College Grads: How to Increase Your Salary

My oldest son recently asked: “What can I do to make sure I get a big, fat salary when I graduate?” He's a sophomore eyeing chemistry as his career.

Having spent his summer working nearly 60 hours a week in a warehouse, I think he's suddenly come to realize the full-court advantage of a college education.

So I took his question to the mat. How can a student leverage college experience in order to maximize his or her salary after graduation?

After talking with other parents, friends in human resources and school counselors, I came up with seven suggestions.

How to increase your future salary

1. Recognize the value of education

The more education you receive, the better your chances for a higher starting salary. Here are the 2014 median earnings of young adults aged 25-34, according to the National Center for Education Statistics:

  • $25,000 with no high school diploma
  • $30,000 with a high school diploma
  • $49,900 with a bachelor's degree
  • $59,100 with a master's degree

2. Choice of degree and college

When you talk to many high schoolers, it becomes clear that one of the top career choices is engineering. They also want to matriculate at an elite school or a top engineering school. Many parents have the same goal in mind, but does it really matter?

It does. Both in degree and school choice.

The 2015-2016 College Salary Report ranks over 1,000 public and private schools by their salary and degree potential. Cards on the table, I wish we had known about this as we were picking colleges. (The good news is that we have one left in high school who will benefit.)

3. Don't underestimate the power of professors

Professors stay in contact with generations of students, many of whom rise to management positions. There, they often have control over department purse strings, head counts and a certain sway with recruiters and talent resource officers.

If you develop a solid relationship with a certain professor, you can benefit from their knowledge and ability to network with well-connected alumni. This can make quite a difference in how vested your future employer feels in you and your story, which could potentially translate into an opportunity to impact your salary.

4. Internships while in college

The depth of your knowledge and industry experience can help strengthen your resume and possibly lead to a bump in starting salary when compared to fellow students with little or no experience. Term and summer internships can help you demonstrate your value to a potential employer.

Basically, your goal is to have a job lined up and waiting for you as you walk across that stage, diploma in hand, and finally leave college. But again, it's the internship experience and more professional resume which can result in a higher starting salary. Internships without salaries are very common, so take those opportunities to make less as a student and more as a graduate.

5. Negotiate your offer

Often, new graduates are afraid to ask for more when presented with an offer of employment. They are nervous, excited and don't know how the “game” is played with a prospective employer.

If you have more than one job offer, it's a little easier to leverage them to land your dream job at a higher salary. But if the salary is non-negotiable, you could still ask for a signing bonus, a monthly transit pass (where applicable), and additional personal time off/vacation. If an employer wants you bad enough, (s)he might throw some perks your way. But you have to ask for that.

Here's another tip for any job seeker: Go in knowing your full worth. It's common for an employer to ask what you made at your last job or what your salary expectations are. The big secret is that it doesn't matter at all! You should be judged on your qualifications, work ethic and credentials — not on your last salary or what you think you might be worth. Get to know the salary standards for your industry and go in with a confident attitude.

6. Get something published

Write something and get it published in a trade journal. Assist a professor on a technical paper that (s)he plans on submitting for peer review. Having a paper trail and building a case for or against something in your future profession can help get you noticed and perhaps highly sought after. You can turn that notoriety into cash on signing day. Athletes do it. You can too.

7. Network

Don't wile away the time in high school. Start networking now. And in college, keep networking. This is a good time to find out what your friends' parents do. Network with those parents, especially the ones in the same field you are pursuing. But even if they aren't, they might have friends, former classmates or relatives who are in that profession which can provide valuable leads.

Great networking opportunities include LinkedIn, industry association events, local business groups and fundraisers for community causes. Let's take an example. A graduate who lives in Chicago, majoring in communications might meet potential employers by joining a few of the public relations and marketing groups on LinkedIn, attending a Public Relations Society of America luncheon, getting involved with the entrepreneurial center at a local community college and lending a hand at a nonprofit where they can meet business supporters, board members and community influencers.

So skip a few frat and sorority parties and spend some time making a case for why you should be hired upon graduation and why you should receive a higher salary than some of your peers.

I'm proud that my son has the foresight to ask what he can do to improve his standing upon graduating from college. Now it's up to him to act so he can get the big, fat salary he wants.

More about...Career, Planning

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Latoya @ Femme Frugality
Latoya @ Femme Frugality
4 years ago

Having an internship definitely helped increase my prospects after graduating. That and some extreme patience!

4 years ago

RE: 2. Choice of degree and college When trying to decide on a degree, looking at salaries for various titles can be misleading. If you are looking at “Chemist” positions for example, the salaries are pretty substantial (average salary in the Seattle area is $66k). But keep in mind that those roles assume you have a masters or PhD in Chemistry AND have work experience behind you. If you have a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry, even if you have had internships you are qualified to be a lab technician (average salary in the Seattle area is $35k). Also, while going… Read more »

4 years ago

Use your school’s resources to help you plan ahead. If you wish to get an internship (DO!), plan so you are qualified when the time comes, whether during school year or over breaks. And think about the cost-benefits of work and living arrangements. These are very individual questions. If you make a few hundred dollars a semester at a minimum wage job, yet your grades slip or you can’t take advantage of academic help, or of activities on campus, is that worth it? Is a low-paid summer internship better in the long run than the 60 hours a week of… Read more »

Terrence Forest
Terrence Forest
4 years ago

I use to go to college before Katrina hit new Orleans. We were forced to leave our little home behind. I eventually came back to new Orleans to go back to college but unfortunately the one I attended was still closed, so I went to work. I now make over a hundred thousand annually without a degree. However I dream about going back to college, because I believe getting a degree is a great accomplishment regardless of how much you make.