As a recent graduate, one of the most challenging aspects of a job interview could be figuring out how to answer salary expectations with no experience. You don’t want to aim too high and potentially price yourself out of the role, but you also don’t want to settle for less than the salary that you deserve.
However, it’s important that you also have realistic expectations. According to a recent study, undergraduates tend to overestimate their starting salaries. While they expected to make $103,880 right after getting that diploma, the reality is that the average starting salary is between $55,000 and $58,000.
With that in mind, how do you even start when it comes to knowing what to ask for and how to handle that conversation? Here’s how to answer the question about salary expectations with no experience to make sure it’s as close to what you want and deserve.
Why do companies ask for salary expectations?
While talking about money can be uncomfortable, it’s also a critical step in the hiring process—especially at the beginning.
“Companies and recruiters want to know up front if your salary expectation is what they would consider reasonable for their position and what parameters they have when extending an offer,” says Stacie Haller, Chief Career Advisor at ResumeBuilder. “They don’t want to waste anyone’s time if a candidate is seeking a salary that does not match with their pay scales.”
Jeff H. Sipe, a consultant at Practice Interviews, agrees, adding that, “Specifically, for entry level roles, it is still important for these internal stakeholders to understand and manage expectations from the beginning of the process. It allows the candidate’s point of contact to utilize this information to their advantage if they do decide to hire them.”
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“There’s always a salary range for a role—not a static salary figure—and part of the hiring manager’s job in positioning you within this range is asking for your own expectations,” says Rosie McCarthy, founder of Badass Careers. “Imagine if the salary was far lower than you had hoped for when you finally receive an offer four interviews later.”
In fact, even if the recruiter doesn’t ask for salary expectations up front, McCarthy recommends everyone—including new grads and career changers—start that conversation proactively if it hasn’t come up by the first interview, saying something like, “I’ve really enjoyed our chat today and am definitely excited by the role. I want to make sure I am being respectful of our time, and would hate to go through the entire interview process and not be aligned on compensation. Do you have a ballpark range for the salary for this role?”
If a company isn’t willing to start that conversation, it’s a sign that they might not be willing to work with you in other ways—which could be a red flag.
6 tips on how to answer “what is your expected salary?” as a fresh graduate
To that point, when a recruiter or hiring manager asks, “What are your salary expectations?” you don’t want to be caught off-guard or appear unprepared. There are six key steps to make sure you’re armed and ready to go.
1. Do your research
“When you’re starting out, you may feel pressure to accept the first offer that will kickstart your career,” Goredema says. “Getting experience under your belt is important, but what you earn matters at every step in your career, so make time to do salary research in advance.”
“The best thing I can recommend is talking to real people—both men and women because the gender pay gap is real!—to gather data and insights on the opportunity in front of you,” McCarthy says.
“You can reach out to people on LinkedIn who have similar roles to the one you’re going for, friends and family, friends of friends, current and ex-colleagues, previous bosses, people you met at a networking event, and so on, asking them, ‘I'm going for this role, and based on my research so far, it seems like this type of role has a salary range between $X and $Y. Does that sound about right to you? Thanks for supporting a [young graduate / woman / career changer / fellow (profession)] out!’”
2. Have a base number in mind
Part of your research should include a hard look at your predicted expenses and goals, especially if it’s the first time you’re living on your own. Figure out how much pay you personally need (and want) to not only survive, but to live comfortably.
“My advice for early career professionals is to use a 10-15% range, with the salary you’re targeting as the bottom anchor,” Goredema says. “For example, if you’re looking to earn $65,000, you would share a range of $65,000 to $74,000.”
McCarthy adds that base pay is always your most important number to consider, because that’s what the company will use to calculate any bonuses and future pay raises, retirement contributions, etc., so spend most of your effort here.
“My rule of thumb is firstly to push back and get the range out of them first,” she says. “Then, you want to ensure you anchor yourself nice and high within the typical range. If a role is typically paying $55,000 to $65,000, you could say something like, ‘I’m currently being considered for roles between $63,000 and $70,000 depending on the total package. How does this sit with your budget for the role?’”
3. Consider additional benefits you can negotiate
Sometimes certain factors mean you can’t get a higher salary, but the job could provide great growth for someone starting out. That’s the time to look for additional benefits that could make the position worthwhile.
“At the final offer stage, if the base salary feels fair or you’ve already negotiated up, and you are looking for something to sweeten the deal, work out what factors are most important to your life priorities, goals, and desires,” McCarthy says. “For some people this might look like getting rock-solid healthcare or insurance, for someone else this might look like flexible working options written into their contract.”
Here are things McCarthy suggests you can negotiate, outside of your base salary:
- One-off signing or sign-on bonus
- Performance bonus
- Equity or stock options
- Paid leave/additional PTO
- Work location
- Work hours
- Severance package
- Training budget
- Role title/status
- Flexible working arrangements
- Healthcare and insurances
- Clothing allowance [where relevant] or free products
- A wellness budget/mental health days/gym access
- Work travel
4. Highlight your value to the company
The fact that you might not have years of industry experience doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t provide incredible value to a company. When interviewing, highlight your strongest skills and compare them to the job description, adding in your education, related industry experience like internships and jobs, leadership roles in college or employment, and any desirable skills and certifications you have.
