Throughout our lives as students, we work hard to get a good education that will lead us to a solid job and fruitful career. But we aren't prepared for what happens after graduation — responsibilities such as finding a place to live, getting that first job and paying rent and other bills.
You can't just take the first job offer that comes along and assume it will all work out. It's important to find the right job that will pay enough so you can afford your rent and bills – plus have enough left over to spend and save. And what a lot of college graduates don't realize is that you can – and should – negotiate your first salary.
"I think many students are more concerned about getting a job that they simply accept the first offer," said Anna Berrios, a licensed professional counselor at Ohio State University's Buckeye Careers.
Just 38% of new graduates negotiate with their employers when they get that first job offer, according to personal finance site nerdwallet. But meanwhile, most employers actually expect to negotiate salary — even for a first job — so they build that in. That means, if you don't even try, you could be leaving money on the table!
Mattathia Komla, a current MBA candidate at Fordham's Gabelli School of Business, said after she got her undergraduate degree, she was just happy to get a job.
"I didn't even know what a typical starting salary would be," Komla said. "I was naïve to the fact that I could negotiate my salary."
She figured that, since she had little experience, she didn't have leverage to refuse or negotiate the offer. So, she settled for an offer way below her asking point.
The wage gap
Everyone should be negotiating their salary but it's even more important for women to advocate for themselves, when you consider the wage gap.
Women earn 82 cents for every dollar a man earns, according to PayScale's State of the Gender Pay Gap 2021 report. For women of color, that number drops to around 75 cents.
More from College Voices:
How do you land your first job out of college?
Stress. Anxiety. Procrastination. Self-doubt. Don't fall into these traps in college
Why Black and Latinx women are more likely to struggle with impostor syndrome—and how to overcome it
"Some women feel uncomfortable discussing salary and are hesitant to ask for more," Berrios said.
It certainly doesn't help that a lot of us didn't have discussions about finance in school or in the home.
And, Berrios adds – cultural conditioning and stereotypes may play a role. Some women may worry about coming off as pushy or rude if they ask for more – something most men don't have to think about.
"Instead, all women — especially marginalized women — need to value themselves and be assertive when communicating their value," Berrios said.
The wage gap has gotten a lot of attention in recent years and we're finally starting to see some progress.
"Women are negotiating more than they have in the past, although men continue to negotiate for pay at higher rates," confirmed Gloria L. Blackwell, vice president of fellowships and programs for the American Association of University Women. "It's becoming more common for women to negotiate, particularly younger women" in the 18-34 age range, she said, citing research from global staffing firm Robert Half.
Know your worth
Now, you can't just walk in and ask for more money than they are offering just because you know that statistically you are likely to earn less. You must do your research and go in armed with the knowledge of what you are worth.
First step: Know the starting salary in your field.
Berrios advises students to always be looking for open positions, emphasizing the importance of building out personal networks from talking to other job seekers, reviewing business trade publications and using job listings. You'll learn a lot about salaries from talking to people and regularly scanning job listings. And, of course, there are specific tools on job sites like PayScale and Glassdoor that can help you pinpoint salary ranges for jobs in your field.
Tiona Ryan, a student at the University of Kentucky graduating this December, was very aware of the wage gap and knew that she would be at a greater disadvantage.
"Growing up in a single parent household, my mom advised me and my sister that people are going to set very low expectations for you," Ryan said. "So, you should set those expectations for yourself and never be surprised by what you can offer."
That's why she's always been motivated to be in a competitive position when applying for jobs, which has helped her secure a job before graduating.
She did some research and figured out that the starting salary for a young professional in human resources would be about $40,000 a year.
"I'm very familiar with Glassdoor and LinkedIn Premium," Ryan said. "They are great tools to access salary ranges for any field."
You also need to go into a salary negotiation armed with a few bullet points about what you bring to the table. Why should they hire you over someone else? Why are you worth what you are asking of them?
Call out anything that sets you apart and use language from the job description. So, if they're looking for a self-starter who can juggle a lot of tasks at once, use those words to describe yourself and even give examples of when you displayed those characteristics in a job, internship, or other project.
"You are the best ambassador for yourself!" said Abisola Akinkuowo, a Program Manager for AAUW's START Smart program, aimed at educating college students about salaries.
Look for other benefits
Don't play hardball. Do your research and ask for what you want but recognize when they're not willing to budge on salary.
What you can do, if your request for a higher salary is rejected, is see if there are some other ways they might be willing to sweeten the offer.
"[S]tudents need to be mindful that there are benefits that are negotiable," said Berrios. "For example, tuition reimbursement or moving expenses."
You can explain that the offer is lower than you were hoping but ask if there are any other benefits they might be willing to include in the offer. This could be anything from cost-of-living adjustments to education/training programs, expense accounts, time off, bonuses and relocation experiences.
So, how do you go about negotiating your first salary?
Know your strategy
It's important to have a plan and know how this negotiation will go – don't just wing it.
First, don't bring up salary negotiations until AFTER you have received a formal offer, Akinkuowo advises.
And if they ask you for a salary number first, don't just blurt one out. Give them a range based on your research.
And if you're going to ask for the high end of the range – be prepared to back it up with why you deserve it. Cite your experience and qualities that make you a perfect fit for the job and the organization.
Practice! Practice! Practice!
This is one of the most important conversations you will have in your life – what you earn matters to every other thing you do. So, take the time to practice going over the bullet points of what you bring to the table and how you would approach a salary question. Work out any stutters and stumbles you might have so you are relaxed, and your answers are smooth when you get to the conversation.
Think of it like a test: If you study for it, you go in a lot more confident! And confidence is what is going to get you the job – and the salary.
Akinkuowo is driven to share this information with others to empower women around the world.
"It's not just about us. It's about generational wealth!" Akinkuowo said.
So, when you negotiate, you are raising the bar for yourself — and for those who follow in your footsteps.
For more information on how you can prepare to negotiate your salary, check out the AAUW's free program Work Smart Online, a resource for women to learn how to negotiate their salaries online.
CNBC's "College Voices″ is a series written by CNBC interns from universities across the country about getting their college education, managing their own money and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Jennifer Iroh is a student at the Ohio State University, pursuing a bachelor's degree in health sciences, with a minor in social psychology. She's currently an intern for CNBC's human resources department. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.