“What are your career goals?” is an interview question that requires some introspection to be answered effectively.
This guide will teach you what interviewers are looking for, and how to craft an impressive response.
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The Reason Interviewers Ask This Question
“What are your career goals?” is a question that interviewers ask for a few different reasons. Of course, one of the top reasons is to see if your ambitions align with the job’s potential, the company’s current goals and future trajectory.
Hiring managers prefer to bring people into the company who will be there for longer than a year or two. It’s not reasonable to expect employees to stay forever, but the ideal situation is that new hires grow within their roles and the organization. They want people they can move around or up the career ladder, creating a considerable pool of in-house candidates for every promotion opportunity.
Another reason why an interviewer will want to learn what your career goals are is that it shows your motivation. If your goals match those of the role and the company, you’ll likely have more substantial incentives to succeed. You’d be there for more than a paycheck. Instead, the company will play a big part in your personal and professional journey.
That’s the type of candidate that can truly shine.
Thinking about what your career goals are makes a noticeable difference in your approach to work. Countless studies prove that having ambitions prevents you from falling into a cycle of complacency. Having goals gives you something to work towards, acting as a natural motivator to succeed time and time again.
Your answer to “What are your career goals?” gives the interviewer a peek into your mind and what inspires you daily. It’s a seemingly simple question, but it provides fantastic insight into who you are and the type of employee you would be.
Short-Term vs. Long-Term Career Goals
A job doesn’t have to fit your career goals to a tee. Your ambitions will change, and roles often evolve. You’ll create new plans as you go, and your next job could be the one that unlocks career objectives you never thought you’d chase.
With that being said, if you want to be able to answer “What are your career goals?” in an interview, you first need to spend some time thinking about what they are!
There are two types of goals you should have: Short-term and long-term.
Long-term goals are akin to the “What do you want to be when you grow up” question you heard a million times as a kid. These are the top-tier goals that you want to achieve one day. They’re reachable, but these dreams will require a lot of work and time to accomplish.
You may well be on your way, but there’s still more to do. A long-term career goal is a lofty one that you can set your sights on early in your career. Think of it as that North Star goal that guides every career move.
Some good examples of long-term career goals include:
- Earning a particular professional license
- Making partner at a firm
- Becoming an expert in your field
- Working as an executive at a specific company
- Becoming a CEO
- Owning your own business
In addition to long-term goals, it also pays to have short-term career goals. These goals are more practical and usually achievable within two to five years. They’re actionable and give you something to focus on right now.
Think of short-term career goals as milestones on the way to accomplishing long-term ones. They support the bigger picture, acting as stepping stones to reaching that upper echelon of career aspirations. You can continually set short-term goals to guide yourself in the right direction and experience success at every step of your professional career.
Here are some examples of good short-term career goals:
- Getting a promotion
- Building professional relationships
- Landing a management position
- Learning a new skill
- Meeting pre-set sales goals
- Leading a team project
- Winning an award
- Earn a degree or certification
You can also split your goals into different categories. This point isn’t so important in an interview setting, but it can help you stay organized and answer this question effectively. These four categories include goals for professional advancement, leadership advancement, educational advancement, and personal development.
How to Answer “What are Your Career Goals?
“What are your career goals?” is an interview question that can be overwhelming to answer. Talking about your career goals isn’t easy, especially when you have limited time to communicate your point. Realistically, you could spend an entire meeting about what you want to do in your professional life!
But like all interview responses, your answer needs to be concise, strategic, and positioned in a way that makes you look like the best candidate possible. Here are some tips on how you can develop a solid response.
1. Connect Your Answer to the Role and Company
One of the best things you can do when discussing your career goals is to bring things back to the position you’re interviewing for. Your ambitions don’t have to be entirely molded around this job, but there should be some overlap.
Don’t forget the purpose of this question. It’s to see if the role will naturally motivate you to succeed. Your response should show that this role fits into your bigger picture in some way.
