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When an interviewer asks you where you see your self in three, five, or 10 years, there are a few specific details they're looking for (we'll get to that in a minute).
This is not the moment in an interview to share your personal flair, nor is this an invitation to begin waxing poetic about that dreamed-up organization you want to run someday.
Let's begin by reviewing the ways that you should not be answering this question:
- No personal (non-work related) details: If you have a goal that isn't related to your career trajectory, leave it out. It's great that you want to start a family or find time to travel, but if the goal you have in mind doesn't illuminate your career path, it isn't relevant at this juncture of the interview.
- No pie-in-the-sky goals: Are you hoping to start your own nonprofit? That's great news! But not for the interviewer. Admirable and professional as your goal may be, if it's not related directly to the position for which you're interviewing, chances are, your interviewer will quietly note it as a red flag.
- No shameless plugs: Even if your dream is to run the very organization at which you're interviewing, find something else to say. If you make it to the final stages of the interview process (or if you get an offer), you'll have plenty of time to advocate for yourself and outline all of your long-term leadership and management goals. Anyone can say "I see myself running XYZ team," or "I see myself running XYZ organization," but the real strength lies in your ability to align your career objectives with the needs of the interviewer, in this moment. Plus, most hiring managers won't respond well to feeling like they're interviewing somebody who is already gunning for their job.
Now, let's move on to suggestions for how you may go about answering a where-do-you-see-yourself question.
What the interviewer wants to know:
In most cases, an interviewer asks this type of question in order to determine the following:
- What are your long-term career goals?
- What is your ideal job at this stage in your career?
- How do you define success?
- Does this position align with all of the above?
That final bullet is key, so be sure to map out an answer that easily connects back to the position you're interviewing for as well as to the mission of the organization.
Here's a quick scenario and an example of a response:
- Question: Where do you see yourself in three years?
- Role: Media Relations Officer
- Organization: American Near East Refugee Aid (Anera)
"I'm very excited about the role here at American Near East Refugee Aid, because in three years, I'd like to have built my career and my reputation as a communications professional at an organization whose mission aligns with my personal and professional values. My goal is to push myself to continue to develop my skills as an editor, content manager, communicator, and relationship builder. For me, three-year success would be leading the charge in Anera's content creation and relationship building."
You'll notice that in this response, I made sure to do the following:
- Illustrate my ambition
- Mention my commitment to staying with the organization for the long term
- Demonstrate my enthusiasm for the particular role/organization
- Define what success means to me
Pro Tip: Don't overthink it! The interviewer is not expecting you to already know the specific job title that you hope to have X years from now, nor do they want to hear exactly how many people you plan to have on the team that you'll be running. Keep your response brief and specific to the position.
Get more tips from our Interview Q&A series.
What interview question stumps you every time? Tweet at us or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll do our best to walk you through the perfect format for a killer response!
As the Associate Director of Marketing and Communications at Idealist and a lifelong nonprofit professional, Alexis offers job seekers, game changers, and do gooders actionable tips, career resources, and social-impact advice.