In a recent talk with college students about pay negotiation (at Skidmore College – go Thoroughbreds!), lots of questions came up that don’t typically arise with my mid-career and executive salary negotiation clients. So I thought I’d write a post just for the new college grad.

Here are my 5 best salary negotiation tips for recent college grads:

  1. Get clear.
  2. Your pay package is more than just base pay.
  3. Do your homework, and it’s okay to have questions.
  4. Use the 7 magic words.
  5. It’s not personal.
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Get clear.

The most important part of your pay negotiation (and arguably, the most overlooked) isn’t about pay at all. It’s getting clear on what you want out of a job – and an employer. Papering the universe with your resume might feel productive, but ultimately, it doesn’t serve you (no matter what your uncle says).

Are you targeting a specific location, or are you flexible (and how flexible are you)? Do you have principles that you want to see reflected in the place you work (things like sustainability, community service, “work hard/play hard,” or justice)? Are you looking for a large/small, private/public, profit/nonprofit organization? And what types of roles fit your education, experience, and career goals?

It sounds a little counterintuitive, right? Why would you want to narrow things down? It’s pretty much impossible to make a case as to why you’re the perfect candidate for a wide range of jobs and employers. And it’s hard for other people to help refer you without a specific goal in mind.

When you can clearly articulate what exactly you’re looking for, it’ll be easier to target specific employers and get help networking, which can help you connect with the right job for you.

Your pay package is more than just base pay.

Base pay

When most people think about their pay packages, they think about base pay. But in reality, base pay is just one element. Granted, for your first job out of college, it’s almost certainly the largest element in your pay package, but there are other things most jobs will have, too.

Annual bonus

An annual bonus might be part of your pay package. If you’re eligible, your offer letter will generally tell you what your bonus target is (typically a percentage of your base pay), explain that you have to be a strong performer to receive it, and when your first payout might happen.


Benefits, like paid time off or vacation, health insurance, and retirement savings are pretty common. Both the benefits and the amount you have to pay every month (or paycheck) can vary widely between companies.


Relocation benefits or a “relo” allowance is relatively common if the company wants you to move your stuff across the country or the world. These benefits can also vary widely from place to place.


Equity, stock options, and/or RSUs aren’t common in jobs right out of undergrad (much more common for grad school graduates), but some high-tech companies do offer them.

If you’re in the enviable position of comparing offers, it’s important to look at how the entire packages stack up, and not just the base pay numbers.

Do your homework, and it’s okay to have questions.

Don’t forget to do your research. There are lots of great sources of information about the going market rate for the new college grad in different locations. I recommend starting with your college’s placement office – a great source of information, and from people who really super-want you to be successful in your job hunt.


Other sources include job posting sites (like, workplace information sites (like, and friends who are looking for similar jobs. Make sure you check out the website for the company you’re interviewing with, too. Many organizations have a page dedicated to their pay and benefits.

And read everything that comes with your offer letter/email. Every. Thing. There will usually be information about benefits (and relocation and stock, if applicable). And information about the company itself.


You are definitely going to have questions. Like, “what is PTO?” (Paid Time Off, btw). That’s natural and normal. If you don’t understand something that’s included in your offer, ask the hiring manager or HR person to explain things to you.

Once you’re at the offer stage, the company is really hoping you say yes, and getting answers to your questions can help you feel more comfortable.

But remember the homework piece, too. If you have tons of questions that can be easily answered by reading the stuff the organization already gave you, that can get irritating after a while. You want to save that energy for negotiating!

Use the 7 magic words.

Salary negotiations can be tricky, especially if you’re doing it for the first time.

My best tip for first-timers is to think about what you’d like more of, and then use these 7 magic words: “What kind of flexibility do you have?”

Not, “Do you have any flexibility?” or, “Are you willing to negotiate?” or anything like that. Just the 7 words. Even if you’re already okay with the offer. Even if you hate the idea of negotiating.

As a new college grad, you might not get more of what you’re looking for (base pay, vacation days, relocation allowance, or whatever it is), but what if you do?

Try the 7 magic words and let me know how they work for you! And if you want even more tips on pay negotiation, check out this post, this post, and this post.

It’s not personal.

The job hunt and pay negotiations feel intensely personal, because their outcomes affect us personally. But the answer to the question, “why do I keep getting rejected?” isn’t “because you’re a bad person.” It’s because it’s not a good match. And trust me, that’s something that you’d much rather discover before you accept the job.

Sometimes there’s no match because you haven’t been clear about what it is that you want and what you can offer. More often, though, it’s because the employer is trying to solve a specific problem that they think another candidate is a better match for.

If you can remember that hiring managers and talent acquisition experts come to work wanting to do a good job (just like pretty much everybody but sociopaths do), it can take a bit of the personal sting out of the match/no match process.

Are you a new college grad in the middle of a job search, and need some help with negotiation? Here’s a link to my book, Pay Up! and one to my online course and coaching services.