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Why Asking This Common Interview Question is a Waste of Time

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Whether you have been the interviewer or the interviewee, you must have heard one of these questions numerous times:

Where do you see yourself in five years?


What’s your major goal for the next five years?

While the point of these is to understand if the candidate is rational, objective, thoughtful and goal-oriented, they are horrible questions to ask. Having personal goals is important but if they’ve never been achieved who cares what they are. In fact, answering this question can make a candidate look unwarrantedly naïve, clueless, or arrogant and may not give the interviewer any useful information.

Do this instead…

So if you’re going to ask a person about his or her goals, first start by figuring out if they are goal-oriented.

And the best goals-oriented question of all time goes something like this:

What’s the biggest career goal you’ve ever achieved?

If the answer makes sense follow up with,

What’s the most recent career goal you have achieved?

These simple questions are set-up questions to this more realistic question about goals:

What’s your current major career goal?

The idea behind all of this is to first find out if the person has ever achieved any reasonable career goal. If so, it’s important to find out how significant the goal was and if the person has made a habit of achieving significant career goals. If the person has never achieved a significant career goal, why even ask the person about some future hypothetical goal?

Here are some ideas for determining if the candidate is truly goal-oriented or just good at talking about it:

  1. Determine how challenging it was to achieve the biggest past major goals.
  2. Ask why and how the goals were selected and what the person had to do to achieve the most important ones.
  3. Determine if the goals are part of a long-term career plan or a reaction to some short-term situation.
  4. Examine the trajectory of the person’s career goals.
  5. Figure out how committed the person was in achieving these past goals.

Based on this insight the interviewer can determine if the person’s current goal is realistic given the person’s past pattern of goal-setting and achievement. If yes, then you need to determine if your open job provides this type of opportunity. If no, but the person is a top prospect, modify the job to meet his or her aspirations.

For the job seeker, here’s my advice on how to answer the “tell me about your career goals” question. Start off by stating you’ve always had career goals. Then describe the most recent few you’ve achieved. Then describe your current goal and what you’re doing now to achieve it. Then wrap it up saying this is one of the key factors you’ll use to evaluate your next job opportunity. Finally ask, “Do you think the opportunity you have open would meet this criteria and if so, why?” The interviewer’s answer will give you a great clue if you’ll be a finalist for the job or if you even want the job.

Past performance is a great predictor of future performance, especially when it comes to hiring someone who has a track record of establishing and achieving significant goals. Without knowing what the person has already accomplished though you’re likely to hire a bunch of affable and articulate people who can talk optimistically about their goals but  who will frequently disappoint you.