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by Kaitlin McManus | November 26, 2019

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There is one question you can basically guarantee will wrap up any job interview: What are your future career goals? Stumbling over this question can make you appear ill-prepared and immature; you should know what your own goals are. Being prepared with clear, concise goals—especially ones that relate to the specific position you’re interviewing for—will demonstrate the thought you have put into your future career and show how serious you are about the role in question. Read on for three important things to keep in mind when answering this common interview question.

Be Realistic

Okay look—my actual ideal career is to be the person who writes the dialogue for background characters in video games. It seems like a fun gig. But is that a realistic outcome for my career? Much as it pains me to say, no. It is a personal “dream” goal that has little bearing on any position I’ll be interviewing for in the future; therefore, I’ve never mentioned it in an interview.

I sincerely hope you have a dream job. But there’s a pretty good chance that most of the jobs you’ll be interviewing for aren’t that dream job. So when asked about your career goals, be mindful that dreams and goals are different things. My suggestion would be to focus on short-to-mid-term career goals: What do you want to accomplish or learn in the next year or two? How about five? Careers can grow in that amount of time, but it’s less common for them to be completely removed from what’s happening in the present. Give some thought to the likely places your career will head and what you want from those options.

Be Specific (But Not Too Specific)

If you’re like many job seekers, you don’t know exactly what you want to do in your career. Even people with the same job title can wind up doing different things depending on their skills, goals, and organizations. But you probably have an idea of the types of things you’d like to do, what you’d like to learn, etc. Don’t be afraid to tell your interviewer how you’d like to grow. For example, “I’d like to grow my design skills to eventually focus on the UX side of things.” Even if you’re not interviewing for a UX position, it shows that you’re interested in expanding your skillset and how you can grow into even more of an asset for the company.

That said, being too specific may dock you some points. Say the person in the above example had gone on to say that they wanted to improve their design and UX skills so they could eventually break out into freelance app design and consulting. That’s probably too much information for this interview. While you don’t have to (and arguably shouldn’t) say you’d like to stay with the company you’re interviewing with forever, it’s in your best interest not to mention your eventual plans to leave.

Be Honest

In my position as Vault’s Associate Law Editor, I’ve been pretty clear that I don’t plan on pursuing a law degree. I was asked about it at some point in my interview, and I was forthcoming in answering “no.” It’s not a career path I believe I’d thrive in. But I was (and still am!) interested in the editorial and writing aspects of this role at Vault, as well as the legal industry in general—which I made sure to share. It was important that I display my genuine interest in the legal sphere during my interview, but I didn’t want to lie and say that one day I might go to law school in the hopes of seeming like a more competitive candidate.

It’s important that you do your potential employers the courtesy of being honest with them about what you’d like to accomplish in your career. For one, it gives them a more complete picture of you as a candidate—what your current priorities are and aren’t, how ambitious you are, etc. Employers ask this question because they want to know how you’ll grow and what your role may eventually evolve into. In part, they’re asking this question to plan ahead. They want to know what their team will look like once you’ve settled in and begun to grow. It’s important that you be honest so they know what they’re getting into, and what they should (or shouldn’t) expect from you, which can help you and your managers get off on the right foot if/when you’re hired.

Your future career goals are a common topic in job interviews because potential employers want to get to know you better. But it’s also important that you take the time to really think about them, both to prep for this question and also because having a career trajectory starts with having an idea of what you want it to look like. So take the time to think about where you’d like your career to go—that’s the best way to prepare for this sometimes-tough interview question.

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