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Your ultimate guide to negotiating salary as a fresh grad

Ian Cooper

Career Counsellor
You’ve spent years working your way through university. You chose a major, studied hard (hard enough, anyway), got good grades, and earned your degree. Now you’re eager to start your first graduate job — and you’ve got an offer letter on the table.

The salary, though, isn’t quite what you had hoped for. Do you negotiate?

Even if they don’t follow through, most fresh grads will ask themselves this question at some point during their initial hiring process. Whether out of financial need or an eagerness to get ahead, you probably find the prospect of turning a $50,000 offer into $75,000 (or even $55,000) appealing. Who wouldn’t?

But appealing may not always be the same thing as wise. Here’s what you should know when deciding whether to go for it.

If You’re Feeling Nervous, That’s Okay!

Before we dive into the particulars of when and how to discuss a higher salary, we want to let you in on a secret: Not only does every other fresh grad in your position feel nervous too, but even the person you’re negotiating with may feel a little uncomfortable.

For a fresh grad, it is inherently intimidating to look a prospective employer in the eye and ask for more. Besides the typical power imbalance — to fill a graduate job, employers can usually pick from a pool of candidates while you may not have even one other offer lined up — talking salary touches on something else: your sense of self-worth. 

Whether consciously or otherwise, many of us tend to conflate our income with our value. So when we negotiate, we tend to feel anxious, because all of a sudden, that value feels up in the air. You might find yourself wondering, “If I’m only getting $X when my friend is making $2X, what does that say about me?”

In other words, you find yourself feeling vulnerable. What you may not realize, though, is that vulnerability often cuts both ways.

After all, while your hiring manager knows they can fill the position even if you turn down the offer, they’ve still spent time and energy bringing you through the recruitment process. For even an entry-level role, this represents an investment.

Also remember: the person on the other side of the table is just that — a person. And while there are some crusty, hard-boiled characters out there who relish approaching negotiation like combat, most people genuinely want to get along with each other and arrive at an agreeable outcome.

The typical hiring manager would probably love to make you an offer that puts a big smile on your face. But they’re also responsible for staying within a budget, hitting their performance metrics, and supporting the needs of the larger organization. Navigating that tension can sometimes be difficult even for a professional.

So going in, be mindful that you’re both just two people doing your best. Try not to take the process too seriously, and be gentle with yourself and whoever you’re dealing with. 

You’ll both feel better for it.

Do You Risk Losing Your Offer By Negotiating?

If you’re thinking about negotiating, the first question on your mind is probably this: Might the company just rescind my offer if I ask for more?

The answer is almost certainly no — unless you act like a jerk. While whoever you’re negotiating with may have little flexibility when it comes to adjusting your proposed salary (for graduate jobs, especially, companies tend to have set, narrow salary bands), they also know that some back-and-forth is a common part of the process. 

However, this understanding will quickly dry up should you be anything other than respectful in how you approach the conversation. Making demands, acting entitled, and displaying a lack of self-awareness are the easiest ways to turn a “yes” into a hard “no”.

There are rare cases in which a hiring manager will shut the door on you entirely after even a polite request to discuss compensation further. Again, you’re dealing with a person, and people can sometimes react emotionally, even irrationally. However, that sort of response is usually a major red flag about that company’s culture and a sign that you’ve probably saved yourself the trouble of enduring a particularly unpleasant work experience.

Why You Shouldn’t Negotiate (Yet)

If asking for more is unlikely to put your offer at risk, shouldn’t you always do it? Well, not necessarily.

For most experienced job seekers, negotiating is a given. However, the calculus may look different for fresh grads. Why? Leverage.

Sure, you’ve got a great CV. But so do a dozen other applicants — and unless you already have significant work experience, you probably can’t demonstrate the professional chops needed to distinguish yourselves from the pack. A glut of similar candidates means that employers can typically set a specific salary target and stick to it while still finding a solid fit for the position. If you don’t sign on, somebody else will. 

