Salary negotiations are hard for even the most seasoned workers, but for college students fresh on the job market, the process can be intimidating. While talking about money can be uncomfortable, the discussion is necessary because it will determine grads’ starting income and potentially set the bar for future earnings. 

According to NACE’s April 2013 salary survey, the average starting salary for the Class of 2013 stands at $44,928, rising 5.3% from the 2012 average salary of $42,666. Employers expect some level of discourse with candidates about salary and benefits during the hiring process, experts warn grads tread carefully and handle discussions with the utmost professionalism. 

Before entering any discussion about compensation, candidates must demonstrate to employers that they are the best fit for the position and be prepared that their limited experience may be reflected in an entry-level offering, says Tracy McCarthy, chief human resource officer at human resources software company SilkRoad

“The key is to be realistic, show the employer how your skills translate to the business, and be willing to start at the bottom to get in the door at a great company,” she says. “Many companies are looking for a great fit that can grow and learn inside their organizations.”

For grads tentative to enter the negotiation process, here are expert tips to increase their chances of getting what they want in terms of salary and benefits from a potential employer.

Research Salary Ranges

Researching salary figures for a specific position on sites like Salary.com can help grads get to a realistic number, but it’s important to be aware of salary ranges depending on level of experience. 

If grads are over assumptive and aim too high on the scale, they may eliminate themselves from the running, cautions Cynthia Shapiro, career strategist and author of What Does Somebody Have To Do To Get A Job Around Here?

“You should be in the 25th percentile--once you get experience, you would be in the 50th percentile and once you’re at the top of your game in that arena and you are ready for a promotion, then you’re in the 75th percentile,” she says.

Don’t Rush the Conversation

New grads may be nervous about not appearing assertive enough and often open negotiations far too early, which can keep them from getting the most amount of money possible, according to Shapiro.

As a general rule of thumb, she suggests waiting until presented with an offer letter to start respectfully negotiating.

 “The idea is to stay away from saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to anything and give a noncommittal answer that keeps you in the running and allows you to negotiate effectively at the right time.”

Leverage your Desirability as a Candidate

Having multiple written job offers from other companies or being currently employed gives candidates much more leverage in conveying their value to a hiring manager, says Dan Schawbel, career expert and author of Promote Yourself

 “[If other offers are] $5,000 or $10,000 more, you can go in and say ‘I looked at your offer but I have other offers on the table for more money--I really would want to work here but unless we’re able to meet or exceed what these other companies are paying, I won’t be able to because this is what I need for living expenses and what not,’” he says. 

Choose Your Words Carefully

Using the right language in the negotiation process can make or break an opportunity.

“If they say, ‘what are you looking to make’  you would say, ‘I would be willing to consider whatever your range is’ or if they throw out a range, you could say ‘for this job that I’m really excited about, that is something I would be willing to consider,” says Shapiro.  

Should employers come back with a number that is less than optimal, it’s essential to be direct but respectful, recommends David Braun, CEO of management consulting firm Capstone Strategic

 “You’re better off putting the ball in the hiring manager’s court without getting defensive and say, ‘that seems a little bit low for my expectations, could you help me understand how you came to that number?’” he says. “That’s a very respectful way to…put them in a position to explain the rationale behind it.”

Remember: It’s Not All About the Money

It’s important for grads to look at all components of a compensation package, including hard and soft benefits.

Companies may have a little more flexibility in giving grads what they want in a benefits package depending on what is most important to them (included dental/vision coverage in health insurance plan, paid time off, tuition reimbursement, etc).

 “There are other things that you can ask for that don’t hit payroll that they might be able to give you:  an extra week of vacation time, some stock options, maybe a small signing bonus, or they can help you with your relocation or travel reimbursement for your gas,” says Shapiro.

Although one company may offer more in terms of salary while another may offer better benefits, grads should weigh out all of their options and choose the company they think will ultimately be the best fit overall, recommends Schawbel.

“Does this position align with who I am, what I want to do, is there a good career progression?” he says. “Even if one job pays $3,000 more, it might be worth it to work at the company that pays you less if it’s better for your career, it’s more aligned with who you are and what you’re passionate about.”