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  • Writer's pictureBryan Wang

[3] Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

I’ve personally fielded this question a lot during final round interviews, especially in consulting and banking. I wouldn’t say you can expect to always face this question (unlike “Tell Me About Yourself” and other classic ringers), but it is definitely a question more senior-leaning interviewers tend to ask.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the kind of interview where there are no “wrong” answers. There definitely are. But here’s the problem — the wrong answer depends on both the firm and the interviewer.

Their reason behind the question isn’t to test your precognitive abilities but rather to see how well your answer lines up with the company’s long term goals.

In industries like consulting and banking, retention is very low. Recent grads cycle in as junior analysts, and usually within two years they exit (re: this is also called “lateraling”) into other opportunities (re: Private Equity, Hedge Funds, MBA, internal strategy/business ops in a F500 or startup, etc.).

In other spaces, however, you typically stay for much longer. That being said, Gen Z’s and Millennials tend to pivot from job to job, work to work, more frequently and more consistently than our Boomer and Gen X’er counterparts. This may be a concern for companies who want more ‘longevity’ in their workforce.

Software Engineering is a great example — they want SWEs who can comfortably stay with the firm for the long run. It’s hard to consistently onboard good talent, and tech companies deliberately do everything they can - the free food, the perks, the amenities - to SUCK you in and make sure you don’t leave them.

So, in a nutshell, DO your research. Are you applying to a firm that values longevity, in an industry where retention is a competitive advantage (re: accounting, software engineering, data science, UI/UX, etc.)? Or are you applying to a company / position that features high turnover (re: consulting, banking, etc.)?

Either way, firms always value candidates who maturely think through their interests and career progression. They want to have confidence that there’s a good chance you - the star candidate that you are - have tremendous potential to stay for the long run, even if it is in a high turnover industry (nobody wants to hear that they’re a stepping stone, would you?).

Once you’ve done your due diligence, there are still some general best practices to think about when structuring your answer and story.

  1. Demonstrate your enthusiasm for the job as an exciting next step for you. Most importantly, make it clear that you are motivated to take on this opportunity right now. Then proceed to actually answer the question. You want to make sure your passion and enthusiasm show.

  2. Think about how your goals fit with the job description. When crafting your answer, remember to carefully review the job posting. Consider which of the required skills and traits you already have and would like to strengthen and also those you’d like to gain more experience in. It can be helpful to look at the specifics of what the job entails and think about what it would mean to advance your knowledge and expertise in these areas over the next five years.

  3. Make sure your expectations align with what the employer can provide. Employers want to know that your goals align with the job they’re offering. For example, if you’re interviewing for an accounting associate role and eventually see yourself leading more complex accounting projects, that shows the interviewer you see yourself growing in this position in a way they can reasonably support you. Alternatively, if you’re interviewing for a marketing role and you want to be a UX designer or investment banker in five years, you most likely won’t be considered a good fit for the job. If you belong to the hypothetical latter category, don’t lie about your career goals. Focus your efforts on talking about learning more skills and building up valuable experience to explore opportunities in leading projects and people. You don’t have to be SPECIFIC — that’s a key thing a lot of candidates trip up on.

  4. Demonstrate a sense of ambition and drive. It can be difficult to know or even plan for what you will be doing in five years. Heck, I struggle to decide what I want to eat for lunch on the daily, let alone plan my next five -ten years. However, managers ultimately will select candidates who have a sense of how they want to grow and progress in their career. Drive and confidence are infectious qualities. And letting employers know your goals within this role is an effective tactic for demonstrating these qualities. That being said, while having grand ambitions can certainly be a positive character trait, it may not be appropriate to discuss all of them when answering this question if they aren’t relevant to the job. Again, you don’t have to be SPECIFIC — don’t list all your goals/objectives, only talk about the most important and relevant ones (managing projects/people/teams, learning more skills, working with bright people and learning from the best, etc.).

  5. Be sincerely interested in the role. Employers are often curious if your interests align with the position they’re offering. For instance, this could be a great time to highlight your plans to become an expert in your field by taking online courses or obtaining a relevant certification. Understanding your related passions and interests helps employers envision how you might contribute to the team in both the short and long term and it assures them that the role will provide a fulfilling experience for you.

