State Your Career Goals in 20 Seconds for Success

NetworkingSkill DevelopmentWorkplace Success

You need to be able to state your career objectives in twenty seconds. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a student, a seasoned employee or the CEO, it’s critical that you learn how to communicate clearly, directly and in simple terms about what you currently do, what you aspire to do and what you hope to accomplish.

Researching, writing and rehearsing stating your career goals will help you develop focus and clarity on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.  It’s well-known that career goals change over time. But you’ll have a better chance of becoming successful at achieving something meaningful when you understand your objectives and can defend your path for getting there with reasonable, achievable steps.

Being able to state your goals in a concise, succinct manner could also inspire and energize you. While it’s not a bad thing to change your mind about your  career goals during your life, it’s important that each time you start anew, you anchor yourself with a career mission statement that can steer your actions. Having a focus to what you’re doing and why you’re doing it will give you momentum to actualize your goals regardless of how many times you need to do this.

At a minimum, narrowing your iterative about yourself can serve as a starting point from which you can assess your interests, abilities, skills and how they apply to the workplace. Crafting a statement will also allow you a place to assess your progress (like a career GPS… see link below) and allow you to formulate a vision for your future.

Being flexible and adaptable will serve you well. That being said, it’s critical that you realize others will judge you based on how you answer the question. An emotionally mature, confident person will recognize that having a thoughtful answer could help you make a positive impression on a perspective gatekeeper.

It’s Not Just What You Say But How You Say It

It’s not only the answer you give but it’s how you state it that will matter. Your delivery can show that you understand the intersection between what the market needs and what you can offer. It could also allow you to show humility. Don’t be concerned that stating your career goals will require that you follow them and never deviate. The truth is there is value in thinking an idea through thoroughly enough to be able to articulate it to others. You don’t need to be married to this initial career goal.  But you need to start somewhere. Stating your goals clearly and expressing what you aspire to accomplish helps others understand your value.

Take Your Guard Down When Asked About Your Career Goals

Even some of the most outgoing people have difficulty or experience some discomfort when put on the spot to answer the question, “What are your career goals?”  It may feel like you’re expected to show you have a commitment to a specific path, but in reality the person asking might just be trying to get to know you.  Many people ask this question in social situations when meeting a younger person just to feel them out.  They also might be trying to break the ice with you to start a conversation. On one hand you can relax and give that person the benefit of the doubt that they’re merely initiating a conversation, but it still benefits you to have a cogent answer to this question.

Benefits of having a thoughtful answer to the question, “What are your career goals?”

Focus and Clarity

Having a concise answer will help you gain focus and clarity for the work you have ahead that would lead to achieving this goal. Your ability to reach that goal (or any career goal) will directly correspond to how well you understand what it is you can do to add value and where you can apply these abilities. Your answer could be likened to a mission statement. See my article on how to create a personal mission statement.

While your answer doesn’t need to be set in stone, having great response will give you focus to what you’re trying to accomplish. It also makes you sound more mature when you have a prepared answer that shows you’ve put thought into your answer and that you’ve begun to take the logical steps towards achieving your goals.

Show Emotional Maturity

Having the social grace to answer this question reflects on your emotional intelligence. You need to construct a brief yet sensible answer that explains your career goals.  A clear answer will demonstrate your self-awareness, confidence and your willingness to be open about yourself to others. It’s always a good thing to be prepared to ask the other person about themselves and their career path plan. Showing you’re focused and at the same time open-minded to  suggestions could make you more likeable and even open the door to finding a mentor to achieve your goals.

Danielle Joanette, Student Development Administrator at the University of Michigan, says that when students are deliberative about the KIND of degree they want, not just the institution’s reputation, they end up making a better choice for their graduate school training. She encourages students to shadow other students in order to choose a department culture that fits them. Whether you’re choosing to go to graduate school or pursuing a job in a field that interests you, it behooves you to learn as much as possible about the environment, the people who work there and the specific details about personalities, skills and expertise that are esteemed in that environment. This will enable to you to develop clear reasoning behind your choice of school and for your chosen career path.

Suggestions to Crystallize Your Thoughts to Create a Career Goal Statement

Create a clear mental image of who you will be in the future. Your vision is a “picture” of what you aspire to – and what inspires you – in your work life. Articulating your vision statement for your career is the first step in helping you eventually reach your career goals.

Follow these steps, adapted from Randall S. Hansen of Quintessential Careers, and you’ll be on your way to creating a career vision statement that inspires and energizes you.

