. Is this an industry you really want to work in? Will this job give you the skills and responsibilities you're looking for? If so, it's not worth playing hardball over a few thousand dollars. And there's very little chance you're going to be able to negotiate up $10,000 or more. "The rule of thumb is that there's usually a 5 percent variable, meaning if the job pays $45,000, you may be able to get it to $47,500," he said.

Don't make a plea for sympathy. In the negotiation process, it's important to avoid listing your expenses. You don't want to start talking about how much your rent costs or how long your commute is going to be. "When you haven't done anything for a company, [your expenses] are not their problem," Gimbel said.

Reiterate what you bring to the table. While you'll have already successfully made your case for how you can be an asset to the company in the interview process, the salary conversation is a good time to reiterate that. Gimbel recommends briefly touching on any prior experience you've had that demonstrates you add value. If you've had an internship that allowed you to participate in the hiring and recruiting process, that might separate you from other recent graduate hires. If you're proficient in a particular software solution, that could also help.

You Are a Commodity

As an entry-level HR employee, you're not going to make as much as an HR director or someone in the C-suite, no matter how good of a negotiator you are. But you can bring value to the company, and if you can convince a prospective employer of that, there's no reason to think it won't pay you what you're worth. "You are a commodity as a worker until proven otherwise," O'Donnell said.

In case you missed it: Know Your Worth: Determine Your Value to Employers as a Recent Graduate

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