By Beth Colley
Preparing for this question is a very good exercise in figuring out what you enjoy doing, what is meaningful to you, and -- really -- what you actually want to be doing in five years.
Take the time to think about how much you enjoy what you are doing (or not).
What do you want to be doing next? Is this job with this employer actually what you want next?
Having a good answer to this question could help you focus your job search, in addition to providing a good answer to a common job interview question.
[MORE: Read Smart Answers to Interview Questions for advice from a recruiter.]
Most job seekers jump into this question without truly having set any personal career goals. Developing your answer to this question can help you get more purposeful about the direction of your career. View this question as an opportunity for you to do a bit of career planning as well as answering the question.
Considering the average length of time people stay with a company or in a job is 4.6 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it seems a little silly that employers will still ask this question. However, a bad answer to this question can derail an opportunity for you.
Keep your answer somewhat general since a lot can happen in 5 years, but don't be too vauge since a non-answer will make you look like you don't take your career -- or your job -- very seriously. And, very few employers will be interested in you then.
A common mistake is trying to name a specific position that may or may not exist in the company, like "I hope to be promoted to an executive assistant position within 5 years." If that job doesn't exist, you could look out-of-touch or uninformed.
On the other hand, a vague response such as, "I would hope to be able to progress into a senior level position," could backfire if the position doesn't offer any advancement. And a flippant response, like "I'd like to have your job," could be a complete disaster.
Taking the time to provide a thoughtful answer will ultimately be helpful both to you and to the employer.
Before answering this question, it is helpful to understand that the interviewer is looking for five primary things in your answer:
Qualifications and experience being somewhat equal among candidates, the decision maker(s) wants the candidate who is the best fit culturally. The candidate who takes time to prepare a list of personal goals in advance of the interview will be able to communicate his/her strengths and potential fit best.
Try using these three strategies to prepare for this question in advance, as well as examine your own personal career goals.
Consider the personal feelings that swell up inside you as you consider working in this job and for this employer.
Take time to name your feelings and strengths, and write out how an employer could make you feel valued.
Don't focus on the specific job duties. Instead think about how you will interact with your co-workers, customers, and anyone else who crosses your path.
Take a moment to write down those thoughts and think about what it would feel like to love your job and the company where you work.
Even if you can't specifically determine where you see yourself five years from now, consider:
Take a moment to focus on your personal and professional values, write them down, and formulate a response to a modified version of this question such as "What is going to be important to you in your career in five years?" or "How would you like to see your life/career differently in five years?"
Go to the employer's website to see if you can explore a "Careers" section which describes the organization or, at least, lists their job openings. Worst case, check out their job postings on a job board or Indeed.
Don't make the mistake of mentioning an option that's not available with this employer. You will impress them when you share that you have actually learned about the organization enough to mention specific job titles and parts of their organization.
As you develop some personal career goals as well as a strategy about how you want to achieve those goals plus understanding of the employer's organization, you're now in a better position to be able to answer the question, "Where do you see yourself in five years?" without saying something that doesn't sound believable.
Better yet, you won't blurt out something that will completely turn the interviewer off.
Hopefully, the more you really think about your career in this manner and take time to visualize how things could improve for you personally and professionally, the clearer things may become -- both for your career as well as for this interview.
Don't worry about making your answer 10 minutes long. A short, simple answer may be the best one.
For an entry-level job in a bank which has a formal job structure including several progressive levels of the job you are interviewing for --
"My hope is to learn as much as possible about banks and banking services. My short-term goal is to become an excellent cashier and then, possibly move on to jobs with more responsibility in the bank as I gain experience and knowledge about banking. Longer-term, my goal is to become a supervisor, possibly in customer service, loan processing, or another aspect of banking. My hope is that this is the beginning of a long career working for this bank, which progresses logically."
For a more senior position in a company with a less clear organizational structure --
"My long term goal is to grow professionally, eventually to have the role of go-to person for questions on topics like content marketing for nonprofits and online reputation management for nonprofits. I want to be viewed as a top performer, an expert who is a key contributor inside the organization."
When you are changing careers, you can tie your "old" expertise to the new job --
"I see myself growing in my understanding of social media marketing to the point where I can take on additional responsibilities and tasks, leveraging my knowledge of more traditional marketing. Once I gain the experience, I would like to progress to the point where I am managing the social media marketing for specific clients."
By focusing on your personal and professional values, you will be able to formulate a believable response that will give the interviewer a positive impression of your strengths, attitude, dependability, and potential for success.
Beth Colley CEO/owner of Chesapeake Career Management Services has guided over 1,200 job seekers to career success since joining the careers industry in January of 2000. She is a Certified Master Resume Writer, a Certified Career Management Coach, and a Certified Brain Based Success Coach and an active member of Career Directors International, The National Resume Writers Association, and Career Thought Leaders.