Q: Do interviewers still ask “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I’ve never been able to answer this question well. Do they want to see my ambition to move up? Or does that make them worry that I’ll be unsatisfied and leave the role? What if this really is just a stepping stone for me and I don’t see myself there in five years at all? How do I answer this?
A: Yes, interviewers still ask this question. There are many better questions to ask a candidate, but it’s an old standby that many people still use. Interviewers do want to see your ambition, in the sense that they want to know if you’ve thought about your plans and advancement. Unfortunately, many candidates haven’t given this issue much thought, so they end up talking about what they really want to do—and it often has nothing to do with the company, or the role being discussed. Because they’re not prepared, they give off-the-cuff answers, saying they’d rather be in an entirely different industry…or if they’re really honest, that they’d rather be skiing in Italy or starting early retirement. Preparing for this question ahead of time is in your best interest.
The best type of answer to this question states that, in five years, you want to be contributing, learning, and doing a great job as a valued member of this organization with increased responsibility. Don’t get too specific about job titles or promotions. You don’t know how long it takes to get any kind of promotion in the organization, or worse, you may miss out on better opportunities if you’re placed on a specific track too early. Don’t box yourself in. Instead of being title specific, be skill specific: “I want to be using my writing skills / working with customers / working toward my CPA.” Skills-oriented answers and ambition-oriented answers will convey your professional motivation as well as the general direction in which you want to advance, without being too prescriptive.
If an ill-prepared answer suggests that you don’t see yourself advancing at all, that can be just as bad as saying you expect to be the CEO in five years. Do you expect to be doing the same exact job with the same responsibilities without growing or advancing? Exhibiting a lack of ambition can be just as troubling to an interviewer as too much ambition. How you define growing and advancing is important, too. People can grow in their jobs without receiving official promotions, so talking about growth opportunity is important. Perhaps your title remains “Client Services Associate,” but you hope to gradually gain responsibility for bigger clients or begin partnering with the Sales team on initiatives. It all comes back to contributing and learning as a valued team member.
Which answers should you definitely avoid? Anything involving talking about how much money you want to make or number of promotions you expect to receive. It’s not just the actual message that’s off-putting, but how it’s delivered. You convey an air of arrogance and presumptuousness instead of showing that you view advancement in terms of opportunities to learn and contribute. Demonstrate that you value growth and contribution over money and title. Every employer knows you want to make more money, so unless you are in an entirely commission role, there is no need to bring attention to it—and even then, money is the outcome of your contributions.
If you really do see this as a stopover job that you’re taking just to pay the bills or fund your education while you finish a degree, don’t lie about it—but don’t highlight it, either. Some answers don’t serve you well, like putting an expiration date on your time with a company. You can still give a strong, honest answer about your skill growth and contributions without committing to being at that organization. Focus on what you want to be doing, not necessarily where you want to be doing it.