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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

How to Answer “How Do You Plan to Achieve Your Career Goals?” in an Interview

interviewer listening to a candidate during a job interview
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Interviews can be fraught with difficult questions. “Tell me about yourself,” which seems simple but can be quite intimidating. “Where do you see yourself in five years?” “How many windows are in the Empire State Building?” You can also add a new one to this list: “How do you plan to achieve your career goals?”

There are a few good reasons interviewers ask it. Having—and achieving—goals demonstrates your ambition and self-motivation. Both of these qualities are in demand in today’s workplace. Employers want to know that their teams are capable of consistently identifying aims and taking meaningful steps toward reaching them. Your capacity to set and follow through on your own career goals is a great indication of your ability to help your prospective manager, team, and company reach their goals.

In my 10+ years of recruiting and interviewing, asking this question has given me insight into candidates’ overall skill set and drive. It’s also provided a window into their personality, and given me more information to determine whether they are a good match for the position and company.

Here’s how to prepare for this question and give the best possible answer:

Stick to One Goal, Maybe Two

While you may have several goals in mind—good for you!—it’s best in an interview setting to focus on one or two. Otherwise, you run the risk of overwhelming the interviewer with too much information. One really strong, well-thought-out goal is better than several goals that you won’t have time to explain in more detail.

Prepare to talk about what the goal is, why it’s meaningful to you, and what success looks like. When talking about the “why” behind the goal, be sure to include what you will be able to accomplish when the goal is reached or what impact you hope to make.

Focus on Alignment

This is a job interview, after all, so you’ll want to pick a goal that’s relevant to the specific position you’ve applied for. Ideally, this position is one of the steps that would help you in reaching your goal. Be sure to research the company and the position thoroughly before the interview so you can explain how it fits in with your overall plan.

For example, I once had a candidate, an undergraduate student, tell me that her career goal was to work for the Office of the Chief of Protocol within the U.S. Department of State. She outlined how she had taught herself a foreign language, and her current goal was to learn yet another language. This particular position would allow her to interact with an overseas office of our company, giving her exposure to the language as well as cultural norms and business etiquette.

Be careful not to make it all about you, though. Interviewers want to understand what potential candidates can bring to the company. As you’re researching the organization ahead of time, pay attention to what they post on their social media channels, the language they use in the job posting, and how they talk about the culture of the company—all of this will help you get a sense of what type of person will have success working there. And listen to the interviewer talk about their pain points or the need for this particular role.

This way, you’ll be ready to talk about how achieving your stated career goals can also advance the hiring manager’s objectives and contribute to the team and company. In the case of the State Department hopeful, not only would the role help her polish skills she’d need down the line, but she would also be uniquely positioned to contribute to the company as a liaison between offices.

Identify Upcoming Milestones

Being able to accomplish a big goal involves having the tenacity to stick with it for the long haul, and the interviewer will want to see that you can break down a goal into smaller, manageable steps. So talk about specific plans and any markers you have coming up on your way to meeting the bigger objective. This could include finishing a class, obtaining a certification, or otherwise explaining how you plan to hone specific skills you would like to improve upon.

For example, if you’re interviewing for a marketing role and your goal is to become known for your data analysis skills, you might mention that you recently completed HubSpot’s inbound certification and are now working on taking the Advanced Google Analytics course, which you expect to finish next month.

Highlight Past Accomplishments

It’s commonly understood that the best predictor of future success is past behavior. With that in mind, have an example of a previous accomplishment to highlight. Ideally, this is a previous goal you’ve reached, not a current goal that you’re working on, but it could certainly be related (or part of the same trajectory). Taking a moment to look back at a time you successfully set a goal, figured out how to tackle it, and followed through helps to prove your ability to do the same with the next goal and the one after that.

Don’t be afraid to go into some detail about how you accomplished the goal. Explain how you identified the necessary steps or actions, what you learned from it, and how you’ll apply those lessons to reaching current and future goals. This is a great opportunity to highlight key soft skills you already have (and will bring to this position), such as time management, consistency, dedication, and work ethic.

Have Confidence

One of the biggest factors in reaching any goal—personal or professional—is believing you can do it. When you talk about your goals in an interview, it’s important to project confidence and not question the outcome. This is communicated via the language you use (saying “when I do this” vs. “if I do this”), your posture and body language (don’t fidget!), and your breath and cadence as you answer the question (speak slowly and clearly). When you are confident in your skills and abilities in an interview setting, the interviewer will start to believe in you too, and will have an easier time picturing you in the role.

What Not to Say

There are a few things you should avoid when answering questions about how you’ll achieve your goals:

  • Don’t be vague: Maybe you haven’t really thought about your goals too deeply. If that’s the case, now’s the time to start plotting them, so that you can present yourself as a self-aware, thoughtful, and forward-looking employee. Or maybe you don’t want to give away too much information or share intellectual property. If you have a goal you can only talk about in generic terms because of this, then don’t use it in an interview. Instead, choose to talk about a goal you’re willing—and able—to share specifics about.
  • Don’t boast: While you want to be confident and avoid minimizing your previous accomplishments, be cautious of bragging or being overly boastful. Simply state the facts and own your success without making sweeping comments about how fantastic you are.
  • Keep it professional: You probably have goals that aren’t related to your job. Maybe you’re training for a marathon or trying to perfect your bread-making skills. While those are laudable projects, and certainly demonstrate your dedication and drive, they’re very likely too far removed from your professional life to make it easy for the interviewer to connect the dots between your goal and why you’d be perfect for this role (unless you’re a pro athlete or a chef!). It’s better to use an example that directly reflects your professional skills and expertise.
  • Don’t make it about the money or title: As with any goal, it’s important to be able to articulate your “why,” or the motivation behind your ambitions. And yes, everyone needs a paycheck. But if money or a particular title is your sole driver, that’s going to raise red flags for the interviewer.

How to Put It All Together

So how do you pull all of this advice together in the actual interview? Try to keep it succinct. You want to hit the key points: what the goal is, what the main points of your plan are, what you’ve accomplished in the past, what’s coming up next, and how you’re going to get there. But you don’t want to get bogged down with too much information or end up talking too much.

Here’s an example:

“My current goal is to earn the CPA license so that I’m fully certified and prepared to contribute in a junior staff accounting job. My undergraduate degree is in finance and I completed an accounting internship with XYZ Company last summer. While I was there, I decided that each week I’d ask one person from a different team to coffee to learn about their job and career path. Not only did those conversations impress upon me the importance of getting my CPA as soon as possible, they also helped me realize I was eager to pursue forensic accounting, which is why I’m so excited about the opportunity to join this team. In order to ensure I earn my CPA this year, I’ve enrolled in NASBA workshops, have created a study schedule to keep myself on track, and will be taking my first trial test in three weeks. I plan on taking the actual test within the next three to six months.”

This example breaks down what the goal is (earning the CPA), touches on the milestones to get there (taking the workshops, completing the trial test), offers previous evidence of success (undergrad degree and internship), and gives a realistic timeline. Plus, the candidate is able to weave in how this goal ties in with the position they’re interviewing for and why they want the job in the first place.

At the end of the day, you never know what you’ll be asked in any given interview. Preparing for this particular question, though, will be valuable in your job search even if it doesn’t end up getting asked, because being clear about your goals is the first step in finding the right job and taking control of your career path.