With that out of the way, here’s some soul-searching you’ll need to do and ask yourself before you begin prepping your answer for this interview question:

  • Do you have realistic expectations for your career? Are you ambitious? And does this particular position align with your growth and goals overall?

  • Where can this position realistically take you, and how does that path align with some of your broader professional goals?

  • What DO you want to do? Be honest, no need to impress recruiters (yet). Figure out what that it is. And AGAIN, it doesn’t have to be SPECIFIC — it can be as vague as leading a team, designing an awesome new product/feature for your favorite startup/platform, or just having enough money to support yourself and your family. It can be that vague. Whatever it is, find it and identify it. Then you can worry about the next steps of highlighting concrete metrics of getting there.

Finally, if you’re asked about your 10 year plans, I’d say the strategies are largely the same. 10 years is a longer time frame, so you’re allowed to be EVEN more abstract and general.

You don’t need to be specific. Don’t feel pressured to offer details.

On that note, here are some strong interview samples for you to draw inspiration from!

Example of a Strong Response

Well, I’m really excited by this position at XYZ Firm because in five years, I’d like to be seen as someone with deep expertise in the ABC (re: energy, tech, media, financial services, design, ad infinitum) sector, and I know that’s something that I’ll have an opportunity to do here. I’m also really excited to take on more managerial responsibilities in the next few years and potentially even take the lead on some projects. I’m already lucky enough to have the opportunity work with some amazing managers in this role, and so developing into a great manager and leader myself is something I’m really excited about.
I’ve thought about this a lot. In these next few years I definitely want to be challenged – intellectually, professionally - in business. I want to get as broad of an experience as possible. And if I enjoy what I’m doing, and feel like each year brings new responsibilities, I can easily see myself continue down that road in this position, ideally in a more senior and/or managerial position as well.
Some of my future goals for the next few years include leading a design team in a formal or informal capacity. I’m also excited about the prospect of working with product and event teams on developing innovative new processes—this is a natural fit with my XYZ background. I’d also like to further develop my skills in user experience to aid in creating more user-focused designs all around.

Meanwhile, here are some things NOT DO DO:

  • Sound over-eager about <JOB POSITION> as your only option

  • Express a desire to be doing something very different (re: a completely different job/industry or something left-field) relative to the job/internship itself

  • Demonstrate that you’re a “flight risk” by showing an unusual interest in options that are not related to the job/internship field in question in the near term (re: from consulting to theater production).

  • Be WAY TOO SPECIFIC — like saying you’ll get promoted in two years, make XYZ position, “work hard and then become a managing partner in less than 8 years” kind of shtick. You don’t need that level of detail. And it’s pretty off-putting to hear someone so fresh and green to say that with such certainty.

Ambition is good. Goals are good. But if you’re too specific, you will run the risk of setting goals that are overly ambitious and unrealistic given the scope of the job/internship and opportunity. From the interviewer’s perspective this is an automatic red flag.

  • Don’t overthink it. You are NOT being evaluated based on how accurate you are (nobody has a crystal ball). All your answer needs to do is reassure the interviewer that you’re invested in this career path and position.

  • Don’t be flaky. You can come across as flaky if you seem to have a million different ideas about what you want to do — or if you have zero concrete ideas about your future. In reality, yes, many good candidates are exploring different options or are still trying to figure it out. However, a job interview is not a session with your career coach. You want to give the impression that you’re focused and have a plan (even if it’s not the only plan you’re considering).

Example of a Weak Response

I plan to be the VP of Finance at a major firm with at least 10 direct reports, a company car, and a salary of 250K/year (plus options of course).
Consulting is the only thing for me. In 5 years I plan to be a Manager and in 10 years I intend to make Partner.
Well, I’m not sure. I’m thinking about law school or business school down the line. Maybe even medicine. I like to explore and keep my options open.

You can see from the final example how being ‘flexible’ is actually a pretty big liability when tackling this specific interview question.

In a nutshell, if you’re new to interviewing and want to get more prep in, I suggest writing down your response and going back to this post. Stress-test your answer by going down our checklist of best practices (and things to avoid) to make sure you’re hitting all the right notes (and skipping the wrong ones).

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