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Negotiating MBA Job Offers: Dos & Don’ts


The MBA student was asking for a 40% higher salary than the company was offering, but that wasn’t what torpedoed the negotiations and led the company to withdraw the offer. The problem was one of attitude.

“The (student’s) approach was more demanding, and more arrogant, in addition to asking for what was unreasonable,” says Cynthia Saunders-Cheatham, executive director of the career center at Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management. Saunders-Cheatham, who has just put together a list of nine tips for negotiating over job offers, would not reveal details about the negotiation fiasco, in order to protect the unfortunate student’s identity.

But while Saunders-Cheatham urges students to approach job negotiations with confidence rather than arrogance, the most common mistake MBAs make in dealing with job offers is failing to negotiate at all – “being so excited to get the offer that you just take it,” she says.

Sometimes, fear sabotages the opportunity to sweeten a job offer, Saunders-Cheatham says. MBA students and grads may worry that asking for a higher salary, or more vacation time, or relocation expenses will lead a company to nix the offer.


But, says Saunders-Cheatham, with the right attitude, there’s no reason for concern. “If you do it in a nice way, correctly, there’s nothing to lose, and you have an opportunity to gain quite a bit,” she says.

The Johnson School, she says, is having a banner year for job offers to graduating MBA students. “We’ve had the strongest year that we’ve seen in recent years in investment banking and consulting, with the large numbers of offers that have gone to our students in both of those areas,” Saunders-Cheatham says. She expects overall job offers from all sectors to meet or exceed last year’s numbers. “Opportunities are there, for sure,” she says. “We do expect tech to end up being strong, too.”

Cynthia Saunders-Cheatham, Johnson School of Management

Cynthia Saunders-Cheatham, Johnson School of Management

To be certain, she says, some companies don’t usually negotiate over job offers, particularly those which hire a number of MBAs from the same class at the same time, and offer the same pay. But even companies such as those have proven amenable to negotiation in some cases, Saunders-Cheatham says.

Ultimately, no matter what kind of attitude students bring to negotiations, they have two ways to go wrong: asking for too much, and asking for too little. Ask for too much, and the employer may hire someone equally qualified who accepted less; ask for too little, and you may sell yourself short.


To prepare for negotiation, business schools’ data, such as employment reports, provide valuable information about typical salaries by industry or work function, Saunders-Cheatham says. While in general it’s probably fairly safe for an applicant to ask for 10% to 15% more than the initial offer, “what is even safer is probably just looking at the data that’s available in the schools and just seeing what the ranges are,” she says.

Job applicants shouldn’t focus exclusively on salary, Saunders-Cheatham says. “Often the base salary is not as negotiable. Look at benefits, vacation, relocation packages.”

Whenever possible, job offer negotiations should take place in person or voice-to-voice, rather than by email, she says. “Be upbeat and positive and excited about the opportunity. Be nice, be friendly.”


As Harvard Business School professor Deepak Malhotra points out in a Harvard Business Review article from last year, likability is more than politeness. “It’s about managing some inevitable tensions in negotiation, such as asking for what you deserve without seeming greedy, pointing out deficiencies in the offer without seeming petty, and being persistent without being a nuisance,” Malhotra writes.

MBA students can also obtain useful information about compensation and hiring practices from peers who have experience with particular companies or industries, Saunders-Cheatham says.

Saunders-Cheatham has put her experience and expertise into the service of students by creating a list of nine negotiating tips for MBA job seekers.