In short, you may not be able to justify a higher rate. Just because a company is highly unlikely to pull your offer outright doesn’t mean that they won’t be comfortable telling you that the deal on the table is the best you’re going to get. Are you ready to swallow your pride and sign anyway?

You may also want to consider the consequences of asking for more money and getting it. Let’s say your new employer has hired five fresh grads. Four of them accepted a $50,000 offer, but you boldly pushed for $75,000, and to your surprise, the hiring manager agreed. (Maybe she didn’t want to delay her vacation to interview replacement candidates.) 

Congratulations! But now you’re the one making 50 percent more than your new colleagues while doing the same job. Unless you’re prepared to deliver 50 percent more value, you could be setting yourself up for extra scrutiny, stress, and potentially, a spot on the chopping block should your firm start making redundancies. And while many employers may respect your willingness to ask for a higher salary, some might see it as greed (when coming from a fresh grad). This could colour how you are perceived, especially in a small organization where the person hiring you may also be your supervisor.

In the long run, a good reputation could do more for your earnings than a quick jump ahead of your peers. A year from now, when your boss is deciding which of you to promote, which candidate looks more appealing: Candidate A, who took her initial offer and quietly established herself as a top performer in the role, or Candidate B, who has struggled to justify his higher salary? That promotion (and the one after that) would deliver a considerably higher return over the course of your career than a bump at the beginning of your first year on the job. 

For many grads, then, the wise choice may be to accept the salary that’s on the table. But there’s a caveat (and it’s a big one). If you choose not to negotiate upfront, you should plan on doing so down the road.

Why? You may well achieve a better outcome by agreeing to an initial offer, diving in headfirst to your new role, and delivering the kind of results that make your employer start to wonder how they ever got along without you (or, at least giving a strong, steady performance). Six months or a year from now, when you ask for a raise, you won’t be just another fresh grad, but a valuable member of the team. You’ll have leverage, and more likely than not, the sincere respect and appreciation of whoever you’re negotiating with. 

That’s a different conversation entirely.

Why You Should Negotiate (and How to Do It Right)

But what if you do want to roll the dice? It doesn’t hurt to ask, right? Especially if you’ve taken the time to research market rates and know what you’re worth (you should always do that).

Before we dig into how to bring up a salary bump, let’s start by pointing out one unequivocal good that comes from negotiating: experience! 

Many people change jobs a dozen or more times over the course of a career. Odds are, you’ll find yourself having a conversation about salary every few years (and even if you stay at one company, you’ll still want a raise), so by negotiating now, when the stakes are fairly low, you’ll be gaining valuable practice pushing through your discomfort and putting yourself out there.

Think of negotiating like riding a bike: The first time, you’ll probably fall down — or at least not ride very well. That’s a useful experience all by itself, as making friends with failure is actually an essential part of success. But you’ll also be setting yourself up to feel a little more comfortable the next time around. By getting that first fall out of the way now, you’ll be better prepared for conversations down the road that could open the door to more significant returns.

Consider, too, your specific circumstances. If you’ve earned top marks and a degree in a field that’s both highly specialized and in-demand — say, blockchain development — you may find yourself fielding opportunities from a half-dozen competing firms. Then, you can and should (respectfully!) ask for the moon. Or if your proposed compensation package includes an equity component, pushing that number even a little higher could pay off big later on.

So maybe you’re a hotshot software engineer — or maybe you’ve got a degree in literature and some chutzpah. If you want to negotiate, here’s how to go about it.

1. Pick Your Timing

We do want to reiterate that for many fresh grads, you may see more success negotiating after you’ve proven yourself on the job. But if you choose to do so during your initial hiring process, when should you raise the issue?

For starters, don’t mention money until AFTER you’ve got an offer on the table. 

