How to answer the “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” question

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Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” It’s a query that plagues every one of us. After all, who truly knows where they’ll be in 5 years? Will you have achieved your goals, dreams, and hopes in 5 years, or failed to make your mark? It’s a daunting question—one that interviewers love to ask.

Asking an interviewee, “where do you see yourself in 5 years” may be an interview cliche, but though it’s a standard question, there isn’t an accompanying standard answer. The right reply will be case-specific almost all of the time—so let’s boil down what to say, and what not to say when asked to predict where you’ll be in the future.

Ways you shouldn’t answer “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

 

First, let’s talk about the don’t-do’s. Though the future-minded question may seem open-ended, it’s actually pretty limited in terms of what the interviewer will want to hear. So here are some things not to say.

First, don’t talk about your personal life. The interviewer isn’t asking about how in 5 years you’ll have hopefully developed that working hoverboard you’ve been plugging away at in your garage. Don’t mention hobbies or personal passion projects. Better yet, leave personal details out of the equation altogether, since at best they’ll be irrelevant, and at worst they’ll show your attention down the road will be divided between work and something else.

Second, don’t look beyond the current company. If you say something to the effect of “I hope in 5 years I’ll have used this position as a launching pad to reach my real target company,” you’ll have shot yourself in the foot. Most companies that ask the 5-year question are interested in recruiting someone who will be a good investment, so don’t even hint that you plan to take whatever skills you learn from this job somewhere else shortly thereafter.

Third, don’t be complacent. If you tell the interviewer you hope to be working in this exact same position in 5 years, it’ll show a lack of ambition, vision, and drive. On the flip side of this, though, don’t be overzealous. M.A. Smith wrote in an article for TopResume.com that it’s a bad idea to swing too far the other way and appear over-eager to climb the corporate ladder and potentially take your interviewer’s job. You don’t want to give your interviewer the impression that you’re a threat—no one wants to let a wolf into the hen house. 


Smart ways to answer “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

With all the ways not to answer the “where do you see yourself in 5 years” question, it might leave you wondering: What can you answer, exactly? Thankfully, there are a few graceful ways to handle this tricky topic.

One smart method is to talk about how you’d like to expand or improve the company in the hypothetical next 5 years of you working there. A CNBC piece on the five-year question explains that answering in this way will demonstrate that you understand the company’s long-term strategic goals and see a way for yourself to stay valuable down the line.

Another good strategy is to lightly, carefully touch on a void in the company that you feel you could fill over the next 5 years. If there’s a sector the company is failing to address or an area they should be growing into but aren’t, it might be worthwhile to pitch yourself as the solution to that problem. Be careful about how you point it out to them, since a lot of interviewers and companies are touchy about being called out on their weak points, but if you articulate it gently, you’ll look less like an armchair know-it-all and more like a major asset.

Amy Levin-Epstein wrote about the five-year topic for CBS News and came to the conclusion that staying bland and general can sometimes be a good way to go. Whip out the tired but tried-and-true “my values align with your company’s” line, mention how you see yourself growing into the role over the next 5 years, and play it safe. This strategy might not work with sharper, more eagle-eyed recruiters who are trying to test your forward-thinking capabilities, but other interviewers might like this response.

And of course, if none of these strategies feel authentic to you, there’s always the classic approach of just telling the interviewer where you actually hope to be within the company in 5 years. Tell them you hope you’ll have advanced to a senior variant of your starting role, what responsibilities you’d like, etcetera. This can sometimes help shape the job you’re applying for, so it’s never a bad idea to consider expressing your actual desires and aspirations.

The idea behind “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

Though it’s an obtuse, stressful question, it’s not an unreasonable one for interviewers to ask if they’re interested in you as a long-term employee. Depending on their intentions when asking, they might very well be looking to scope out whether the position will be a comfortable fit for you. By seeing how far up the company’s corporate ladder you’re eager to climb within a five-year window, the interviewer can determine whether you possess the right blend of ambition, realism, self-awareness, and tact to fit in with their company’s culture. Because, as great as it is to say you align with the values of a company, the interviewer will be a lot more impressed if they can organically extrapolate that exact same sentiment from all the other things you say.

This standard interview inquiry may also just be a quick curveball question so the interviewer can see if you’ve done your homework. In this case, even if you don’t have a 5-year plan carefully sketched out, it’s never a bad idea to fire off some factoids you appreciate about the company and how you can see yourself enjoying those aspects going forward over the next half-decade. The key is to not fret about this question too much since it all boils down to theorizing about the future.