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Career goals: Why employers want to know and how to ace your answer

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“What are your career goals?” 

If you’ve landed on this post, my guess is you’re in the process of interviewing for jobs, and that question has stumped you once or twice. Or, perhaps, you’re prepping for a performance interview in which you just know your supervisor is going to ask you that.

Whatever your reason, you’re in the right place. This article will go in-depth on career goals examples and how to answer the career goals question in an interview.

Table of contents

What is a career goal?

A career goal is any objective you set for yourself to achieve during the course of your work life. It can be short-term or long-term and can involve things like getting a master’s degree, developing your leadership skills, advancing to an upper-management position or boosting your team’s sales performance.

How to answer “What are your top 3 career goals”? Understand why employers ask

To figure out how to answer “What are your top three career goals?” it’s crucial to understand what the interviewer is really trying to get at.

After speaking with multiple founders, CEOs, managers and other leaders responsible for making hiring decisions, I found two main reasons for this question:

Reason #1: Employers want to see that you intend to stay with their company long-term.

This is, by far, the number one reason interviewers ask you about your career goals. Recruiting, interviewing, hiring and training take a massive amount of resources. If the employer hires someone who intends to move on to a different organization within the year, the employer wastes time and money. By asking for your career goals, the interviewer can determine if your long-term goals are aligned with the position and company you’re applying for.

“We don’t want to hire a candidate who’s applying for the job just as a temporary solution or to get a paycheck,'' says Branka Vuleta, founder of LegalJobs.io. “We want somebody who plans on advancing in that position and who’s passionate about the role he or she applied for.”

“When I ask this question, I am trying to gauge cultural fit and determine whether or not the candidate's personal goals align with my goals as hiring manager and the company's corporate goals,” explains Dave Liu, CEO of Liucrative Endeavors. “Sometimes these align, but oftentimes they do not. You want to suss this out at the outset because if the candidate's are not aligned with yours or the company's, then trouble can arise.”

Reason #2: Employers want to see that you’re interested in growing.

Your answer to the career goals question also gives the interviewer insight into your ambition as a worker overall. If you’ve never given your career goals a single thought, that’s a red flag that you’re probably not interested in growing as a professional.

“No one is looking to hire someone for just the role in the job description,” says Alexander Lowry, executive director for Gordon College’s Career and Connection Institute. “They want someone who shows passion and intelligence and can grow to handle so much more.”

What is a good answer for career goals?

When an interviewer asks you about your career goals, they want an answer that:

Is honest

Most of the leaders I spoke to said that the best answer for the career goals question is an honest one. 

“By responding honestly, you help ensure that you’re actually a good fit for the position,” says Vincent Bradley, CEO and cofounder of Proper Wild. “When you’re hired for a job under false pretenses, there’s a higher likelihood of employee churn—something both the applicant and the hiring manager would prefer to avoid.”

Be honest, but keep your answer specific to the company you’re interviewing with—leave out mentioning moving onto another organization eventually. That’s always a possibility for any candidate, and who knows what the future holds?

“Consider the fact that most recruiters are reviewing for long-term employees,” explains Brack Nelson, marketing director at Incrementors Web Solutions. “Therefore, instead of offering that your biggest career goal is to work in distant fields or companies, explain how you resolve to reach your goals in the stand or the company you are currently involved in.”

Nelson gives this as a good example:

“My career goals involve developing my public-speaking skills. I think that by grasping how to more adequately present advice, I can prove that I am a superb leader and can take on a client-facing position. One reason this job caught my passion is how much hands-on care management offers. I would like to work on feeling more relaxed speaking in front of a crowd and learn how to make my words more stunning. After becoming a better public speaker, I would ideally work my way to an executive position where I get to work with powerful clients.”

Is realistic

Yes, you want your answer to show you have ambition, but you don’t want to look like you’re out of touch with reality.

“Show me where you want to go, but don't come across as foolish,” advises Andrea Ahern, VP of HR and owner of Mid Florida Material Handling. “If you're applying for a marketing internship role, don't tell me you want to be director level in three years. This comes across as cocky and quite frankly, ignorant.”

"Intern to CEO works great in the movies,” adds Tim Toterhi, a chief human resources officer and career coach, “but in life, I’m not buying that plotline.” 

Relates to the role you’ve applied for

You’re interviewing for a specific role at a specific company, so avoid mentioning career goals that stray too far from the open position at hand.

“Someone with career goals that are significantly different than the vertical that they are applying in comes across as a potential flight-risk,” says Ahern. “Tell me you want to be an executive or entrepreneur ‘one day,’ but then tell me shorter term goals that are more realistic.”

