How to Answer the Interview Question “Where do You See Yourself in Five Years?”

The right way to answer the interview question that will get you disqualified faster than any other.

David Lutherby David LutherGet The Job, Guides - 7 months ago

5 years

I hate getting this question almost as much as I hate writing about it, because almost invariably someone is going to think it’s a good/funny answer to lean back, put their feet on the interviewer’s desk, and say:

“Running this b*tch.”

Trust me, you hate this question too, even if you don’t know it — and your interviewer probably does as well, but it’s a necessary evil because it very quickly makes their job of weeding through candidates a bit easier.

This question is almost impossible to answer correctly — and while we will shortly get to what the ideal answer would be, you’ll soon understand why we both hate this common interview question.

It seems innocent at first: they want to hire someone who is motivated, proactive, and likely to stick around and work hard if hired. So obviously they’ll ask a question that lets them know if this is you, or one of its cousins like:

  • What do you use to define success in your career?
  • What’s important to you for your long-term career goals?
  • What are you looking for?

It helps interviewers and hiring managers get a sense of how your career goals align with the company’s and whether you are likely to have a long tenure there or leave after just a few months or a year.

Here’s the perfect response

Of course, the funny thing about this question is that the BLS currently reports that the average length of time in a position is 4.6 years, so it seems a little backwards to be hoping that an employee will be there longer.

All the same, they want to hear something that suggests you’ll be at that company, satisfied with your position, but willing to take on more responsibility, like:

“My main focus is to succeed in the position we’re discussing. And while I don’t like to describe myself as ambitious, I have high expectations for myself and my performance in this position. I’d like to take it to the point where my efforts allow me to expand to other areas and new projects within the company.”

You’ve managed to keep the focus of yourself and the answer on the current position, while still asserting that you’d like to stay with the company for the long term, even suggesting that staying with this company and developing your department is part of your long-term plan.

Now if this seemed like a fairly reserved answer, it is.

Because this is is not a friendly question.

While you normally want to give answers that are memorable, the answer for this question is actually kind of an outlier in that you don’t want your interviewer to remember it — because if they do, it’s probably not for a good reason.

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This is because your interviewer probably has an answer they’d like to hear, but the odds are that their ears are attuned for an answer that suggests that you are not a good candidate for this because you won’t be happy enough to stay at the position.

They don’t want to hire someone who will quit next year, much less next month, and this is one of those questions that isn’t designed to see how well you’ll fit — it’s supposed to see if you won’t fit at all.

Some alternative ways to think of this question and answer

Generally, you want to make sure that you would be happy doing that job you’re applying for. This is an interview for this job, after all, not the one you hope to have in five years.

So bear in mind that while your answers should suggest that you have goals, a good rule of thumb is to treat your answer to this question as if it’s “Why did you enjoy working here for the past five years?” to the future you.

Another option would be to consider this as an opportunity to announce what your goals for this position are, such as what you will hope to have accomplished by the five year mark in this position.

And as always, do the research.

Make sure that you describe a situation that is realistic within the company as it stands now.

You can usually figure out from a company’s website what they value and how many employees they have, and if not then take to LinkedIn — use this to gauge how likely it is that you’ll be able to truly be happy here, then make that part of your answer.

Figure out:

  • Career paths for the position
  • Career development opportunities
  • Interesting projects and initiatives

You might find that this company values sending its employees abroad or on philanthropic trips — even if this is something you only sort-of value, describe it as part of your future: “I hope to be able to find opportunities to apply the skill set I develop here in a way that gives back to the community.”

The focus here is to be able to position yourself as an ideal candidate at this very moment in time — which for the hiring manager, means one who’ll be there five years after they’ve spent time and money hiring you.

So here are some of the things to say about where you hope to be in five years.

Be broad and general. Give a general answer that doesn’t pin you down to any specific career path because you don’t know what the promotion track or career path is at this company.

But whatever your goals are, you should always:

Make sure you emphasize it is at that company. Neither you nor your interviewer knows what’s going to happen in the future, but you want to frame your answer in a way that assumes it will be at that company.

Indicate you’d like to progress, but don’t insist upon titles. You’re not that funny, so don’t try to make a joke about having their job or something stupid like that. Suggest that you’d like to advance and grow with the company, but don’t focus on a specific title or trajectory.

Make it believable for your resume. You may be taking this job because you don’t have another choice. Your dream of making it as an athlete, comedian, or (even more outrageously unlikely) a tenured professor didn’t work out — this is not the time to tell them that. Instead, it’s time for you to honestly ask yourself what good you’ll be getting out of this position. Is it stable? Reliable checks? Established history?

Whatever the case may be, you must make a list of these things, because these are the things you do not want to discuss — instead of giving them reasons why you have to take this job, tell them what the future you values the most about what the current company has to offer.

Don’t say:

“I’m considering getting my MBA, or even going to law school.”
Even if you know that this company sponsors business school or law classes, the first thing you shouldn’t do is indicate that you don’t expect to be here that long, or even that the job they’re hiring you for isn’t directly in line for where you hope to be. If your promotion path require an MBA or graduate degree, you can just say you’d desire such a position — it’ll be assumed, without you explicitly discussing a leave of absence.

“Why?”
First, it doesn’t matter why an interviewer asks you any question, barring something inappropriate or raunchy. But to the point, don’t let this question throw you off. It’s an opportunity for you to be honest, and knowing the true answer to this question before you interview will solidify your decision when you get the offer.

“Celebrating the fifth anniversary of you asking me this question.”
This isn’t original. You’re the guy telling the waiter “I hated it” as they clear your empty plate. You’re not that funny.

“Polishing my CEO plaque before I call in one of my nine direct reports to pull my company-provided town car around.”
You don’t want to indicate that your expectations are too high or unrealistic, as the hiring manager knows you won’t stick around for long if it becomes apparent that they won’t meet them.

“I don’t know, it’s the future ya dummy.”
Similarly to the “Why?” situation, don’t be hostile and don’t let yourself be caught unaware — you also should know this, as it suggests about your character and what type of person you are.

But even that’s better than, “Doing your job.”

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