How to Talk About Career Aspirations In Interviews

Sam Cook


Career aspirations as woman interviews for a job.

“What are your career aspirations?” is probably the most commonly asked question in every job interview that catches people off guard. This seemingly simple question can be intimidating to answer on the spot. Here’s the real tricky part: If you’re getting asked questions about your career aspirations at a job interview, during a performance review at work, or while meeting with a career mentor, you’d better have something good to say to make good impression!

That part about “having something good to say” is probably why you’re here. This post will help you understand why this question comes up and how to answer it in a way that inspires confidence.

Why do they ask questions about career aspirations?

Hiring managers typically ask applicants a long list of questions to gauge whether those applicants can succeed in the role. In most cases, hiring managers want to see you do well. And if you’ve made it to the interview process, it means you’re a strong enough candidate to consider.

Worker at a table typing on a computer about career aspirations.

However, companies need to be sure you’re a good fit. That means the hiring and interviewing process requires digging into your skills (technical and interpersonal), working style, personality, and more, all to see if these things fit with their company’s goals and objectives.

The interview question can like something like these:

  • How do you see yourself five years from now? How about ten years from now?
  • How does this position align with your career and professional growth?
  • What are you looking to get from this role?
  • What are your career goals and aspirations, professionally and personally?

Why your career aspirations matter to your would-be employers

When a potential employer asks, “What are your career goals?” you’re likely going to break out into a cold sweat and stumble on your words if you haven’t put any thought into it ahead of time.

I know, I know. You probably think that you don’t even know the answer right now. Guess what? That’s ok. Gartner found that only 25% of people are confident in their career path.

Or, since we like bigger numbers around here, 75% of people have no idea whether they’re following the right career path.

Feeling a bit more comfortable in struggling to answer the “career aspirations” question? We hope so. Keep in mind that most HR professionals and hiring managers fully understand that you may not really be confident in this answer. And that’s ok. But you do need to have an answer.

Don’t “um” your way through the career aspirations question

Contrary to popular belief, there are right and wrong answers to this question.

We’ll explore a bit more on that later.

For now, let’s consider: Should you tell the interviewer your career goals, future dreams, and projected career path? Should you share your idea of a fulfilling career and life balance that you have imagined for years?

You will “um” your way through this question when you have not prepared and crafted a well-thought answer. It often feels like you’re in a “fake it ’til you make it” situation regardless of what you do here. Few people will admit that, but it is what it is.

And considering you will be asked about your career goals or aspirations multiple times throughout your professional life, you might as well be ready for it — even if the answer you give is not one you’re totally sure about. Most hiring managers want to know that you at least have a plan that aligns with the company’s organizational goals.

So, how exactly do you answer questions about your career aspirations? Well, let’s start with understanding why they ask.

Why do companies ask about your career aspirations?

Sometimes if feels like this question is just there as a “gotcha.” Depending on who’s asking, it could be. In most cases, the individual asking it is trying to see if where you want to go aligns with what’s possible.

Hiring managers may ask applicants questions about their career aspirations to get a good idea, not just about your career aspirations, per s, but your personal aspirations and whether you’re seeking to grow with their company. They want to feel confident about hiring you and that you know exactly why you want to work for them and if you’re a good fit.

Here’s why that matters:

Man and women interviewing on a coach about career goals.

Let’s say that you’ve just graduated from an undergraduate degree in software development and you’re interviewing at a large company for a junior full-stack developer role. The hiring manager pulls out the ‘ol “where do you see your career in 5 years” question. With a smug and confident expression on your face, you answer “I’m hoping to be a director of software engineering and lead a team that specializes in agile development frameworks.”

Now, you may think this level of confidence and drive will wow the socks off any hiring manager. But if the company is small, all that hiring manager is going to see is a big red flag that says “early turnover” all over it. Small companies may not have that kind of role available to you within five years. If they think you’re only using them as a short-term stepping stone, they may skip you over to someone that’s likely to stick around longer.

Remember, they will use your answers to gauge how your outlook on your professional development and current skillset can add value to them. If they see you as someone who’s going to quickly learn new skills and then cut and run for a bigger company, they may not want you.

Alternatively, if it seems like you have no ambition or goals, they may pass you over. Your goals and aspirations need to be both realistic and within reason for what the company can offer you.