Outlines the steps to reaching your career goals

Interviewers don’t want to hear your vague career goals; they want evidence that you’ve thought through how you’ll achieve them.

“What I look for as a good answer is when someone can provide their main career goal and steps for achieving it,” says Jacob Dayan, CEO of Finance Pal. “A great example would be if someone wants to start their own nonprofit, and they provide reasoning as to why they want to start it, steps or research they are doing already, and how the job they are applying for will help them gain knowledge to apply into their nonprofit. … In the end, it’s all about the steps you are taking to achieve that goal and how motivated you are to get there.”

Career goals examples: What are good short-term career goals?

Gaining leadership experience

Mentioning gaining leadership experience or honing leadership skills is almost always a good move. Why? Every job position should ultimately lead to some sort of leadership role in the future. 

“One memorable response is of a candidate who explained that his career goal was to acquire senior-level management and leadership experience that would enable him to manage bigger teams,” shares Paul French, managing director of Intrinsic Search. “He explained that if he were hired, he would bring to the table his passion for sales and marketing and tech skills to help the company achieve its goals. This was a good answer because the candidate clearly explained his goal, what he was looking for in his next position and the value he will offer the employer—an attractive win-win aspiration.”

Going back to school

“I'm always supportive of individuals that decide to go back to school,” says Dana Case, director of operations at MyCorporation.com. “This shows that they are aware a formal education may be required to make a thoughtful career pivot and reach their goals and that their existing college degree may not be enough to speak on their experience, depending on the field.” 

Obtaining a certification

Obtaining a certification in your field shows that you want to advance your knowledge. For example, if you’re a marketing assistant, getting a HubSpot certification in content marketing might be a short-term goal of yours.

Honing your skills

Showing ambition for honing your existing skills is a great way to answer the career goals question. This example comes from Ben Lamarche, general manager of the Lock Search Group:

“I had a great candidate give me the following answer for an entry-level position: ‘I can’t wait to jump in and apply what I learned for my marketing degree. I’d like to rotate through the departments to get a better sense of how marketing works and understand what my strengths are. Once I find an area that interests me and in which I can really excel, I’d like to continue in that area to build a solid foundation. This job is really a first step for me to leverage my current skills and knowledge and gain more to help both the company and myself improve.’”

Signing up for coaching

Anyone looking to level up their skills can benefit from a good coach. For instance, a manager who led a team through the pandemic might realize that she needs extra support to develop her crisis leadership skills. She might then set a short-term career goal of hiring a leadership coach to help her prepare for the next crisis.

Becoming a mentor

A senior accountant might set a short-term career goal of mentoring someone at his firm as a way to give back to the company, develop the next leaders and help himself grow as a leader too.

Attending a seminar

A female executive of a financial tech company might set a short-term career goal of attending the TEDWomen conference as a part of her long-term goal of advancing women in the fintech space.

What is a realistic career goal?

As mentioned above, interviewing for an internship and saying that you want to be CEO one day comes across as fanciful. Instead, say something more realistic, like, “One of my career goals is to hone my leadership skills and take on a managerial position, which is why I’m so excited that this internship involves managing a team of volunteers.” It connects where you are now to where you want to be without flying too far off the page.

A realistic career goal will have these three elements:

  1. It’s possible within your given timeframe. Becoming CEO might be possible in 20 years, but if you say you hope to get there in three years, that’s unrealistic.
  2. It’s within the realm of your existing experience. If you got a degree in chemistry and spent the past 10 years working in a laboratory, don’t say you want to become managing editor of a magazine unless you have a plan for making such a drastic career change.
  3. You have a plan for getting there. Okay, so maybe you’re making a career change—that’s totally fine! In that case, if your future career goals are mismatched to your past experience, just be sure to outline the steps you will take to gain the relevant experience to achieve your goals.

    So if you are the chemist-turned-aspiring-editor, you might say something like, “For the past two years, I’ve been shadowing a fashion photographer and contributing written pieces to a local magazine. Recently, I began taking evening writing classes to improve my storytelling and editing skills. Given the progress I’ve already made, I plan to obtain my bachelor’s in journalism and eventually take on a role as editor of a magazine.”

Career goals: No right or wrong answers

When talking to leaders for this piece, overwhelmingly, they told me that there’s no right or wrong answer—these are your career goals, after all. But, there is a way to answer this common job interview question that boosts your chances of landing the position.

Just remember, interviewers ask “What are your career goals?” to determine two key things:

  1. Are you likely to stay at the company long-term?
  2. Do you have the ambition to grow professionally?

Your answer should give them a resounding “yes” to both questions.

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