How to answer tricky interview questions: where do you see yourself in 5 years time?

Graduate careers: how to ace tricky interview questions about your long term aspirations – know what to say and how to say it.
Jaymes Carr
Jaymes Carr
Team GradAustralia

Are you about to sign a contract that will extend for longer than five years? Have you already decided to move to the London office by next December? If you answered ‘yes’ to either of these questions, then you’re one of the few people for whom describing a five year plan will be a cinch.

For everybody else though, the dreaded ‘five year plan’ question is a pain. Reply that you’ll still be in the same role, and you mightn’t seem ambitious enough; reply that you’ll be in the interviewer’s seat, and you might seem a little too ambitious; scoff at the idea of planning five years in advance, and you may as well show yourself the door. Where’s the middle ground? What’s the right approach?

As with many of the other tricky questions in this series, the crafting of an effective response begins with a more careful analysis of what you’re being asked. After all, if you can figure out what the interviewer really wants to know, then telling them gets a whole lot easier.

What is the interviewer really asking you?

Interviewers will use the five year plan question to discover four separate things about you:

1. How committed are you to your career?

Are you a graduate lawyer who dreams of making partner or are you trying out life in a firm for a few months to see how it goes?

2. How committed are you to the company?

Do you feel like you have a long future with them or are you uncertain that they’ll provide room for you to grow?

3. How much do you understand about your career progression?

For example, our hypothetical lawyer is probably misled if he sees himself making partner within five years; but not if he sees himself working on complex cases that might support a partnership application later on.

4. How driven are you?

Interviewers will want to know that you have concrete goals, and that you’re approaching your new role with a sense of purpose. It certainly isn’t a good idea not to have any idea of where you’ll be in five years.

Crafting a strong response

In essence, the trick to answering the ‘five years’ question is to first ask yourself two things: what are your overall career goals and how will the position you’re interviewing for help you reach them?

Remember, the company isn’t hiring you for a role that will start in half a decade, they’re (hopefully) hiring you now! So, it’s a good idea to sidestep answers that could get you in trouble, such as “I don’t see myself in this job”, or “I see myself in your job”, or, perhaps worst of all, “I don’t know”.

Instead, you can structure your answer around skills you hope to acquire and goals you hope to achieve. For example, this is how a candidate might respond during an interview for a position as a mining engineer:

Interviewer: Where do you see yourself in five years time?

Candidate: Well, one of the things that attracted me to this position is the opportunity it provides for me to work with a variety of clients in Australia and abroad. In five years, I’d like to be seen as somebody with a diverse portfolio of clients in the mining sector, and, especially, as somebody with deep expertise when it comes to issues affecting the Asia-Pacific region. I’m also excited to take on more complex responsibilities in this role. I’ve worked for some really talented lead engineers and, in five years, I’d like to have developed enough experience to work with them more closely, and even consider taking on a leadership role myself.

Note that the respondent does not discuss who they’ll be working for, or what their specific job title might be: the focus is on what they hope to learn, and how that will help them advance in the career for which their target position is an important step. Of course, it’s important to be realistic, so make sure to discuss skills and experiences that you can reasonably achieve within five years.

Finally, it’s essential that you express enthusiasm for the role. Talk about what you’re excited to learn, or why you chose to interview for this specific role. For example, this is how a candidate might convey genuine interest in a finance role at a large bank:

Interviewer: Where do you see yourself in five years time?

Candidate: I was hoping you’d ask! One of the reasons I applied for this role is because your company has such a strong reputation for supporting each employee’s career growth and providing them with advancement opportunities. I’d like to take advantage of that to sharpen my leadership skills because, five years down the road, I see myself growing into a supervisor or manager role that will allow me to influence others and make a real difference in the industry.

Want to really ace those tricky interview questions? Find out what to say when they ask about bad experiences with an employer or colleague.