If they see that your career aspirations are compatible with the role and the organization, then you give them a reason to believe that you will be with them for a long time. There should be an alignment between your personal aspirations and occupational aspirations, making your professional life fulfilling.

Here is a comprehensive guide to help you confidently answer questions about your career aspirations.

What should I choose as a career aspiration?

Career aspirations are simply your vision of your future. They are long-term dreams or goals that you want or plan to pursure. Your career aspirations can go anywhere from what you want to accomplish within the next year all the way to the role you want to have when you retire.

here are some examples of career aspirations:

  • Serve as a mentor or educator
  • Be recognized as an expert in your field and industry
  • Deliver the best results in your field
  • Become an executive in the company
  • Develop the necessary leadership skills to land a leadership position in the company
  • Become an effective and inspiring leader

Your aspirations will speak to your personality, character, and reliability. All of that holds value to any company that wants to hire you.

Tips on How to Identify Your Professional Aspirations

Career aspirations can be based on many different things, include (but definitely not limited to):

  • Personal or professional interests
  • Abilities or skills
  • Expertise or talents
  • Lifestyle
  • Values

It can also be tied to your future goals, whether professional or personal.

And since everyone’s personality, values, ambitions, goals, and dreams are different, your career aspirations may differ from the others. Moreover, your aspirations can change each time your roles or career change. The key to identifying your aspirations is to understand what truly is important to you, the things you are good at, and the things that you want for your career and professional development.

Consider your personal values

The best way to identify your career aspirations is to align them with your values. What is it that you truly care about? What motivates you to get up and go to work every day? What does success mean to you?

If you cannot answer those questions, it might be time for you to do some self-reflection.

One way to do this is to make a list of what you value most about your in your field, career and what you want to get from a job.

The idea is to find whatever excites and fulfills you. Prioritize what you feel is most important to you and start building from there.

 Identify your strengths

Woman writing in a journal about her career aspirations.

Consider the following questions as brain teasers:

  • What are the things you are good at?
  • What are your talents?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What do you enjoy doing?

If you can find an activity or role that overlaps with these two, you are already on track for your career development.

This doesn’t have to be literal. Maybe you are into photography, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a professional photographer. Look a little deeper into yourself. Perhaps you like traveling solo, you can be a digital nomad and look for remote jobs.

Do you like interacting with and working with people and leading a team? Perhaps you can work towards a leadership position, such as a manager or a role in customer service.

Get yourself a mentor

Do you have someone you aspire to be? Perhaps that person can be your mentor.

Sometimes your best source of inspiration and help is productive feedback and guidance from the outside. The road to career success is a rough one. However, having someone who can lead you to the right path, give you a different perspective, and help you see your best options can make a huge difference in your professional development.

Having direct communication with a mentor lets you discuss your career ambitions, ask the right questions, and, more importantly, catapult you in your chosen career path.

If you’re at an organization that currently offers mentoring, ask if you can join a program. If not, you could be the person to spark that change and help start one.

How to respond to the “career aspirations” question

So how do you answer questions about your career aspirations?

There is a good chance you already know what your career aspirations are. However, job interviews are a different ballgame. The pressure of answering the question seamlessly and convincingly on the spot can be too much for many people.You need to craft your answer based on the company’s goals and values, as well as the position you are applying for.

Here’s your playbook.

Get as much information about the company as possible

Gather as much information as possible about the company’s vision, mission, and goals. Don’t forget to gather all the needed intel on the requirements for the position.

Study the job description thoroughly and familiarize yourself with the company’s future plans, reports, etc., as those things are available. The smaller the company, the less likely you are to find this information on the company website or in publicly available documents, so don’t forget to spy on LinkedIn posts or other social media platforms.

Also, it pays to learn about the company culture too.

One of the better ways to do this is to understand why their organization exists.

Check out their website and social media sites, know more about their top executives, read articles and press releases about the company, etc. And don’t hesitate to do a little due diligence by reaching out to current team members across different departments to learn a bit more about the company.

Communicate your life’s vision

While you should try to align your values with the vision of the company as much as possible, try to avoid just parroting what you read about them. Be your own person (instead of resorting to being a sycophant during the job interview).

The idea is to communicate exactly where and how you see yourself in the near future. Visualize that life. More importantly, you need to show your interviewer that you are in it for the long haul.

