Even if you don't know where you see yourself in five years, here's how you can impress your interviewer

“Where do you see yourself in five years?” There is perhaps no interview question as daunting. No worries, though - hiring managers and employers aren't concerned with your actual plans. When asking this question, an interviewer isn't expecting you to know 100 percent where you see yourself in the future, but they do want to know if you have ambition, goals, focus, and drive. They want to know you've at least considered your future and what you'd like to accomplish. 

When formulating your answer to “Where do you see yourself in five years?”, be sure to demonstrate that you understand a course correction or two may be needed. Think back to where you were five years ago today and move forward in your mind to the present. Are you where you thought you'd be five years ago? Probably not. You've had to make some adjustments along the way. 

Why hiring managers ask these types of interview questions

So, if hiring managers don't actually care about your path in 1,820 days, why do they ask this silly question? Well, asking "Where do you see yourself in five years?" is more about getting insight into your hopes, aspirations, and goals for the next few years. Interviewers ask about objectives you've set to give them an inside look into how you operate and structure your thoughts. The interviewer wants to understand more about your career goals and how their position would fit into your grand plan. Companies want trustworthy, detail-oriented, and dedicated team members who are willing to take a leap - not a non-committal employee who is only planning to stick around until a better opportunity arises elsewhere.

Hiring managers may pose this common interview question in different ways. Below are a few examples of similar job interview questions that aim to uncover the same information:

  • What are your long-term career goals?

  • What is your dream job at this stage in your career?

  • What are you looking for?

  • How do you define success?

  • What is most important to you in your career?

  • What is your five-year plan?

  • What is your goal for the next five years?

  • Where will you be in five years?

Before the interview

Preparing how to answer "Where do you see yourself in five years?"

No one has a crystal ball and knows for sure where they will be in five years and the hiring manager is aware of this. They are not looking for you to lay out a specific plan, detailing everything you are going to do. Instead, focus on what your dreams are, where you would like to take your career path next, and how you plan to do this. Also, be sure to focus on how you plan to help the company. Hiring managers want candidates who will add value to the team and help advance the company. And don't forget to be realistic - hiring managers are as likely to reject a far-fetched idea just as quickly as no idea at all.

Think about the answer to this question ahead of time. Consider practicing your response out loud with a trusted friend, so that you can hear yourself speak and make tweaks if needed. While developing your answer, keep in mind what the hiring manager or interviewer wants to know when they ask you this question: your work-related goals, ambitions, desired training, and so on. What type of positions do you see yourself occupying? What type of training do you want or need to complete? Are you interested in leadership positions, or would you like to keep your focus on the technical aspects of your work? Provide quantifiable answers when possible.

Write out your five-year plan. While it's hard to know exactly what you'll be doing or where you'll be in five years, try visualizing and imagining where you would love to be, the type of culture you'd like to be in, the types of positions you'd like to maintain, the type of experience and accomplishments you'd like to have had, and so on. Take these items into consideration and then make a list of them with a roadmap as to how you'll achieve them. This will help you to share where you see yourself in five years from an honest and thoughtful perspective.

During the interview

How to answer "Where do you see yourself in five years?"

When answering this question, be honest and be yourself. Sharing what you think the interviewer wants to hear may seem like a good idea, but it's much easier to be yourself than to try to be someone you're not and your authenticity will be clear.

Also, keep your answer specific and work-related. The interviewer doesn't need to know that you plan on having two kids and a white picket fence in five years. In fact, if you do share this, they might hear, "I'm going to be taking a lot of time off from work to take care of my kids after they're born. Work is not my priority." It might seem unfair, but it's true. Keep your answers to the point and about your work goals and visions.

A good response

Let's say you're interviewing for an HR position at an organization and are asked, "Where do you see yourself in five years?". You might answer as follows:

"I would like to expand my horizons by jumping in feet first and learning as much as I can, as quickly as I can, with the organization. From there, I'd seek out opportunities - at least one to two a year - to expand my knowledge through training and educational opportunities to support my job. I'd love to participate in at least one project geared toward leadership training if the opportunity arises. I also understand that the organization has a strong volunteer team and I'd like to be an active participant in that team, as well. At some point, I'd also like to be considered for a supervisory or management level role."

Keep it primarily work-related, show ambition, show that you've done your homework, and provide quantifiable long-term goals. The key is to be confident, honest, clear, succinct, and, of course, to answer the question.

A poor response

I'd like to be the department's supervisor after five years. I know that will involve some professional development and even a new certification, but as someone who jumps in with both feet, it shouldn't be a huge problem for me to ascend the throne. 

This response is inward-focused. It doesn't provide any information on what you bring to the team and makes a huge assumption that you can achieve supervisory status within five years. This response will not leave the hiring manager thinking, “Wow, someone with ambition.” Rather, they will be left with an idea that you think the role you're applying to is beneath you and that you want to move on from it as quickly as possible. 