Why? Because if you make it clear up front that you’ll be pushing to make more than whatever the company plans on offering, you’re just begging to be eliminated from consideration. If nine candidates don’t mention salary during a first interview and a tenth does, that tenth candidate probably won’t get a call-back. Plus, holding off gives you more time to build rapport with your negotiating partner over successive rounds of interviews, which will pay off when the time does come. 

However, once you do have an offer, you’ll need to be the one to raise the issue of salary. Companies are unlikely to ask you about your salary expectations for a graduate job because they typically don’t need to. You’ll have to put yourself out there and do it — which leads us to the question of how to ask?

2. Be Respectful and Collaborative

We can’t emphasize this enough: Be respectful in how you make your request. 

This is good advice no matter how much leverage you have. After all, no one likes being talked down to, and few things will scuttle a negotiation faster than one party feeling disrespected by another. But since we’ve already established that you probably have less leverage than a more experienced professional, we want to reiterate that a lack of tact or a sense of entitlement on your part is almost guaranteed to not only result in you failing to get a higher salary, but risking your offer entirely.

Even if you’re genuinely willing to pass on an offer that doesn’t meet your target number, remember: how others perceive you matters. Behave badly now and it will probably come back around to haunt you. So frame any request in a way that preserves a potential employer’s dignity and your reputation.

Trust Your Common Sense

So then, how to negotiate respectfully? First off, trust your common sense. Think about how you would want to be approached if you were on the other side of the table and use that to guide your actions. 

Would you rather receive a demand or a friendly request for a conversation? The latter, right? If you give others the same courtesy that you want for yourself, they’ll usually return the gesture.

Be Tactful

Always be gentle in how you raise the issue. Instead of bluntly asking, “Can we negotiate?”, take a more relaxed approach. Try this:

“I’m really excited at the prospect of coming on board and think I can add a ton of value. But just out of curiosity, is there any room for movement on the salary?”

That’s a good place to start. If you want to be a little bolder, you can change that to:

“Just out of curiosity, how much room do you have for movement on salary?” 

(This phrasing encourages whoever you’re speaking with to presume that some room does exist.) 

If you’re fortunate enough to have another offer on the table, you can be even more low-key in how you ask. Consider saying something like: 

“Could you help me with a decision I’ve got to make? I’m really excited about the prospect of working with you, but I’ve also got an offer from another firm for more money — and I’d love to get your advice on what to do.”

Think Cooperation Rather Than Competition

Finally, consider your mindset. While many of us may instinctively think of a negotiation as a zero-sum game between adversarial parties, you’ll go further by remembering that what you’re really doing is having a conversation with a potential teammate. Instead of gearing up for battle, this is a terrific opportunity to collaborate!

Ideally, you’ll be able to find a solution that works for both parties. Ask yourself: “What’s the middle ground here?” How can you get to a point where you’re making enough to feel good about showing up for your new job while also delivering value for your team?

3. Communicate In-Person or Over Zoom (Unless…)

For most people, the best way to have a conversation about salary is face-to-face, whether in person or over Zoom. A phone call is also an acceptable backup option.  

While it may feel safer to try and raise the question over email (or even through a text message), you may find that you have trouble striking the right note. After all, so much of communication is based on context clues like body language and tone of voice that you can run the risk of miscommunicating or even unintentionally insulting the other party when you try to say something delicate in writing. 

Meanwhile, a conversation can be full of possibilities. Not only are you more likely to convey your request appropriately, but you open the door to having an honest, human experience with another person — and who knows where that can lead?

Unless you have supreme confidence in your command of the written word or struggle with anxiety to the point where you feel like you won’t be able to properly express yourself in person, we suggest facing your fears (remember, it’s totally normal to feel nervous!) and speaking directly with your hiring manager. You’ll probably get further. 

4. Consider Your Audience

Here’s something we haven’t considered yet: What if your point of contact at the company isn’t actually the one deciding on your salary? You might gather your courage and respectfully make your request only to hear, “I’m sorry, but you’re going to need to talk to my boss.”

