What should I put for expected salary on a job application?

What should I put for expected salary on a job application is a question that many job seekers wrestle with each time they apply for a job. When it comes to salary negotiation, you know that stating a specific number based on your salary history can weaken your negotiating power, especially if you know you’ve been underpaid. When employers hear a low salary number, your final offer is likely to be just as low, according to psychological science.

Your goal should be to not shoot yourself in the foot by blurting out your salary of pennies. You’ll more likely be successful by keeping mum and circumventing the question by giving a salary range. Or you can start by stating a high starting salary number to anchor the negotiation if you are having an in-person conversation. 

But what if you are at the beginning of your job hunt and are filling out a job application on a website?

Unfortunately, this is the problem that the desired salary question in online job applications raises. You cannot dodge, defer, or explain your reasoning for not answering the question to an automated answering form.

Here’s advice on how you can answer the salary question without getting accidentally disqualified for not answering the question:

Use a word instead of a number

The fear of leaving the salary question field blank is that you may get disqualified by a computer system that will only surface candidates within a certain range or with complete answers. To avoid disclosing your salary history without getting overlooked, you may need to enter some information. Salary expert Jim Hopkinson says that one option is giving an answer that does not disclose exactly what you want.

“If you are filling out an application on paper, or if the online form allows you to type in whatever text characters you want in that field, then leave an open-ended response that defers the answer until later,” Hopkinson writes. If you are applying for an entry-level job, you can answer “entry-level” to the question. If you want to talk about this to a human interviewer, you can delay and say “to be discussed in interview,” or “negotiable,” he advises.

Pick a range

But what if this is an online form where you literally cannot proceed until you answer with a number? Then your best bet may be putting a salary range, Ask a Manager’s Alison Green advises. “Do your research and come up with a range based on what comparable positions pay for your experience level and in your geographic area,” she writes.

Be careful about what numbers you put in the bottom of your range, however. That is likely to be the number that human resources will later offer you. “If you give a wide range like ‘$40,000 to $55,000,’ don’t be surprised if you’re offered $40,000, because that’s what you told the employer you’d accept willingly,” she cautions.

Above all, the goal is to avoid being taken out of the running for a job before you even have a chance to interact with a human employer. At best, you want to have the salary conversation when the interviewer is at maximum love for you and wants you as their first choice. That way, you can negotiate for the salary you deserve, not the one your previous low salary projects. When you are in the room with an employer who wants you as their next employee, you avoid having to justify your salary expectations to an uncaring, unfeeling computer algorithm.