“What do you want to do with your life?”
As if this question wasn’t tiresome enough when you were a child, it can induce some serious anxiety as an adult. So why do prospective employers seem so keen on asking it again and again during job interviews?
The short answer: they’re not necessarily asking it because they want to know your response. They’re asking it because they want to see how you respond.
Because there are no “wrong” answers, you may think these are a cinch – but failure to take these questions seriously can mean the difference between landing the job and missing out.
Here are a few pointers for preparing thoughtful responses to open-ended interview questions:
Make it a sprint, not a marathon
You want to be thorough in your response, but the interviewer does not want to hear your life story. Make sure your response is concise and always bridge back to the details that show you’re a good fit for the position. A response of 30 to 60 seconds should answer the question, plus leave time for follow-ups.
Keep it professional and interesting
No matter how conversational the interview might seem, remember that this is a professional environment. This isn’t the place for off-the-cuff remarks that might raise red flags with the interviewer. Unless it directly relates to your potential position, avoid topics you wouldn’t address in polite company (religion, politics, etc.). It’s also important to be creative in your response; don’t rely on tired, old phrases (e.g., “I want to make a difference in the world.”) that the interviewer has heard dozens of times. Talk about your aspirations in unique terms, while staying realistic and always keeping the position top-of-mind.
Think big, but bring it back to earth
It’s OK to be ambitious when stating your future goals, but it’s also important to be realistic and remain relevant to the conversation you’re having. While a prospective employer might be impressed that you want to “change the world,” the interviewer will want to know how the position offered will help you attain that goal.
Keep in mind the importance of “soft skills”
While you may not know your ultimate professional goal right now, it’s useful to give your interviewer a taste of what you enjoy and excel at doing. Interviewers – particularly those hiring entry-level talent – are interested in learning about candidates’ transferable skills like leadership, communications, teamwork and resilience. Share a story about how you led your high school lacrosse team to victory, or how you overcame initial setbacks and landed that great internship last summer. Use those moments as opportunities to show your interviewer that you have “life skills” that will pay dividends beyond the initial job for which you’d be hired.
Answer the question: “How does this position help further my ambitions?”
This is perhaps the most important part of your response to open-ended interview questions: tying everything together with the position you’re seeking. As you anticipate and prepare for this question, consider why you want this particular position and how it fits with your career goals. Then, create your response accordingly.
Candidates might think these are softball questions, but they’re incredibly useful for employers because they can reveal parts of a candidate’s personality, work ethic and values that may not otherwise be visible. Many candidates rise or fall based on their responses to open-ended questions like these, so it’s best to do some “dreaming” about your ambitions before you take a seat across the table. Good luck!
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