While this may feel like an obstacle, you can often turn it into a genuine opportunity. When deciding whether to meet with you, the real decision-maker will first ask your point of contact, “Is Candidate X (you) worth negotiating with?”

This means that if you can win him over, your point of contact can become a powerful ally. The boss is much more likely to see you in a positive light if a trusted subordinate is already in your corner. So make the extra effort: Pitch them anyway and position your ask as a favor. Say something like:

“I’d be so grateful if you’d pass my request up to your boss. Would you help me out?”

Who could resist saying yes?

5. Pitch Big and Slide

Let’s say whoever you’re speaking with is open to negotiating up from $50,000. They’ll probably ask you if you’ve got a number in mind.

Your first instinct may be to quote them a range: $65,000 to $75,000 (the figure you really want). That feels less aggressive and more agreeable than just saying $75,000 flat out, while still putting your dream number on the table.

Resist your first instinct. While you think you’re gently introducing $75,000, all your hiring manager will hear is $65,000. They’ll probably counter with $55,000 and best-case scenario, you’ll meet in the middle at $60,000. 

Instead, pitch big and slide. If you want $75,000, ask for it — just be willing to compromise. Say, “My ideal salary is $75,000,” and then pause and wait for the response. If your hiring manager is still willing to counter, you’ll probably end up at a higher middle ground than if you had started with the lower figure. 

In most negotiations, all that really matters is your first number and their first number. Everything else is just haggling over where you’ll meet.

6. Justify Your Request

Of course, no matter how bold you’re willing to be, you probably won’t get very far unless you can justify WHY you deserve a higher salary. There are several ways to do this.

The best option, of course, is to have several offers on the table. Then, you’re well within your rights to go to your first choice and use that leverage to your advantage. 

Barring another offer, though, you’ll want to have data to support your request. Look up the average salary for fresh grads in your position (Hint: We publish an annual graduate salary report!). If your offer is below average, that gives you a reason to ask for more.

Prosple Salary guide 2022

Another factor is need. Let’s say that an extra $10,000 would make a real difference to you — you’ve got a baby at home or a sick parent that you’re caring for. If you’re honest and direct about what you need and why you need it, you may be surprised by the outcome.

Finally, consider unconventional options. Are you willing to become an entrepreneur or go back to school instead of accepting a job offer? You can frame it like this: 

“I’m trying to decide between working here and starting my own business (or getting a master’s degree).”

Even though you don’t actually have another offer, you’ve still created the impression that you’re entertaining other options. If you sound convincing, that may be enough to prompt at least a little movement.

7. Get Creative

There is usually more to your compensation than just your salary. If your potential employer won’t agree on the number you’re looking for (or even meet you in the middle), you can think outside the box.

For example, let’s say you’re in a sales role. You could bet on yourself and offer to accept a slightly lower base salary in exchange for a higher commission on each sale. If you do well, you’ll make more money overall — while creating zero risk for your new firm.

You can also consider perks (although don’t make things too complicated or overplay your hand. Again, you’ve probably got little leverage here). Some companies are willing to offer a one-time signing bonus (which costs less than an increase in annual salary). Depending on the circumstances, you could also discuss flexible hours, working remotely, and even something like a wellness stipend to pay for your gym membership or yoga class. 

Here’s one area where taking a collaborative approach can really pay off. If you’ve got a good relationship with your hiring manager and bring a friendly, cooperative attitude to the conversation, they may well find something that they can give you beyond your base pay.

8. Be Willing to Fail

Finally, remember, you can do everything right and still fail. While you probably won’t risk your offer if you negotiate respectfully, you need to be prepared to hear “no,”  and then either walk away or gracefully accept the position anyway. 

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing! Failure is a part of life and confidence comes from falling flat on your face and realizing that you’re still okay. Respect each negotiation as an opportunity to practice, give it your best shot, and accept the outcome.

Another opportunity will always come along.