How to Answer “What Are Your Career Aspirations?” in an Interview was originally published on The Muse, a great place to research companies and careers. Click here to search for great jobs and companies near you.
1. Get Clear on What Your Aspirations Are
It might seem obvious, but before you can answer questions about your career aspirations, you’ll need to figure them out for yourself. This involves thinking through what you’re passionate about and what sort of career would make you excited to go to work each day. Unlike goals, aspirations don’t need to be very specific. Ask yourself a few questions, such as:
- What kind of work cultivates your energy (vs. draining your energy)?
- What tasks are you doing when you lose track of time?
- How do you love to contribute to a project, team, or workplace?
- Who/what kinds of people do you love helping?
- What kind of company would you be most excited about working for?
- Is there a more senior colleague whose work really appeals to you?
- Do you prefer working solo or collaborating with a team every day? Or a mix?
- Do you prefer sticking to routine in your workday or changing up your day-to-day tasks frequently?
- Are there any parts of your current or past jobs that you really dislike or dread?
- Does managing and/or training people appeal to you?
- What would make your career and professional life fulfilling to you? Earning a high salary? Finding a good work-life balance? Mentoring others? Learning new things? Doing something new that no one’s done before? Being well-known in your field? Doing work that helps others?
Once you’ve laid out what energizes, excites, and fulfills you (and what doesn’t), consider which aspects matter most to you and think about what careers, industries, companies, and positions have the best combination of what you’re looking for. For example, if you really thrive while working with others, you might want to consider a career where you’re always or frequently interacting with clients or collaborating on a team—maybe a role in management, customer care, or software development. If being creative gets you energized, maybe you want to aim for a role where you’re thinking of new product or marketing strategies or brainstorming content initiatives. If you want every day to feel a bit different, perhaps working at a smaller startup is a better choice for you than a large, established company where people rarely go outside their job description. If your passion is making sure that everyone has access to healthcare, you might aim for a job in an industry like public health. If you care about your career, but what really matters to you is having plenty of time to spend with your loved ones, work that demands long hours—like investment banking or starting your own business—might not be a fit for you. If you need more help figuring out your career aspirations, check out this worksheet and these quizzes.
2. Connect Your Aspirations to the Company and Position
Once you know what you’re aiming for in your career, you can search for jobs and companies that are a good match. Or you can make these connections before your next interview. In either case, you should look over information about both the position and the company. For the position, the best resource is usually the job description, unless you happen to know someone at the company who has more knowledge. If you’ve already had a phone screen or other first round interview, you can take into account anything you learned during that conversation. When researching the company, take a look at their website, social media, any news mentions, and their Muse profile if they have one. As you comb through all of this, see how the company and position align with your career aspirations either directly or as a stepping stone for the future. For example, maybe you’re passionate about finding innovative ways to increase financial literacy and stability for marginalized populations and you’re interviewing for a fintech company whose mission is to leverage technology to help people manage their finances. Or perhaps you’d like to eventually become a product lead and this is a position where you’d be coordinating a small team of coders as part of a larger product and engineering team, so it will help you get some leadership experience.
3. Put Your Answer Together
When you’re constructing your answer, be sure you hit on what your aspirations are, why those are your aspirations, and how this job relates to them. When you’re talking about the why, don’t be afraid to make it personal, Goodfellow says. This can help your motivation shine through. For example, “My dad was a surgeon and my mom [was] an RN, and that exposure really has shaped my passion and drive to pursue a role in healthcare administration,” Goodfellow says. Take it a step further than just saying what you’d like to do in the future and talk about how you’ve started working toward realizing your ambitions. This will allow you to highlight how the skills and experience you’ve gained already will help them and their company. “Showcase the value you bring to the organization,” Smith says. “Construct your response in a way that the interviewer can feel your excitement and energy for the role, and in a way that they can visualize you achieving your aspirations with their company.” As you plan your answer, be honest and “realistically ambitious,” Smith says. For example, an entry-level candidate once told her that they wanted to be a CEO in three to five years, which isn’t a very feasible timeline. A more realistic answer would have been saying they’d like to gain leadership experience over the next several years so that they can eventually become a CEO at the helm of a tech company whose product makes people’s lives easier.
4. Avoid Common Pitfalls
As you answer or plan to answer “What are your career aspirations?” there are a few mistakes you should steer clear of:
- Just saying “I don’t know”: If you’re early in your career, you might not know what you want yet. In cases like this, it’s best to be honest while still showing that you’ve thought about your future. For example, Goodfellow says, “It’s fair to say, ‘Honestly, I just graduated X with a Y degree. At this early stage in my career, my focus is more short term. I really want a role as a Z, and to just do well and learn from my colleagues and bosses.’”
- Talking about aspirations that aren’t related to the job you’d be doing: Don’t talk about what your ambitions are outside of work in this answer. Interviewers are looking for career aspirations, not life goals. So your quest to run marathons in every state, while admirable, probably isn’t relevant. And avoid focusing on aspirations that make it seem like you’re only interested in the job for something that is not the job, Smith says. For example, you shouldn’t say that your aspirations are to earn a high salary, live in the location where the job is, or have plenty of flexibility to spend time with your family or on other pursuits. These might be part of your career aspirations, but they’re not helpful for a hiring manager and may make them think you’re not excited for this particular job, just for a perk or benefit that it and many others offer.
- Implying that you’re going to leave the role quickly: “As a recruiter, my goal is to find someone who wants to genuinely contribute to the company’s mission, not use the company to learn something” and then leave, Smith says. So don’t say that you want to start your own company in a year and a half (which has happened to Smith!) or otherwise imply that your aspirations will have you walking out the door before you’ve had a chance to settle in and make a contribution. But you can and should still find a way to be honest. For example, instead of saying you want to switch jobs every two to three years to build up your skill set, Goodfellow suggests using what you currently know about the company and position to say something like, “At this point, I really dream of being X or utilizing Y skills and strengths in Z capacity. However, I’m young so anticipate those changing as I learn more about myself, opportunities, and other key factors.”