Interviewers often ask questions where there is no right answer. They just want to see how you think.
“Where do you see yourself in five years?” is a classic example.
It comes up often enough, particularly in graduate interviews when arguably your future career path is most open-ended.
Not only does this question have no ‘right’ answer, there are many wrong answers that you can give, any of which could be enough to persuade the interviewer that there is a better candidate for the job.
The interviewer essentially wants to discover if your longer term plans for yourself match up with the longer term goals of the organisation.
So it makes sense to expect this question, understand what pitfalls to avoid, and to have a great answer prepared.
“Is it a trick question?”
At first glance, it seems like an easy question to answer. No-one has a crystal ball and can say whether your answer is right or wrong, so you can just say anything that sounds plausible and ambitious, right?
If you are wondering if this is in fact a trick question, you have hit the nail on the head.
“Where do you see yourself in five years time?” is nothing more than an elaborate trap, designed to trick you into giving a bad answer. Think of it like an obstacle course – if you can negotiate it and get through to the end cleanly, you’ve done well. If you knock anything over or trip up, you’ve failed.
Before we look at a great answer, let’s go through some of the obvious bad answers to avoid:
“I’ll be in your job”.
You think you are showing ambition by saying this. But in reality, can you substantiate this answer? Do you really know what you will have to do in this specific organisation to get promoted into a position as a hiring manager? Probably not. If anything this reveals a little arrogance – a real turn-off.
“I’ll be running my own business”.
No good. You might think this, but if you say it, you just reveal that you aren’t looking to build a career with this firm. You are just using them as a stepping stone to further your own ambitions. Not really a turn-on for a hiring manager who is looking to make a real investment in someone.
“I’ll be your boss, lol!”.
This might be an attempt at humour, but you’ve picked the wrong occasion to show how funny you are. Congratutions, you’ve just ruled yourself out of a job. Don’t try to crack a joke, however ridiculous you think this question is.
“I’ll be retired and at my beach house writing a book.”
Wouldn’t it be lovely to go from needing a job, to being retired and writing your memoirs, all in just five years? Possible, but highly unlikely. And more to the point, it shows a total lack of long term commitment to the firm. You might hope that this could happen, but please keep these dreams to yourself – at least during the interview!
Do you start to see a picture emerging here? Answers that are in any way fanciful, super-ambitious, totally unrealistic or just funny will not help you.
“So I’m confused, just how do I answer this question?”
Well, here’s the thing. Unlike most expansive, open ended questions which look for creative and original answers, the formula on this one is actually to stick to a very tight script.
The key point is that you are not trying persuade the interviewer that you will be brilliant in five years time. You are trying to persuade them that you will be brilliant for the job on offer today. The question might not ask that, but this is really the best way to answer it.
The textbook answer will look something like this:
“In five years time I’ll be working at [insert the right company name].
“If I understand [company name] well, by delivering outstanding performance in the role you are interviewing me for today, I will have had the opportunity for two promotions and broader responsibility in your team.
“I will be mentoring a new graduate and be seen as a role model for new joiners.
“Lastly, I will have built out a strong internal network in [company name] and be able to leverage that network effectively to enhance my prospects for further responsibility and career progression.”
You will obviously choose to word the answer in a way that is natural for you and specific to the company, but do you see how this answer ticks all the right boxes?
- You are showing loyalty to the hiring manager in front of you, and to the firm
- You are showing confidence that you will excel in the role you are interviewing for
- You see yourself being a role model and a team player
- You are revealing your ambition for career progression and enhanced responsibility
- You are demonstrating a desire to build strong connections across the organisation
- You are showing that you understand the possible pace of progression within the company
Wow! What’s not to like? You’re hired!
So, you now know that what looks like an easy question, is really a tricky trick question.
But with my simple formula, you will be able to navigate it with ease and sail onwards on your journey towards interview success!
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