How to Answer That Salary Expectation Question (in Both Applications and Interviews)

Sep 15, 2020 | Interviews, Job Search Strategy

A title graphic featuring a pile of money and an alternate version of the article's title: "How to Answer the Salary Expectation Question."

Whether on the initial application or in the interview, talking about your “desired salary” can be confusing. Here’s how to answer that pesky salary expectation question.

By: Ashley Dolar | Resume Writer for Let’s Eat, Grandma

Talking about money makes me uncomfortable. Talking about salary makes me squirm. Talking about negotiating compensation with a potential employer makes me break out into a full-on cold sweat, and I don’t think I’m alone here.

Answering salary requirement questions, in an interview and especially on the initial application, is one of the most confusing and stress-inducing parts of applying for jobs. Will you risk not getting the job if you ask for too much? Or will you be underpaid if you ask for too little? Why do employers ask this of you, anyway?!

We are conditioned to sidestep the issue of pay, but it’s essential to do research on your salary expectations before going into a job search. Knowledge is power — the more you know, the better you’ll do at answering the dreaded salary expectation question. At the very least, getting a grip on the facts might reduce your anxiety about the whole situation. 

Know Your Worth 

So, how do you get your desired salary without ruining your job prospects?

I suggest finding a reliable source like Payscale or Glassdoor to get an idea of the going rate for your ideal position. This is not the time to crowdsource information on Reddit, NextDoor, or your family’s private Facebook group. You want to get to the cold, hard truth about your earning potential — not find out how much your cousin’s ex-boyfriend makes at the pawn shop up the street. 

Resources like these can help you determine an acceptable salary range for your position in your location. For example, a quick Google search reveals that an Office Manager living on the East Coast can expect to earn between $32K and $74K.

A screenshot of a cursory google search for salary ranges of Social Media Managers in Denver,

Even a cursory Google search can give you a market salary range. Narrow it down with your own qualifications and to get your answer to the salary expectation question.

You may be able to further narrow this down by searching in your city and factoring in the company’s size and industry. Even though you might still have quite a difference, you can get an accurate range for your salary expectations.

From there, you need to determine your own value add for the organization. Do you have advanced training or education, like a Master’s Degree or a Six Sigma certification? How many years of relevant experience do you have? Do you bring an in-demand skillset to the table, including skills that are listed as “preferred” in the job description?

If you have high-level qualifications like these, then you might be in the position to negotiate at the middle-to-higher end of the scale. If not, be prepared to be offered an amount on the lower side of the average salary range.

(Pro-tip: When answering the salary expectation question on an initial application rather an interview, you’ll want to list a range rather an exact number.)

Then, when the question of pay comes up, you can say something like, “Based on my research and experience level, I am most comfortable with a salary in the range of $45K to $50K.” That exudes confidence, and better yet, it can get the process moving along. 

Into the Nitty Gritty 

Can you run the risk of aiming too high so that a potential employer is turned off by your salary expectations? 

Sure, that is always a possibility. And especially when answering the salary expectation question on an application before the interview, you want to be careful not to aim so high and screen yourself out. 

But if you do your research, then you can back up your claim, and an argument is always stronger when bolstered with statistics and indisputable facts. It also takes the heat off of you. After all, you are simply stating your market value

If the number you decide on doesn’t work for them, they can make a counter offer in terms of salary, benefits, paid time off, or any number of other incentives. 

A photo of a woman at a table negotiating with two other professionals, illustrating the negotiations inherent in answering the salary expectations question.

Remember that you can always negotiate the salary offered by the employers as part of the hiring process.

However, if you are truly flexible and willing to take any offer just to get your foot in the door, then you can say you are open to negotiation rather than citing a specific salary range. I strongly caution against this strategy though; it can leave you feeling undervalued and underappreciated right from the start. And that will land you right back on the job boards.

(For answering the salary expectation question on an initial application, you can list “Open to Negotiation”, but only next to a range that you choose.)

From the Employer’s Perspective 

Why do employers ask the salary question anyway? What are they really trying to find out?

First and foremost, they want to know if they can afford you. They have a budget just like you have a budget. If your salary expectations are out of sync with their ability to pay, then everyone should probably move on. No need to waste time.

Next, they probably want to know if you did your homework. (Remember all that talk about how crucial research is?) Are you the kind of employee who comes prepared? Or are you more likely to wing it?

Lastly, they want to be sure that your professional status aligns with the role. If you are at a point in your career that you can ask for the higher end of the salary range, that probably indicates that you see yourself at a senior level. That may very well be valid, but it might not be the right fit for their organization right now.

Close the Deal

My best advice is to think of the salary expectation question as a conversation — not as a negotiation. That takes off some of the pressure and encourages a back-and-forth. Then, be ready to make a decision that truly works for you, professionally and personally.

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