Updated: May 10, 2019
This question is tricky. No doubt. It’s especially challenging for those new to interviewing.
You don’t want to come across as a brown-noser. “I want to be a success at your company!”
You don’t want to be too aloof. “I don’t believe in goals. I let my life unfold.”
You definitely don’t want to say, “Um, I don’t know” or “Hey, I’ll have your job!”
Not to worry. You can handle this. With a bit of preparation and self-awareness, you can answer this question with poise, maturity, and confidence.
Prepare for The Question
Nothing looks worse during an interview than stumbling over your answer for “Where do you see yourself in five years?” It leaves the impression that you’re unmotivated, disorganized, and not very serious about your career. Here are three ways to prepare.
Build Your Five-Year Career Plan
Having a documented five-year career development plan will ensure your answer is well thought out, aligned with your values, and realistic.
1. Define your dream job five years from now – Based on what you know about yourself and opportunities for advancement in your industry or field, what’s the position or role you’d like to have five years in the future? Be as specific as possible about the type of organization, responsibilities, work environment, location, and other details to bring it to life.
2. Identify the personal benefits to achieving this goal – Start this sentence with “I would love to be X because…” How does this job fulfill your personal values? How does this job move you toward any longer-term career goals?
3. Write short-term goals – Research others who currently hold this role and find your education, experience or skill gaps. Talk to mentors in your field to see what it really takes to move to the next level. Make a list of short-term goals to fill these gaps.
4. Cluster them into milestones – Group your short-term goals into milestones to keep you organized and on track. For example, if you need a certain certification to advance to a higher position, list all the short-term goals required to complete the certification.
Once you have this, answering interview questions about your goals will be much easier. You don’t have to say exactly what’s in your career development plan because it might not mesh with their expectations. But thinking about what your future resume might look like can help you shape
Research the Organization
See if you can identify the typical career advancement path within the organization by talking to current or former employees, researching on LinkedIn, or reading their website. If they have an internal training program or professional development platform, be sure to note your interest. Incorporating the specific position that you’d like to move into shows you aspire to grow at their company. (If that’s what you want to do) All this research will help you give a better answer and demonstrate that you thoroughly prepared for the interview by researching their organization.
Understand the Position
Are your career goals aligned with the position? Great! Play that up in your answer. Talk about how the job is ideal for what you’re setting out to do. It’s the start of an exciting career. Overall though, it’s best to stay slightly vague about what future position you’re seeking unless it’s absolutely clear to you. This could skew the interviewer’s perception about whether the current job is a good fit.
Not every position will be an obvious stepping stone to your future dream job. Sometimes you need to take what’s out there. And that’s okay. If it’s not a perfect fit, make your answers truthful, but broad. Look for skills you’ll gain that you can transfer to other environments. You can also lean on the fact that you’re just starting out. Focus on how this job will give you a broad cross-section of experiences that will help you decide where to focus your career.
Know Your Audience
Even if you have the best answer ready to go, you need to be aware of who’s interviewing you. Interviewers have different levels of motivation, competence, and insightfulness. Understanding this will help you adjust your response. That’s not to say you’d change your answer based on their expectations. You should always stay true to yourself. It’s about creating an angle. Putting yourself in their shoes and seeing how the answer feels from their perspective. It helps to mentally categorize them into three types of interviewers.
This person is genuinely interested in you as an individual. They want the best fit for the position but are open-minded about what you have to offer.
• How to Identify – They’re willing to spend as much as time as needed to get to know you. They ask a lot of follow up questions and express interest in your answers. You can tell they’ve read your cover letter and resume, since they ask specific questions that show insights about who you are.
• Their Motivations – They want highly motivated people with big dreams, so they don’t necessarily expect you to stay forever. It’s more important that they find people who’ll make great contributions while they’re with the organization. They want a mutually beneficial
• How to Adjust Your Answers – They’re looking for potential. Focus on ways you want to grow as a professional and how this position will help you do that. Be as enthusiastic as you want to be. This will give the interviewer a glimpse into your ambition and drive.
This person is most concerned about how you’ll match with the open position, align with their culture, and stay with the organization.
• How to Identify – They spend a lot of time talking about the position and company itself first. They may “stick to the script” when it comes to questions and focus on your personality.
• Their Motivations – They’re looking for fit. They want dedicated, loyal employees who will grow professionally within their organization. They’re also focused on saving the company time and money by not having a lot of turnover.
• How to Adjust Your Answers – Use every opportunity to talk about how your skills, background and personality are well suited to the position and organization. If you’re not sure if you’ll stay long- term, keep answers about the future vague, but positive.
Busy, Unmotivated Interviewer
This person sees you as a task on their to do list. They may have many candidates to interview and want to move through them efficiently.
• How to Identify –They have a list of standard questions and don’t veer from their script. They may not have read your cover letter or resume closely. You might notice they’re looking it over as they talk to you. They’re not making a lot of eye contact.
• Their Motivations – They’re looking for non-risky employees. They want to hire quickly to fill their quotas. They’re looking for a reasonable assurance that you’re a good fit and will stay for a while. They’re simply going through a checklist of what the candidate should have – qualifications, education, professional demeanor. Do you check the box? Yes or No.
• How to Adjust Your Answers – You should provide very focused answers, so they can easily take notes and understand the key points you’re trying to make. Follow their lead. They’re annoyed by candidates who slow them down or don’t follow directions. Don’t make unrealistic statements. They’ll internally be rolling their eyes.
You may have multiple interviewers of different types at the same time. This is challenging but take a moment to discern the primary decision-maker. Use your insights to adjust your answers.
It’s important not to take these categories too literally. You might find that someone’s demeanor changes when you bring up a certain subject – a love of animals, a city you lived in, or a mutual acquaintance. Be human and relate to them as a human. Even the busiest interviewer may pause when the topic is right – and it could change the dynamic of the conversation.
Bring it Together in the Interview
That was a lot of information to absorb. Let’s look at some examples so you can see how this works in practice. We’ll use the same individual, who tweaks their answer slightly depending on their assessment of the interviewer.
In five years, I’d love to be known as a subject matter expert in graphic design. I’m passionate about learning and growing. I want to be the go-to person for my team, especially younger colleagues since I really enjoy teaching and mentoring. I’m open to how that might look in terms of a position, but I know that I want to be a leader.
Five years from now, I’d like to be established with a company that values my graphic design skills, but also my drive to see others succeed. I really enjoy teaching and mentoring, so I’d love for that to be a part of my career, regardless of the position. With your focus on professional development, this position and company seemed like a good fit.
Busy, Unmotivated Interviewer
Over the next five years, I want to grow as a graphic design professional. Ideally, I would advance with your company into a senior level design position since I really enjoy teaching and
“Where do you see yourself in five years?” With some inner exploration and understanding the motivations of your interviewer, you can confidently answer this question and communicate why you’re the best person for the job.