'They'll never offer you the highest amount first': 3 recent grads on the importance of negotiating salary right out of college

Gen Zers like Samantha Lenger are increasingly comfortable discussing and negotiating their salary, even early on in their careers.
Photo by Alexa Blazevich | Graphic design by Gene Kim

Samantha Lenger remembers the day she got not one, but two, job offers just weeks into her senior year of college: The North Carolina State University business major was attending the Grace Hopper conference, an annual networking event for women and nonbinary people in tech, in the fall of 2019.

Despite her excitement and one offer she considered her "dream role for an amount of money I never expected," she didn't accept either right away — with the ball in her court, she knew it was time to negotiate. After a call to her mom to celebrate, she immediately rang up her mentor for his advice on how to make the ask.

The oldest members of Gen Z are gaining ground in the workforce and leading many conversations around salary transparency and pay equity. They expect their future employer to be upfront about pay: 64% of Gen Z job-seekers, and 55% of job-seekers overall, won't apply to a job posting that lacks wage or salary information, according to an April 2023 Joblist survey of nearly 30,000 job-seekers.

Young workers also have more access to pay data than ever through online resources and new laws that require businesses in some states and cities to list ranges on job openings.

Still, negotiating salary is a thorny topic for even career veterans with decades of experience, let alone for the youngest professionals launching their careers. CNBC Make It spoke with recent grads about how they managed to boost their comp packages through college and beyond.

For accurate salary data, it pays to ask around

When Lenger was presented with each offer, she first noticed that the salaries were already higher than what she'd researched online through sites like Glassdoor and LinkedIn.

At the advice of her mentor, a co-worker at a former internship, Lenger asked her friends getting offers at the same conference about the numbers they were seeing. She also tapped a few people in her network who were about one to three years into their careers.

Lenger made sure to put her numbers out there first: "My offer is around this ballpark. Does that seem about right compared with what you're seeing?"

This approach can make the conversation feel less invasive, Lenger says: "You don't have to come out and ask them how much money they make." It's also helpful to know that most people wish it was less taboo to talk about money with their colleagues but are too afraid to do so, according to a recent Monster survey. Gen Z and millennial workers are more eager than other generations to talk salaries in the workplace.

Talking openly about salary takes some practice, too. With a few years of work experience under her belt, Lenger, now 24, has since negotiated a handful of her own raises and new roles since her first job out of college. She now works as a freelance marketer and negotiates on behalf of her business all the time.

You can negotiate an internship, too

Sarah Wang, 21, used a similar strategy to negotiate internships while still in school as a communications major at UCLA.

"I was so intimidated to negotiate because I was so early on in my college career and didn't think I had any leverage to do so," Wang says.

Ahead of her first summer internship after sophomore year, she cold-messaged former interns at companies she was interviewing with for their advice on making an impression. She kept her messages direct but polite: "I saw you did this internship last summer and would appreciate any insights you can share."

Sarah Wang, 21, is a 2023 UCLA grad and negotiated several communications internships throughout college.
Anika Chakrabarti

Once she clinched an offer, she'd follow up to thank her contacts and update them with her offer letter. Then she'd ask, "Could you give me any insight into whether this was as comparable offer to the ones you and your peers received? Were you able to successfully negotiate them?"

Based on those conversations, Wang would talk to the recruiter and be transparent about where her research was coming from: "I know previous interns were able to negotiate $X more per hour, and my qualifications are similar, so I believe I'm eligible for this higher amount."

There's reason to believe an increasing share of college seniors are thinking about taking an internship after graduation. Search interest for the question "Can you do internships after graduation?" increased by 1,850% between January 2021 and March 2023, according to Google search data from Semrush provided to CNBC Make It.

Use competing offers as leverage

Another major negotiation boost: Having a competing offer you can leverage for more money at your top choice company

Both Lenger and Wang recall using competing job and internship offers to negotiate for more money at their top choice employers.

Lenger laid out her competing offer and negotiation in an email: "I said, 'I'm super excited and really appreciate the offer but have one at a similar company offering XYZ' — which was basically a bigger sign-on bonus and larger overall package — 'Can you meet me there?'"

The recruiter came back a week later with a $10,000 boost to the salary, a $5,000 sign-on bonus and more stock options that all amounted to a roughly $33,000 larger compensation package from the original offer.

Wang, who eventually landed an internship with TikTok, used a higher offer from another tech company competitor to leverage a $2 bump to her hourly rate.

"It helps to show, 'I think I'm worth this, and so does this other major competitor you have,'" Wang says. "It's hard as a recruiter to say no to that."

What to negotiate beyond base salary

Brooke Thadeus says negotiating her first full-time job after college was always a given. The 25-year-old works in health care in the Washington, D.C., area and even took a negotiations class during grad school.

She says it's normal to feel pressured to immediately accept an offer on the spot but advises new grads to ask for the offer in writing and then take their time making a decision.

"You want to make sure to see the terms and conditions of the job and know what the compensation looks like before accepting," Thadeus says. "You can say yes on the phone and in an offer letter see something you had no idea would be in there."

Brooke Thadeus, 25, learned how to negotiate her compensation package after taking a negotiations class during grad school.
Courtesy of subject

Once you get an offer in writing, reflect on what else may be negotiable, she adds, including: the job title, start date, a moving stipend, a sign-on or retention bonus, tuition assistance and more.

Thadeus is also a proponent of going back to the recruiter with an email of your negotiation points — if you have a competing offer, mention that here — plus three to four points of your most relevant qualifications to back up why you're worth your desired salary. She recommends listing a dollar amount roughly $5,000 higher than your target to give you room if HR counteroffers.

Thadeus ended up taking a job in which she negotiated a 10% increase in the base salary, plus a health-care stipend, moving assistance and annual bonus allotment.

'They'll never offer you the highest amount first'

All the recent grads CNBC Make It interviewed say they plan to continue negotiating throughout their careers.

Wang learned a lot about the hiring process after interning with TikTok's acquisition department and saw how few people tried to negotiate. "I've never seen a job offer set at a salary or signing and stock package without room for negotiation. It's always a range, and they'll never offer you the highest amount first," she says.

"Anyone in the hiring game expects people to negotiate or at least doesn't think it's out of the question" to do so, Lenger adds. "It's not like they've never seen this before."

The job market may not be as strong today as it has been in recent years when businesses were on a tear to re-staff after pandemic-related cuts. Still, Lenger says it's worthwhile for new grads to feel empowered to at least see what's on the table.

Hiring teams are "still expecting you to negotiate even during the current economic climate, there might just be less room than there used to be," she adds. "I got $30,000 more, but I don't know that I'd expect that today."

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