One way to understand the goals of the job and company is to do your research. Review their website, news articles and have informational meetings with employees prior to your interview to gather information that will help you in answering this question.
You can mention how it fulfills a short-term goal or paves the way for grander ambitions moving forward. Whatever the case, connect the dots. Ensure the interviewer knows that your goals align with the company and the job. When you do that, you’re painting a specific picture and showing the hiring manager precisely why you deserve consideration.
2. Touch on Both Short-Term and Long-Term Goals
Don’t focus your entire answer on a single goal. You can talk about that overarching career aspiration but mention the short-term goals, too.
Short-term career goals are a great way to tell the interviewer what you intend on doing once you start working for them. It shows what’s motivating you at this time in your career and how you might use the position to achieve those goals if given the right opportunity.
Relay your short-term and long-term career goals, and don’t be afraid to lay out what you plan to achieve.
3. Explain How You Intend to Accomplish Them
One great way to stand out when answering “What are your career goals?” is to detail how you plan to accomplish them. It’s one thing to say you want to do something, but putting in the work to make it happen means a whole lot more.
There’s nothing more impressive than a candidate who takes action. Demonstrate that you’re more than just talk. You want to make those dreams a reality, right? So go into detail about your steps to make that happen.
Lay it all on the line, and put yourself in the mindset that you’ve already got the job. What will you do in this role to further your goals?
Taking this approach with your answer can leave an excellent impression on the interviewer. It shows initiative, which is a massive plus for any role.
Our final tip is an easy one: Practice.
Take some time to develop a solid answer. You can almost guarantee that this question will come up. It might be phrased differently, but the purpose is the same.
You don’t want to leave it to the last second or answer on the spot. Your response should be concise and impactful, and that takes time to get right.
Practice your answer with friends and family. Get comfortable talking about your goals and shaping them for the job. You don’t need to develop a script that you recite verbatim.
However, writing down a few bullet points to stay on track is a great technique. Use those points to know what points you want to convey. Rehearse often, and you’ll deliver a confident answer that stands out.
Mistakes to Avoid When Answering
Answering “What are your career goals?” might seem straightforward, but it can actually be trickier than it seems. As with every other question you’re asked during an interview, a bad answer can seriously hurt your chances of getting a job offer.
Here are some missteps you must avoid.
Want to know a quick way to tell the hiring manager that you’re not a good fit? Telling them that your goals have nothing to do with the job, the organization, or even the industry!
If the interviewer feels your career goals don’t align with the company, why would they think you have a future there?
Always relate your answer to the job. Even if it’s not directly tied to your career goals, find a way to create the missing link. Get creative and illustrate why this position is the ideal stepping stone to further your career.
We get it: Money is a big motivator! Ask any working professional, and they’ll likely mention their dream salary. It’s a fundamental factor that most people consider when creating career goals.
But should you talk about money when answering “What are your career goals?” No.
Talking about salary when discussing career goals can come off as tacky. It makes you look like your only motivator is money. That might be the truth, but it’s not something you want to convey in this answer. Remember: Hiring managers want genuinely interested people to be there and grow with the company.
Instead of bringing up salary goals, take a minute to frame things a little differently. For example, you may aspire to nab a six-figure job. Instead of saying that outright, research your industry and learn about positions that make that salary or more.
Then, you can say that you hope to get into that higher-paying position. Leave money out of the equation entirely.
Unrealistic and Far-Fetched Goals
Being a dreamer is excellent. But having career goals that are too lofty can work against you.
Unrealistic goals can come off as a bit delusional. That instantly turns hiring managers off and makes them question your self-awareness. If you’re incapable of seeing why those goals are unrealistic, what’s preventing you from having that same mindset in your work?
It can even come off as arrogant, which is never good.
Avoid referencing far-fetched goals. For example, saying that you want to become a CEO within two years when you’re interviewing for a mid-level manager position isn’t the best approach. Bring things back to reality and be reasonable.
Goals That Indicate Short-Term Employment
Something else to avoid when answering “What are your career goals?” is any indication that the job might be temporary. Take this statement as an example:
“I hope to start my own business in the near future.”