A good response

In this scenario, imagine that you've applied for a data analyst position. The job description desires someone who has specific database and coding language experience. You fit the bill perfectly. Then the bomb is dropped. “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

I am a lifelong learner and the world of technology is ever-changing. In the short term, my goal is to keep up with emerging technologies so that I can help ABC Company adapt to new methodologies that will improve productivity and efficiency. I'd love to be chosen for some special projects along the way that allow me to stretch my understanding of the role and department as a whole and how everything fits within the goals and objectives of the company. One day, even if it takes longer than five years, I'd love to have a team of people under my wing so that I can help to steward their career progression. 

This response allows you to show that your goals and ambitions line up with the company's mission and objectives. Every company wants to achieve higher rates of productivity. Let's face it, improved productivity equals increased profitability. Demonstrating that you're willing to work outside of your job description lets the interviewer know they're getting someone who isn't going to show up just to collect a paycheck. 

A poor response 

I'd really like to move to the headquarters office of ABC Company so that I can apply my skills on a larger scale. Sometimes just getting your foot in the door of a company is the best way to move up within the company. I know HQ has a lot of interesting projects coming up that will benefit the company as a whole, including this office. Being a part of those projects is where I see myself. 

The only thing the hiring manager will hear in this response is that his office isn't good enough for you. Even though the new work you'd be doing at the headquarters office will benefit his/her office, too, they don't want someone to come in and treat them like a stepping stone.

A good response 

Life rarely goes to plan. Sometimes you have great plans, know exactly what your next career step will be, and then something happens to throw everything out of whack. However, since you're adaptable, it's not that big a deal because you can change your plans. 

I often set goals to be in a certain place in life but often have to course-correct as I go. As someone who is devoted to the ideals of loyalty and ambition, I intend to dive into the role of Marketing Specialist to learn everything I can about your target market. I'd like to build a sustained network of industry peers and colleagues that will allow me to stay up with marketing trends and bring the latest in best practices to my role here at XYZ Company. Eventually, I'd love to move into a leadership position and take on more responsibilities. My flexibility and adaptability help me to realize this leadership position may take longer than 5 years to acquire, but I know I'll get there. 

This is a great response for someone who is new to the job market – a recent graduate, for example. It's okay to let them know you still need to build up to a thing. Hiring managers love honesty. While this answer may feel like it sheds a negative light on your abilities, what it really does is show the interviewer that you're in it for the long haul. 

A poor response 

Since I just graduated college, I really don't know what to expect next. I know I have the skills and knowledge to lead a large team and take on a management position. However, I know I can't get into management straight out of school and have to start somewhere. I'll do whatever you tell me, so that I can move up in XYZ Company. 

There is some truth in this response, it sounds like you're ready to get to work. On the other hand, the interviewer is not going to be left with that notion. What you're really saying with this type of response is that you are just going to do what you have to do – i.e., what they tell you to do – until you can get into a higher position. It's lackadaisical at best and lazy at worst and will leave a bad taste in the hiring manager's mouth concerning your ambition and drive. 

What you should never say when answering "Where do you see yourself in five years?"

While it's important to understand the right way to answer, it's also good to keep in mind what an interviewer does not want to hear when they ask you, "Where do you see yourself in five years?". In short, be careful how you answer this popular interview question and try to avoid answers like this: 

  • That you plan on a short-term tenure with the company. If an organization is going to invest time and resources in you, they want to believe that you'll be with them for the long haul or at least five years. Employees may now be spending less time in a role before moving on, but you definitely don't want to let the cat out of the bag that you don't plan on staying with the organization (unless you're interviewing for a temporary position)

  • That you haven't given any thought to your future with the company or life in general. Whatever you do, do not respond, “I don't know.” If the answer doesn't come to you at first, take a few seconds to think about how you have grown over the last five years. Consider the natural flow of progression and formulate an answer. Again, one of the main reasons this question is asked is to find out if you have goals and are excited about your prospective future with the company. They also want to know that you have ambition and a good work ethic and that you've considered how you might handle your work if you were to be hired

  • That you want their position. Yes, the interviewer wants to know you're ambitious, but you don't want to let it be known that you're very eager to move up and see yourself in their position, especially if it's a small company where such opportunities are few and far between.

Using humor in your response

Oftentimes, people use humor to get over the hump of being nervous. You may be tempted to say something like, 

“I just started watching Game of Thrones on Netflix and plan to finish it by next month. No, really, I have always wanted to be in marketing and have found a passion in connecting customers with companies” 

Sometimes the interviewer will appreciate the humor, but other times you'll give off a vibe that you don't take things seriously. There are appropriate ways to use humor during an interview, so if you do decide to go down this road, make sure you do it properly. 

The takeaway

The chances are good that you'll be asked this question at some point during your career. Luckily, now you've got the skills to answer with a slam dunk.

Want to practice answering these types of interview questions, but don't know where to start? Our TopInterview coaches are experts in the art of interviewing and are here to help!

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on our sister site, TopResume. The original article was written by M.A. Smith and has been updated by Marsha Hebert.

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