Practice talking about your vision out loud, pay attention to the details and make it emotionally resonant.

Keep your goals and aspirations relevant to the interview

There is a good chance you don’t know precisely what the company’s future plans are, no matter how hard you research. You can of course, use the information available on their website and their vision and goals.

At the job interview, keep your answers concise and, more importantly, relevant to the information you have gathered about the company.

As much as possible, stay away from mentioning aspirations that might be irrelevant to the role unless you’re at the part of the discussion where the hiring manager wants to know more about you from a personal level.

The less you say, the fewer mistakes you make. Obviously, don’t clam up and just smile and nod to every question. But come prepared to talk about your career aspirations and personal aspirations to the degree that will satisfy the hiring manager’s interests in both.

Rather, talk about the positive qualities that you think can help you in the position, your competency, and of course, your career goals (both short-term and long-term).

Use “We” instead of “Me”

Two women high fiving at a desk.

Humility can go a long way in job interviews. While you want to impress your hiring managers with your resume, and dazzle them with your wits, try using “we” instead of “I” as much as possible.

This way, you are suggesting a partnership with the organization. If you constantly talk about yourself (and only yourself), it would give the impression that you only care about what you want.

Also, show your interviewer that you care about the company. Using the word “together” in your phrases shows you want to be a team player and help the company succeed.

Show that you are a team player.

Show your interviewer that you can adapt to changing conditions in the workplace. Be open to new ideas and other people’s perspectives.

Go in there with a plan

Failing to plan is planning to fail. If you have a scheduled interview, then it’s best that you prepare your answers to the most common interview questions, especially on career aspirations.

Jot down a short outline for your short-term and long-term career goals. Include details on your plan of action. If the hiring manager notices your meticulous attention to detail, you will most likely get the job.

Career Aspirations Sample Answers

Here are some examples of how you can craft a better answer for your job interview, specifically about your career aspirations.

Career aspirations for an entry-level position

Start by talking about your desired career path and the vital skills you have (and need to develop) to help the company now and in the future.

“I will welcome company training for skills development so I can be more proficient and productive in my role. I’d love to work my way up to a leadership position in this company one day, so I’m interested in learning as much as I can to help the organization reach its goals.”

Career aspiration for a managerial role

“Together, we can help the team run better and work together more efficiently. With your help, I can grow as an inspiring leader, all while instilling the values and vision of the organization in the new hires. I wish to become an effective leader in one of the organization’s departments in the next few years.”

Professional aspirations for a department lead role

“I believe in the company’s core values, and I plan on delivering action on those values throughout the department I am going to lead. I plan to continue developing my existing skills to help the organization continue toward success.”

Career aspiration for an executive role

“I plan to use the expertise and experience that I have developed throughout my career to help take the company to the next level. With the company’s core values and my commitment to innovation, we can be more successful. My long-term goal is to make this company one of the best in its industry. I want to leave a lasting impression in my role and plan to mentor would-be leaders to ensure the company’s institutional knowledge and success practices continue unbroken.”

Pitfalls to avoid when answering career aspirations questions

Shooting out the right answers is great. Sometimes, though, the best approach is to avoid saying the wrong things altogether.

Admit when you don’t know something

Honesty is the best policy in interviews and performance reviews. When you’re asked a question, especially related to your career aspirations, don’t try to make something up on the spot to fill the gap. It’s OK if you’re not fully sure. Just be honest about that.

You can say that you’re still exploring where to go in your career, for example. Or explain that you’re hoping to pick up new skills and experiences that will better inform which direction makes the most sense. Don’t undervalue the experience and skills you have right now. Instead, be honest that you’re still learning about what direction might be the best for you.

Implying that you are going to leave the company quickly

As said earlier, the hiring manager is to find someone that can be with them and help them long-term. Nobody wants to hire someone who will leave after a few months, as this will affect their organization in many ways.

Never mention or suggest that you see the company as a short pit stop on your way to other things. If you suggest that the company is temporary, they’ll likely move on to someone else.

Take Your Career Aspirations to the Next Level

Having clear career aspirations will help you succeed in the job interview process. Beyond that, they’ll help you succeed in your career.

Check out a few of our other career-related guides for next-step actions:

Sam Cook