Imagine you’re having coffee with a friend, and the conversation turns to a recent promotion you got or that elaborate project you pulled off to glowing feedback. I bet you’d probably have no problem talking about it, right? You’d share your excitement and pride, and maybe take some time to describe exactly why it was such a big deal for you.
But change the scenario to a job interview, and talking about your success might suddenly feel like a whole different story. I’ve worked in HR and talent acquisition for over 15 years, and have recruited for and interviewed countless candidates. Almost universally, the response to me asking, “Do you consider yourself successful?” is the same: an uncomfortable chuckle, a shrug, or a shy, “I don’t know, but what a great question!” It’s pretty clear that most candidates haven’t thought about this before walking through the door and don’t quite know what to say.
Look, I know that interviews and coffee with friends are two very different situations. And I know that questions like this are tricky because it’s hard to know what the interviewer is looking for or how much information to share. As with any interview question, delivering a solid answer starts with understanding why they’re asking the question in the first place. And this question elicits some great information from candidates, specifically:
- How do you define success?
- Do you approach a project focused only on the end result, or does success involve what you learn along the way?
- How confident are you in your abilities, and do you believe in yourself? On the other hand, are you overly confident, bordering on braggadocious?
- What motivates you as you work toward a goal? What keeps you moving forward?
- How do you collaborate with your colleagues? Do you see your success as an individual or team accomplishment?
Now that you have a sense of why interviewers are asking whether you consider yourself successful, read on for some tips on how to best answer this question.
1. Say Yes, Confidently
First things first, don’t say no! People generally don’t want to hire someone who has no faith in themselves, or who can’t point to any example of success. So definitely plan on answering with a “yes!”
If you’re like other job seekers, though, you’re probably cringing a bit here. “I don’t want to brag,” you might be saying to yourself, or, “I don’t want to come across as cocky.” This is one of the conversations I have with almost all of my clients, so know that you’re definitely not alone!
But honestly, this is no time to demur or to let imposter syndrome creep in. I genuinely can’t remember a candidate coming across as showing off when sharing their accomplishments or successes. Think of talking about your achievements as listing facts about your career, which can take away some of the fear of bragging.
Keep your body language in mind, too, and think about what message you may be sending the interviewer unintentionally. Maintain your poise and eye contact and don’t fidget or hesitate with your answer. Be confident and own your success, whatever it is and no matter what stage of your career you’re in.
2. Highlight Specific Achievements
Now that you know you’re going to say “yes,” start planning the rest of your answer by identifying a professional goal that you’ve achieved. It doesn’t have to be anything wildly impressive—no one expects to hear that you got promoted six times in one year—but do pick an achievement that demonstrates your ability to set a clear goal and follow through to completion.
If you can tie the goal to the position you’re interviewing for, even better! You can use your answer as a chance to tell a story that highlights a particular talent, quality, or skill you have that makes you an ideal candidate for the job. At the very least, use an example that allows you to talk about why your work is important to you.
The key is to be specific. I remember a candidate telling me they were successful because they achieved every goal they ever put their mind to. But when pressed, they couldn’t provide any concrete examples. Without those, there was no way to evaluate their ability to do the job or work well with the existing team. Detailed stories are more impactful than vague platitudes, so make sure to have some ready to go if asked.
3. Explain How You Define Success
Every answer you give is an opportunity for you to share your personality, the depth of your experience, and your worldview. As you consider the accomplishment that you’re sharing, think about why you consider it a success and be ready to explain as much as part of your answer.
For example, while passing a certification exam is something to celebrate, saying that alone is not a very compelling answer. Tell the interviewer why you consider passing that exam a success, what it meant to you or your work, and what kind of outcomes it led to. You could take a few different approaches to this:
- Focus on personal success. How did you personally benefit from reaching this goal? So you might say something like: “Even though I was working full time, I really wanted to earn my PMP certification by the end of the summer. So I made sure to arrange my schedule so that I had plenty of time to study and prep for the exam. I’m really excited to have passed the exam just last month as a result. It has given me a sense of pride and accomplishment, and I learned a lot about time management in the process. It has also given me the confidence to set challenging goals and trust that I can reach them if I plan ahead.”