That sounds innocent enough, but it indicates that you’re on the verge of making big career moves. The “near future” part is the red flag. It shows that the job you’re interviewing for is merely temporary, and you probably won’t put your all into the work because your time there is limited (and not a priority).
Other examples include goals of shifting careers, entering a brand-new industry, or going back to school to study something not relevant to the job. Avoid mentioning those goals and stick to things that revolve around the position.
Overly Personal Goals
You likely have many personal goals alongside things you want to accomplish in your career. Stick to the latter and keep the overly personal stuff to yourself. It’s not that interviewers are unemotional robots and don’t care about things like starting a family or paying off college debt. But those details aren’t relevant to the job and serve no purpose in a professional setting.
Please stick to your career and the steps you want to take to improve it. Always link it back to the job, and use this question as an opportunity to display further why you’re the perfect candidate.
Rude or Condescending Remarks
Finally, avoid making patronizing, pretentious, or flat-out rude statements. This tip applies to all interview interactions.
However, it’s easy to cross the line with this question. For example, saying something along the lines of “My goal is to become a C-suite executive at this company because I like being the boss.” It’s not a good look, but an easy way to get your application tossed in the trash!
There are many ways to answer “What are your career goals?” and leave a fantastic impression on interviewers. Your response should be entirely unique, but you can use these examples as inspiration.
This first example is a good response for someone interviewing for a mid-level manager position. It works because it provides both long- and short-term goals while tying everything back to the job they’re trying to land.
“Right now, my primary career goal is to improve my leadership skills and advance as a team lead. I have experience guiding small teams, and I discovered early in my career that I enjoy mentoring and leading teams. I hope to continue gaining the necessary skills to work with bigger and bigger groups.
Ultimately, I want to supervise a large-scale project with multiple teams and departments. I know that will take a lot of hard work, but I know I’m well on my way to getting there. Your job description mentioned the opportunity to lead teams of up to 15, and I knew that this was a position I needed to apply for.”
In our second example, the interviewer focuses on professional development. Their goals include learning new skills and eventually applying them to complete larger projects that boost the company’s bottom line.
“My goals right now are to learn Python for app development. I know that more companies rely on enterprise-level apps, and I hope to contribute to that shift. I believe that learning a new coding language will open up more possibilities for me as a developer here at [COMPANY.}
Eventually, I hope to apply my knowledge of Python and the other coding languages I use to lead development teams. The SAAS space is ever-growing, and I believe that focusing on those goals can do a lot for me and [COMPANY] in the future.”
The final example we have is for an entry-level position. The applicant is about to graduate college and just starting their career. The response shows eagerness and highlights how they plan to grow with the company if they get the job.
“I’m excited about getting my first position in the finance industry. My long-term career goals are to learn about as many specializations in the field of finance as I can. I hope to become an expert in one facet of finance.
However, I know that I need to build a solid foundation and explore the possibilities of an entry-level goal. My focus now is to get as much experience as possible and see what opportunities I can pursue as I continue to fine-tune my career moving forward. I saw in your job description that this position provides exposure to many specializations, and I’m eager to see where I can go with [COMPANY].”
Developing a great answer to “What are your career goals?” isn’t hard, but it requires a bit of honest thinking about what you want from work. If you’re someone who has done this before, the preparation should be easy. If you haven’t it’s time to ponder where you want your career to go!
Not only will that make it easier for you to answer this interview question, but you’ll be able to make sure your professional life is heading in the direction you want.
Hannah Morgan speaks and writes about job search and career strategies. She founded CareerSherpa.net to educate professionals on how to maneuver through today’s job search process. Hannah was nominated as a LinkedIn Top Voice in Job Search and Careers and is a regular contributor to US News & World Report. She has been quoted by media outlets, including Forbes, USA Today, Money Magazine, Huffington Post, as well as many other publications. She is also author of The Infographic Resume and co-author of Social Networking for Business Success.