“Employers more and more value what we used to call ‘soft skills’ that now I prefer to call ‘professional skills,’" Haller says. “Think about the projects and team collaborations you have worked on, what other activities you’ve done leading, mentoring others, etc. in clubs or other extracurricular activities. Show how you have quickly learned new technologies, and be sure to list all your skills applicable in a work environment.”
McCarthy agrees, adding that employers don’t just pay you based on what you can deliver today—they’re investing in your long-term potential. “Even if you don’t tick all of the boxes on paper, look at all of the incredible assets you bring to the table above and beyond the job description that can’t be trained,’” she says.
“Mindset is everything. This is important for everyone when it comes to salary negotiation, but even more so for new graduates and career changers who tend to have more fears about not being the ‘perfect’ candidate, and therefore see themselves as worth less.”
“Think about the ‘priceless’ parts of you that can’t be trained—your leadership potential, your self-awareness, the way your mind ticks, your purpose and values, the unique way you approach problems, your emotional intelligence,” she adds. “This is worth a lot of money on the market compared to hard skills that can easily be trained.”
5. Practice, practice, practice
It’s cliché to say that practice makes perfect, but that’s true when it comes to not only negotiating a salary, but also how you can justify the reasons for your ask. Practice responses out loud with a friend or family member several times before talking with the hiring manager.
This is a chance for your potential employer to observe your communication and people skills, and candidates who do their homework, prepare, and confidently present themselves increase their chance of success.
“If you know the range of salaries from doing your homework, then you can respond by letting the interviewer know you have done your homework, know what the market is paying for your level of experience for this position, and that you’re looking to be paid fairly for the value you bring to the table,” Haller says.
6. Take your time
It’s exciting to get a job offer, but it’s important to always take some time to consider all the factors and your options. Being a recent graduate or someone entering the workforce doesn’t mean you have to accept the first offer, especially if you have a strong case for countering with a higher amount—and negotiating is something you should always consider.
“Always, always, always negotiate,” McCarthy says. “It can be scary, but are you really going to let a semi-uncomfortable conversation cost you a million dollars?! The better you learn to negotiate, the more you will be able to explode your lifetime earning potential.”
"What is your salary expectation?" Sample answers for no experience
Now that you’ve prepared and the question is being asked of you, how do you answer salary expectations with no experience? Depending on your personal situation, here are three effective strategies (with samples!):
Give a range
This demonstrates you’re willing to be flexible and work with your prospective employer, but be sure to keep the bottom of your range toward the high end of your expectations so there’s room for negotiation. McCarthy suggests:
“Given my accomplishments and X and leadership potential demonstrated by Y experience, I am currently being considered for roles between $73,000 and $84,000, depending on the total compensation package. How does this sit with your budget for the role?”
Turn the tables
Here you can ask them what they’re expecting to pay. If it’s the high end of your range, that’s great. If not, you can tailor your response to the budget the company has. McCarthy suggests:
“Great question. I was just going to ask you about the salary positioning for this role. Given you’re more knowledgeable on the company’s compensation philosophy, could you share the ballpark salary range you had in mind for the position?”
Delay your answer
This approach is helpful if you’re still learning about the scope of the role, company culture/benefits, etc. and aren’t prepared to provide a number until you’re better informed. “My recommendation is deflect, deflect, deflect until the company decides they are the ideal hire,” Sipe says. “It’s easier to negotiate a higher compensation when you’re their preferred candidate.” Sipe suggests phrases like:
“I would like to meet the team and learn more about the role before discussing compensation” or “I am open and negotiable for the right opportunity.”
He adds that if they keep pushing, acknowledge them with a phrase like:
“I understand that you are simply doing your job and I appreciate it. I simply don’t know enough about the company, role, and team to provide that information at this time.”
By doing this, you can gain a better understanding of whether you like the prospective job, team, hiring manager, and the company before deciding if it’s the right opportunity for you.
Negotiating the actual offer as a graduate
Once you’ve shared your salary expectations and received an offer, if you negotiate, it’s important to highlight the value you bring. McCarthy suggests:
“Thank you so much. I can’t wait to join the team and bring some big results, specifically on the XYZ initiative. As I shared in the interview, I’ve received consistent feedback throughout my studies and in part-time jobs around my empathy, critical thinking, and intuitive problem-solving skills. These allow me to be a top performer in what I do and learn really quickly. As such, I had myself positioned higher in the range, more so at the $77,000 mark. Could you meet me there?”
Goredema says that talking about money can feel extremely uncomfortable, but that discomfort shouldn’t stop you from asking for what you deserve.
“Recruiters expect candidates to negotiate their salary,” she says. “Learning how to discuss compensation and negotiate terms is an important skill to embrace for your career growth.”