Know Your Worth: How to Answer the Salary Requirements Question on Job Apps

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So you’re close to completing the online application for your dream job. You entered your contact information and described your work history. Now it’s time to answer the job-specific screening questions.

All is going well until you read “What are your salary requirements?” A feeling of dread consumes you. Then your palms begin to sweat. You want to ask for as much money as possible. At the same time, you don’t want to undervalue yourself just to appear more enticing to the company recruiter.

What number should you enter? We asked experts to weigh in on how to answer the salary requirements question on job applications.

Why Do Companies Ask This Question on Job Applications?

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Recruiters ask for your salary requirements up front so they can avoid wasting the candidate’s and the company’s time, says Roger Ferguson, owner of iSi Human Resources Consulting. The last thing a business wants to do is go through the entire recruitment process and then have it fall apart at the end because the salary expectations are out of sync. “Most of the time at most companies, the budget drives the train,” says Ferguson.

But this isn’t the start of formal negotiations. This question is in place to ensure your desired number falls within the range the company has allocated for the position.

“Most large companies are not interested in lowballing or trying to get you for the lowest number that they can,” says Ferguson, who previously worked for JPMorgan Chase & Co. “They want to slot you into their workforce in a place that’s equitable and meaningful from the get-go.”

What About Saying ‘Negotiable’ Instead of Giving a Number?   

The format of the online application might give you the option to type in something else without giving a number. Is it a good idea to enter terms like “negotiable” or “market rate” when you’re unsure how to answer?

“‘Negotiable’ is a cop-out,” says Lynda Spiegel, founder of Rising Star Resumes. Before becoming a professional resume writer, Spiegel spent 14 years in human resources. Back then, if a candidate responded with an answer such as “negotiable” or “market rate,” she thought they were lazy and hadn’t done their homework.

“Here’s the problem: A lot of people say, ‘I don’t really have salary requirements. I just really need a job. I just want to get my foot in the door,’” she says. “That’s where they get anxious. So the thing to do is know your value.”

Ferguson tells people who are considering not giving a number to think from the recruiter’s perspective. If a recruiter needs to select the five best candidates out of 300 applications, you shouldn’t leave it to chance.

“The competition is unbelievable in the job market,” he adds. “So you don’t want to ever give the recruiter any reason to reject you from the get-go just because of something you did or didn’t put on the application.”

How to Answer the Salary Requirements Question

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Ideally, before starting a job search, take some time to find out how much people earn doing similar work. Several websites, such as Payscale, and Glassdoor, provide salary ranges for specific jobs.

These sites include salary calculators that factor in your relevant job history, education, location and current pay to determine your market value and the median income for people holding similar positions in your geographical area.

Ferguson suggests compiling the results from several calculators to find your range instead of relying on just one. That way you’ll be prepared when it appears as a screening question on an application and when it’s time to talk salary at the end of the interview process.

It’s impressive when a candidate comes into a negotiation armed with research to back up why they should earn a specific amount. “It would demonstrate to me that you’ve got your stuff together,” Ferguson says.

What Number Should I Put Down?

Knowing the median income for your desired job gives you a starting point for determining what number to enter on the application. Spiegel suggests adding 10% to the median salary of the role before submitting  — that way you’ll have some wiggle room during negotiations.

But ultimately, it’s up to you to determine what you need. Nancy Estep-Critchett, the founding partner of the boutique executive recruiting firm Blue Rock Search, advises her clients to view salary requirement questions as fact-based inquiries. Doing so allows the candidate to think about what they truly need to earn in order to consider the role.

“It just takes all of the angst away from it,” she says. “It’s either a fit for you, or it’s not. It’s that simple.”

Should Cost of Living Factor Into Salary Requirements?

Before considering a position in a new city, don’t forget to do your research to see if your paycheck can cover the bills.

When using salary calculators, Spiegel advises submitting all your information but entering the city you wish to move to instead of your current location. In addition, Estep-Critchett tells people thinking about relocating to use cost-of-living calculators to see how far their dollars will go.

These calculators compare the average prices of various items in two metropolitan areas. She recalls one of her clients finding success using calculators on Numbeo, Bankrate and Sperling’s BestPlaces. “They were pretty spot-on regarding the cost of services, utilities and cost of housing,” she says.

By doing your analysis up front, you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches while filling out online job applications and be ready when it’s time for salary negotiations.

Matt is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. He writes about career advice and side gigs. Follow him on Twitter @MattReinstetle.