“Where do you see yourself in five years?” is a common interview question, but what does it really mean? And how do you answer it correctly? Many interviewees can find themselves stumped by this inquiry, mostly because it’s not as straightforward as it may sound. When an interviewer asks you this, he or she isn’t really asking for a definitive answer—after all, nothing is certain in today’s job market, especially five years from now. Truthfully, the interviewer is trying to gauge whether or not you plan on being a long-term hire, how accurate a fit you are for their team, what your goals and ambitions are in your career as a whole, and occasionally, he or she is just curious to see how you answer a tricky question.
The key to answering this is finding a happy medium between general and specific. Too general an answer can seem evasive, while being too specific can make you seem inflexible. Likewise, you want to tailor your answer to reflect that you’re neither surrealistic about your goals nor an underachiever.
So how do you develop the most balanced response? It takes a bit of preparation beforehand, but answering this particular question correctly will impress the interviewer and can put you ahead of other candidates.
Include the company you’re interviewing with. Probably the most important factor in your answer is whether or not you plan on staying with your target company. Offering an answer that doesn’t include the business you’re interviewing with can make it seem like you’re only taking the job until something better comes along or using it as a quick stepping-stone. Make it clear that you see yourself working with them long-term, even if you are keeping your options open. No employer wants to take the time to hire and train an employee who won’t be invested in the work or the future success of the company.
Know the position you’re interviewing for. When formulating your answer, you have to know the nature of the job you’ve applied for. How quickly would one in this position advance? What are some realistic expectations? As said above, you should include the company in your long-term plans, but it might make you seem unambitious if you see yourself in the same exact position five years from now. This is where knowing the industry, and the business in particular, comes in handy. Is it realistic for a hard-working employee to still be in that position in five years, or would he or she be on to a higher title with more responsibilities? Also include some company-specific goals you’d like to have accomplished by then, if possible. It will show you’ve done your homework and will be ready to start making a difference immediately.
Emphasize your desire for growth. While you certainly don’t want to sound so eager to move up that you threaten to take your supervisor’s position, it’s important to show that you look to grow within the industry. Including future plans for extra schooling, taking on more responsibilities, or—if applicable—obtaining certifications that will allow for promotion within the company are all answers that can assert your dedication to making a difference in the business, the industry, and yourself as a professional.
Be honest. Interviewers have heard it all, especially the rehashed and well-rehearsed clichés. Try to avoid generic answers and be honest. Sometimes, a less conventional answer can be much more effective than a typical “safe” one. It’s okay to admit that you aren’t sure where you’ll be in the future as long as you have a clear and confident idea of what you’re striving for. It’s not okay, and often less believable, to tell your employer that you plan on accruing a number of responsibilities you aren’t qualified for or interested in.
What does an answer that includes all of these factors look like? A good response might go something like this:
“I do not have a specific position in mind, but my goal over the next five years is to be in one where I can make a difference with the company and perhaps even help train and guide other employees to do the same. Career growth is important to me, so I hope to take on more responsibilities and projects and obtain more industry knowledge in the process. My experience doing [x, y, and, z] will allow me to help the company accomplish [a, b, and c] goals in the coming years.”
Of course, an answer like this needs to be tailored to the specifics of the position and the company, but it shows that the candidate is both adaptive and ambitious. Stating that you would like to train future employees is one example of a more specific and realistic responsibility that one would take on over time, while being honest that you don’t have a particular position in mind for the future shows that you’re not rigid in your options. It shows that you’re willing to grow with the company’s needs and invest in it over time, and mentioning your desire to develop more knowledge and skills shows a personal investment in your own growth, as well.