When it comes to internships, many people think you should be grateful find a company willing to train and teach you how. To them, an internship is no more than a learning experience for college students or recent grads.

But contrary to popular belief, internships are valuable for both employers and students. While students gain practical experience in a field of interest, companies can benefit from new ideas and the closer connection with young people.

That’s why, as a student, you can – and should – negotiate your internship salary.

But of course, this is easier said than done. Talking to a hiring manager about pay can feel intimidating, and if you may be concerned that you’ll lose your offer if you screw up your negotiation.

Even so, the biggest mistake you can make is not to negotiate at all, and simply accepting the first offer you get. Lots of students do this, because they feel privileged to even have an offer in a tough economy. And they know 100s of students just like them, looking to find an internship.

But what they don’t realise is how hard it can be for a company to find the right people for a certain role. And unless you are doing super-generic work like typing data into a spreadsheet, you should probably have some room for negotiation.

What is holding you back from getting the internship salary you deserve?

Belief 1: ‘I’m only an intern, I shouldn’t negotiate my salary.’

You might feel like it’s not appropriate to talk about salary this early in your career. You know you don’t have much experience and the main value you will get from an internship the chance to learn – about what industry, company and role you want to work in when you graduate.

And what could possibly be in it for the company?

Take a moment to put yourself in the shoes of the organisation that had made you an offer.

Hiring you might benefit them in a number of ways, for example, by:

  • Freeing up time for your manager to work on new projects
  • Bringing in original ideas to improve their business
  • Looking at their business from an ‘outside’ perspective and challenging them to step up their game
  • Offering in-demand skills that are essential to growing the company
  • Working fulltime at a lower pay than the average graduate
  • Having a unique network and connecting the company to young people

The key to getting paid more is to find out what specific value you can offer, and using that as leverage in your negotiation.

Belief 2: ‘This early in my career, negotiating salary just isn’t worth it.’

From a financial perspective, it’s true that an extra 100€-500€ a month may not make a massive difference. But negotiating early on gives you the confidence and practice you need when negotiating your first, entry-level job.

It also shows the company that you are confident in your abilities, and that you know your worth. If you will be working in a client- or customer-facing role, it even signals to the hiring manager that you are willing to have difficult conversations. This means they can trust you not to budge when someone asks you for a special request – or a client or colleagues tries to intimidate you.

Whether the hiring manager has any flexibility or not, a good negotiation shows that you can stay calm under pressure, and keep conversations agreeable and professional (rather than adversarial).

Belief 3: ‘I don’t have enough experience to get a higher offer.’

Experience doesn’t matter nearly as much as you think. Because let’s be real: if the company only cared about people’s prior experience, they wouldn’t be looking for an intern. They’d want to hire a specialist who has worked in a similar role for upwards of 3-5 years.

The fact that they offered you internship means that they are looking to benefit from your relationship in different ways. Maybe they think you would be a good fit once you graduate, or that you could shake things up by looking at what they do from a new perspective.

Therefore, even with limited experience, you can negotiate higher pay by finding out what the company wants and then being very explicit how you can offer this.

As part of the negotiation process, I would suggest that you use a tactic known as the briefcase technique. This technique was first introduced by Ramit Sethi. It involves creating a proposal document with a list of problems that their business currently faces and how you could solve them during your internship.

Young women negotiating job offer
Salary negotiation with a business proposal

Then, when you negotiate your offer, you can pull out this document and walk the hiring manager through how you can benefit the company. As you do this, you might notice that the interviewer is surprised. Having an in-depth discussion about how you can solve the company’s problems is something very few candidates do. That’s why it’s so effective: it makes you stand out from the 99.9% of applicants who can’t be bothered to go the extra mile.

And once you’ve wowed your interviewer with your proposal, you’re in a strong position to actually get a higher offer. From here, you just need to sell yourself well and challenge any excuses they throw at you.

From my experience, these are some of the most common objections you might get:

POSSIBLE OBJECTION: But we pay all our interns a salary of X.

POSSIBLE REPLY: I can see why you would pay X amount to average candidate. However, given my experience, I am confident that I can provide more value to you than your typical candidate. I think it would only be fair if my salary reflects this.

POSSIBLE OBJECTION: Our salary is fixed at X.

POSSIBLE REPLY: I can imagine that your salary would be set at X for your typical candidate. But I like to think of this an investment. Would you rather pay X to an average candidate and get average results, or would you prefer to pay someone with [unique quality you can offer] Y amount and perhaps get double the return?

POSSIBLE OBJECTION: A salary of X is the best we can do.

POSSIBLE REPLY: I understand that your budget may be limited. But based on my research, your current offer of X is below the typical market rate for [role], which ranges from Y to Z. Given my experience, I feel like I deserve to be compensated in that range. What would it take from my side to make something in the range of Y to Z possible for you?

POSSIBLE OBJECTION: The economy is tough right now.

POSSIBLE REPLY: I can totally see how the bad economy impacts what you can pay. However, I feel like I can add a lot of value to the team. Given my experience in X, I could take on responsibilities that go beyond those of a typical intern and more towards those of [a junior role]. It only seems fair to keep this in mind when thinking about compensation.

Belief 4: ‘There are lots of candidates that are more qualified than I am. If I start negotiating, the company will just go for one of the other applicants.’

It doesn’t matter that other candidates are more qualified on paper. The fact that you’ve been made an offer shows that the company would prefer to hire you over them. This means that you have some leverage to at least try negotiating a higher rate.

Whether your negotiation will be successful depends on a lot of factors including budget, company policy, industry, and the experience of the hiring manager. And of course, you might discover that the company doesn’t have the flexibility you thought. But the company will rarely go for another candidate just because you tried to negotiate salary with them.

If you are scared about losing your offer, you can always pre-empt your negotiation with a careful question like: ‘Given what I can offer to [company name], would it be appropriate to discuss compensation?’

Belief 5: ‘If I just work hard enough, I can easily get a higher salary later down the line.’

It’s not just your job skills that decide how much money will you make.

Think about: even if you do outstanding job, why should your manager raise your salary?

As long as you are happy with what you get, they know you’ll probably stay with the company. And they expect to get the same value from you whether they pay you say, 2000€ or 3000€ a month. And of course, they’d rather pay you 2000€ – this leaves more money on the table for them.

Working hard won’t magically get you the salary you deserve. Instead, you should negotiate. And as it’s much harder to get a substantial raise than a higher offer, I recommend you negotiate as soon as you can – starting with your first paid internship or job.

Keep in mind that the first 500€ raise in your 20s, if you properly invest it, can be worth more than 100,000€ over the course of your career. And that’s just one raise. People who negotiate tend negotiate over and over again.  

Belief 6: ‘If I ask for too much, I might lose my offer.’

If you come to the company with an outrageous counteroffer, this may be true. Therefore, the key is to prepare for your negotiation and know well in advance what a realistic ask would be. To find a ballpark figure, I recommend you combine insights from research on platforms like Glassdoor and Payscale with what you would be happy with. Then, ad a bit of a margin, so you have leeway if the company tries to negotiate your counteroffer down. This will (hopefully) help you find a salary that is fair for everyone, without losing your offer.

Key takeaways:

  • Don’t let fear hold you back from negotiating your internship offer
  • Use the value you offer to the company as leverage when proposing a counter offer
  • Do your research and take time to practice before going into salary negotiations

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