Can First-Time Job Seekers Negotiate Salary?

You finally got it: your first job offer out of college. The problem is, the money's not much more than you're making waiting tables! Now what? Do you jump at their first offer or try to hold out for more?

Author, Career Management Expert

Last Updated: Mar 31, 2014

You get the call you’ve been waiting for. Your first professional job offer out of college. The problem is, the money’s not much more than you’ve been making waiting tables! Now what? Do you jump at their first offer or try to hold out for more?

You’ve got a cell phone bill, car insurance, and student loans of a magnitude calculated to stagger a third world nation. You’re just out of school and all you want to do is pay off your debts, move out of your parents’ basement, and start a life of your own. What's reality in this alien professional world? How much bargaining power do you really have when you don't have experience?

The moment when a job offer is put on the table is the first time you really have any decisions to make: do you want this job and on what terms? The issues for your consideration are the job and its potential, the company and its stability, the money and the benefits. Employment negotiation is serious business, and it helps to have the right mindset. There are two big considerations. They want you, but like most new entrants into the professional workplace, you lack experience, and you are being offered the job based entirely on an evaluation of your potential.

The vast majority of entry-level jobs have an approved salary range that cannot and will not be tampered with for your benefit. If you are hired, you will be hired within that salary range. If you negotiate too hard, you run the risk of the company moving on to one of the other acceptable candidates. And because this is an entry-level position, there are always plenty of other acceptable candidates. The fact is that you are going to get an offer pretty much like everyone else’s. What is important is that you are getting a job, you are crossing that final bridge into adulthood, and you are getting that all-important first foothold on the bottom rung of the professional ladder of success.

This is just your first job and your career is not going to be a sprint to the top; no matter what you are told, it is a marathon that will be run over many job changes and upwards of 50 years. Put in a proper perspective, the starting salary for this job is the least of your concerns; what’s much more important is the experience you will gain and the opportunities it will present. Sooner than you can imagine, two, three, four years are going to whiz by, and you will be making your first strategic career move. Then, all of a sudden, money becomes much more negotiable. For now, there are only two steps to salary negotiations for your first job.

Negotiating your salary: step one

Open with, “If I understand the job correctly . . .” and then restate the responsibilities of the job and what you bring to the table in each area of responsibility, building into your explanation what you know about the role of the job within the department, any initial or special projects, and any special needs that have come to light in your conversations. Your goal is to demonstrate your thorough grasp of the job. You want the interviewer thinking, “Wow, she really gets it!” Your dialogue sounds something like this: “If I’m qualified for this job, which I am because of A, B, C, and D, I feel sure you’ll make me a fair offer. What is the salary range for this position?”

You may then be given a range, and if any part of that range intersects with your range, you reply, “Excellent! We certainly have something to talk about, because I was looking for between $X and $Y. Obviously I’d like $Y. How close do you think we can get?” or “That’s certainly something we can talk about. I’m looking for between $X and a maximum of $Y. How much flexibility is there?”

Negotiating your salary: step two

If the interviewer declines your request and asks again how much you want, reply with your predetermined salary range, which maximizes the chances of finding a match with the employer’s financial parameters and minimizes the odds of you asking for too much or too little. After this, back off the salary question and address benefits and other questions.

Any more stress on the money question and you risk driving that employer into the arms of another equally qualified candidate. Remember, your first job is about getting your career started, not wringing every last penny out of salary negotiations. You should be more concerned with non-salary questions of fit and opportunity. You can find more advice on determining realistic ranges for yourself and questions to ask during final negotiations in Knock Em Dead—Secrets & Strategies For First-Time Job Seekers plus advice on how to start on the right foot, ensure job security, and win promotions.

Copyright 2014. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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