- Focus on professional success. How did your employer benefit from it? So you might say: “When I earned my PMP certification last fall, I was able to take on more of a leadership role in my company. This allowed me to spend more time with clients, learning about their needs and working to develop solutions for them. Since then, I’ve led our team to completing three projects with clients, representing a 17% increase in revenue for the company.”
Whichever approach you choose to take, keep in mind that the interviewer will want to know how your success will benefit their company. So take it a step further. Talk about how you’re planning to build on that success and how you could leverage it in this position.
Finally, make sure your example isn’t overly simplistic. I once had a candidate tell me that they were successful because they woke up on time every morning. While I’m sure in some way that was a success for them, that’s a pretty basic expectation, and not necessarily what an interviewer is looking for.
4. Talk About the Process
Everyone knows that success doesn’t happen overnight. And it certainly doesn’t happen without careful planning, focus, and tenacity. So be careful not to focus on the outcome alone.
Success is achieved by a process, and this is a chance for you to describe the journey that got you there. Share the steps you took to reach the goal, highlighting key milestones and timelines. Be honest about any obstacle you had to overcome, or give them insight into your strategic thinking or problem-solving abilities. The journey is just as much a part of the success as the end result. And while the outcome is exciting, the details are where the real magic lies.
5. Don’t Forget Your Team
Success in a professional setting almost always involves a team. So while this is an interview, and you don’t want to be overly modest, it’s a good idea to mention your collaborative skills. You’ll most likely be expected to work as part of a team in your new role, so use the opportunity to position your success in the context of a larger effort.
If you’re interviewing for a management role, you can highlight a recent team success, which gives you the chance not only to talk about an achievement, but also to showcase your leadership skills.
6. Plan Ahead
So how do you pull it all together and craft a solid answer? Start planning now! Review your resume and achievements and make a note of two or three accomplishments that you’re proud of to use as examples when needed. If you’ve got an interview scheduled, go over the specific job description so you can make connections between your experience and what they’re looking for. Then, focus your examples on those areas.
7. Check Out These Example Answers
Now you know what goes into a good answer to the interview question, “Do you consider yourself successful?” But what does it actually sound like? Here are a few examples to help you as you craft your own:
“I do consider myself successful, even though I’m early in my professional career. I took a full load of classes in my junior year of college because I wanted to take that summer to volunteer for a human rights organization overseas. I knew that I needed to finish specific classes before volunteering to make sure I was on track with my major, minor, and graduation requirements. It was difficult to juggle it all with my part-time job, which I kept to help account for the fact that I wouldn’t be earning money over the summer, and there were a few sleepless nights. But it was worth the hard work: I ended the year with a 3.9 GPA and the opportunity to volunteer for the agency in Ghana without falling behind my graduation timeline. For me success is about setting a goal and sticking with it, no matter how hard it is, and this experience was proof that I could be successful even when there’s a lot to balance, which I know there always is at a nonprofit like this one.”
“I have definitely been successful. One of the successes I’m most proud of involves a client I inherited from a team member who had recently left the company. I’d been told the client was ‘difficult.’ The client was apparently unhappy with the level of service they had received. I take customer care very seriously, so I listened to the client’s concerns and frustrations and used that information to deliver a better experience for them. I made sure to follow up after each meeting, set expectations clearly up front, and met each and every deadline. In the end, the client was extremely happy and renewed their contract with us. I consider this a success because a positive client experience is what account management is all about. I would bring that same commitment to clients to this role.”
Everyone has had some level of success—whether it’s professional, academic, or personal. Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn and to celebrate the achievements that have brought you to where you are. After all, if you don’t do it, who will?