One of the most dreaded questions in interviews is, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Unfortunately, this rather daunting question is also one of the most common. Anyone who’s interviewed enough probably has heard it before. And anyone who has conducted interviews has probably asked it.
Why it causes so much consternation is anyone’s guess. It could be that folks simply don’t think a lot about their future lives, especially in a five-year block. Or one might look at the hiring manager and think, “How do I politely say that I’d like your job?”
So, yes, there are many reasons a candidate could be thrown off guard by this interview question and struggle with answering it coherently.
In this article, we will actually help you answer this question by digging into why interviewers ask it, giving you tools to know where and what you want to do in five years, and then teaching you how to express your goals using the keywords and phrases they are looking for. We even have examples to share. So read on: your future awaits!
Why Interviewers Ask the “5-Year” Question
You might find the “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” question a little easier to answer with some insight into why the interviewer might ask it. Hiring managers shared these reasons on Glass Door, and some of their viewpoints may surprise you!
They Are Concerned About Investing in You.
Companies spend thousands of dollars training new hires. The best organizations know exactly how much it will cost to hire you, train you, and even replace you if you leave. In many cases, the interviewer is asking you this question because they want to be sure you’re going to stay long enough to be worth the employer’s investment in you. They are not necessarily looking for an answer that shows you’d want to stay in the hiring position for five years, but they probably do want to know that you’d be interested in higher-up positions within the same organization or career field.
They Want to Gauge Your Ambition
Oftentimes, hiring managers simply want to determine whether you are an ambitious sort of person with plans for yourself. In their eyes, ambitious people may be more eager to perform at work, be more likely to achieve goals, or be more willing to pursue extra training or certification.
They Want to Know More About You
An interviewer might ask this question to get you to open up a little bit more about yourself. They might feel like they haven’t yet gotten a sense of who you are as a person, and they are curious about you because they’re thinking of putting you on the short list of potential hires. Experienced interviewers know that determining who’s a good fit for a position or company requires more than simply looking at technical skills or educational background. Learning about a candidate’s personal characteristics and values is an important part of the equation too.
They Think They Should Ask
Let’s face it, this question has become so cliche that inexperienced interviewers might ask it just because they think they’re supposed to. Or they want to know whether you’ve prepared for the most common interview questions.
They Don’t Care (as Much as You Think)
Believe it or not, the interviewer might not really care what your answer is, as long as you have one. They might simply be checking to see whether you can come up with an answer that makes sense. If a candidate looks like a deer in the headlights and can’t come up with a single thing, that might be a red flag that you want any job, and not one on a path to your dream job. So it’s best to say something — anything — rather than nothing at all.
Other Ways Interviewers Ask the “5-Year” Question
Interviewers might not specifically say, “Now tell me where you see yourself in the next five years.” They may frame it differently, but they are still trying to see whether you’ve thought about it and how interested you are in their company. If they ask one of the following questions, you can use your planned answer for the 5-year question and simply pivot it a little.
- How do you define success for yourself?
- What are you looking for in a career?
- What are your long-term career goals?
- Where do you think you’ll be in three, five, and ten years?
- How would you describe your dream job?
How to Figure Out What You Want 5 Years from Now
So, how do you really know what you want for yourself in five years? For the sake of the interview, you don’t need to get too specific. Saying “I see myself working in a leadership role in the healthcare risk prevention industry” is probably more than enough. But here’s a little step-by-step guidance on how to start wrapping your head around your future life.
Step 1. Think about your personality and what you’ve liked working on from your past experiences. Do you work better independently or as a team? Do you like to lead the team or be “an excellent soldier”? Is running a business part of your dream?
Step 2. Consider the line of work you want to be doing. What do you want to be adding to the world? You might think, I know I want to be working with children, or I want to work to stop the spread of infectious diseases, or I just want to make as much money as possible.
Step 3. Contemplate factors such as your educational background, geographical location, financial requirements, and personality. Next, determine how those factors will influence what you want and whether you will be able to attain what you want.
What Hiring Managers Are Listening for When They Ask About Future Goals
Most experienced interviewers will have certain responses they’re looking for — or not looking for. Here are three common desirable and not-so-desirable responses.
3 Things Interviewers Love to Hear
1. Positivity. Use your most inspired voice when you’re talking about career aspirations.
2. A definite plan. Having actual steps listed in order to reach your goals (e.g., enrolling in an online university to get certification or an advanced degree) lets the interviewer know you’ve really thought about this.
3. Something interesting. Remember, this is also a way interviewers get to learn something they didn't already know about you. Share about the time you started a fundraiser in college and realized that running a team was what you wanted to do — and how that has led to your current goal.
4 Things Interviewers Hate to Hear
1. Private wishes. Refrain from sharing personal goals that tell the interviewer nothing about your career aspirations (e.g., goals about where to live or travel).
2. Easily obtainable achievements. Do not name goals that would be easily achieved with a little bit of effort (e.g., attending a specific conference should be replaced with “Giving a presentation on ABC at the annual XYZ Conference”).
3. Lack of relevance. The interviewer does not want to hear that you aspire to a completely different career path unrelated to the job in question.
4. Passive aggression. An interviewer may be put off on hearing that you ultimately want to head up the department that the interviewer is currently leading. Similarly, they might respond negatively to answers that suggest you would completely overhaul that same department “if you were in charge.”
How to Answer the Future Goals Question
Okay, so now you know what the interviewer is looking for, and you have a general sense of what you might like to be focusing on in the next five years. Now you need to focus on formatting your answer.
When the question comes up, here are three simple steps to take in answering it.
Step 1. Pause and reflect (even if you don’t need to). You might kick it off with “I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately,” and then respond with a version of your practiced answer. Your answer need only be two or three sentences long.
Step 2. Answer in a tone that reflects your positive attitude about your future. You want to sound ambitious and confident about your ability to reach the goals you mention.
Step 3. Tweak your answer so it relates to the job you are applying for. This will reassure the interviewer that you’re not going to jump ship soon after being hired.
Step 4. Consider mentioning how this job would be a crucial stepping stone toward all of your career goals. This imparts to the interviewer two things: that you’re ambitious and that you’re eager to be successful in this job role.
Finally, what if your true goals have little to do with the job you’re applying for? Maybe you’re just using this job as a step to something better somewhere else. In that case, offer up as much truth as you can without delving into the details. As long as you intend to do your best, there’s no reason to feel like you have to commit to a 25-year run at any organization.
3 Sample Answers to “Where Do You See Yourself in 5 Years?”
It’s helpful to get a sense of how to answer by reading sample answers. Here are some examples of answers you can use to get a sense of what structure and depth to provide.
1. Understanding what it takes to get there. I hope to be a head nurse in five years. I’ve already researched what certification I’ll need to qualify, and I’m nearly ready to enroll. In the meantime, I’m going to find a mentor and learn as much as I possibly can.
2. Being specific. In five years, I see myself leading an IT department. I have some ideas about cloud management that I’m eager to develop. I’d also like to lead a team of IT professionals and collaborate on new technologies. This doesn’t require me to go back to school, however, in two years I would like to enroll in a part-time MBA program to gain leadership insights to better position myself as the head of a team.
3. Projecting how obstacles will be overcome. In five years, I want to be the number one real estate agent in my territory. To get there, I plan to hire some part-time people to help with my administrative tasks so that I can keep my pipeline of prospects flowing.
The infamous 5-year question may seem daunting at first glance. But having to actually figure out how to answer this question in a meaningful and relevant way is often helpful in thinking about your future goals. Moving through the steps mentioned above can help you to gain clarity over how you want your career to look five years from now, as well as how you can make it become a reality.