  1. Carve out a chunk of time. Career visioning cannot — and should not — be rushed. It’s also something that may take several efforts and false starts before things begin to clear and you start getting a grasp of your ideal future.
  2. Review your career goals and core work values. For help identifying your work values consider attending UC Berkeley’s Understanding Your Work Related Values workshop and learn about setting career goals in our Taking Action workshop.
  3. Suspend logic and pragmatic thinking. Remember that with a career vision anything should be possible to accomplish, so find a way to turn off any negative thinking that will block you from thinking big. Don’t assume the future is limited to what is happening today.
  4. Try one or more of these visioning exercises to help get your creative juices flowing. Think deeply about the questions and answer each as authentically as you can:
  • How do you define career success? Are you achieving some level of success in your current job? What job will help you achieve complete success?
  • What would you want to do today if all your bills were paid and you had relatively unlimited cash reserves?
  • What would your career be like if you had the power to make it any way you wanted?
  • What you would like your obituary to say about your career accomplishments and the types of impacts you left with the people you worked with?
  • If absolutely no obstacles stood in the way of your achieving it, what would you most like to attain in your career?
  • Who are the people you most admire? What is it about them or their careers that attract you to them? Is there something about what they have or do that you want for your career vision?
  • Imagine yourself in the future at a point in which you have achieved great career success. What is it that you have accomplished? What does your life look like?
  • Where would you like to be in your career in 5 years? In 10 years? In 15 years?

Put it all together. Using one sentence or a concise paragraph, write your career vision. Consider writing a short vision statement along with a short description of how you currently see yourself accomplishing it – reaching your vision. Write everything in the present tense, as if you already have accomplished it. This creates the right frame of mind – confidence about your future – rather than keeping your vision in the distant future.

Keep your vision visible. Once you’ve created your career vision statement, plaster it in various places and read it and say it aloud often. Imagine yourself achieving your career vision. Constantly reinforcing the image of you in your career vision will help you both consciously and subconsciously develop goals and action steps that will lead you to success.

Review your career vision statement regularly. Your vision can – and most likely will – change as you move closer to it. As part of an annual career planning process, you should review your career vision statement and make any adjustments that you feel are necessary.

More Practical Steps to Creating Your Career Goal Statement — Complete Your LinkedIn Profile. LinkedIn has many advantages for anyone who is serious about advancing his career. Filling out your profile requires that you articulate what you’ve done and what you aspire to do in a succinct way. For instance, completing the volunteer section gives you an opportunity to summarize what you’ve done and what you aspire to do. Using LinkedIn will get you one step closer to actualizing your goals. Think about what you aspire to do as well as what you’re already doing when crafting your career goal statement.

Use LinkedIn to Get an Insiders View

When you apply for a job, tailor your message so it applies to each opening. Show you’re sincere about wanting a specific job by delving into extensive research about that company. Use the company page to get specific information about the job opportunity, what an ideal candidate would look like in terms of skills and abilities and who their clients are. Scope out the hiring manager’s profile and join groups she belongs to.  Follow her on twitter and get familiar with group discussions and with the thought influencers in those groups. You could even reach out to other employees through LinkedIn messaging to ask for a brief advice appointment. The more you know about the firm and its employees the easier it will be for you to craft a career statement that shows you understand their needs and how you could add value to this firm. If you’re applying to a graduate program, the same idea applies here. Learn about the institution from other current students and graduates via LinkedIn. People are easy to identify. Simply go into the toolbar that says interests and click on education. Type in the name of the graduate program and you’ll find many people who are past and current students there. You can reach out to these people with a request for an advice appointment.

Networking Opportunity: Connecting with others on career related discussions is a way to build your network and could bode well for your future career.  And if you change your direction you’ll at least be able to answer the question, how did you make that choice. Most people’s career trajectory aren’t straight but rather they follow a more zig zag path where one experience builds on the next until you reach a place where your skills and interests intersect with what the world needs.

Create a Road Map: In order to accomplish something meaningful in your life you need to have a road map for where you’re going.  Great athletes, musicians, artists, world travelers and famous chefs start out with one plan and change it many times over the course of their lifetime. Having a specific and concise career plan will help you focus and keep you on track. Even if you get lost or decide you don’t like the path you’re on, at least you’ll have the experience of knowing what you don’t like. 
You could navigate your career in the opposite direction with conviction when you have learned something from a negative experience. Wherever you work you should be aware of the transferable skills you gained there. Real world experience is better than no experience and you should have your antennas up and be looking for skills that you could apply elsewhere when you move from one place to the next.

Competition for jobs is especially intense in today’s challenging economy and possessing strong, well-reasoned communication skills may give you a competitive edge in securing a job. Every opportunity you have to formulate an answer to a tough question is training for the time when you will need to answer questions about yourself.  Interviewers typically read between the lines in listening to how a candidate answers their questions. They can detect the candidate’s degree of self-confidence, sincerity, humility, ambition and adaptability from his/her answer.

There’s no substitute for practicing your answer to hone your skills in extemporaneous speech. You can ask a friend or family member for their opinion on how you sound.  Practice your pitch in front of a mirror or record yourself so you can see what you look like answering the question. The point is, don’t assume you could shoot from the hip and come off as someone who impresses. Making a great impression requires that you invest time and energy into thinking about your choices and doing research that will back your decision.

Here are two examples for how to answer this question:  If you’re a good writer and public speaker you may say, “I plan on studying communications and public relations so I can apply these skills after I graduate to my career as a Communications Specialist at a mid-size firm where I could use my skills to draw traffic to a business that excites me.”   (See for ideas on careers that match specific skill sets). I also encourage you to keep your answers brief.  Learning to address potential questions in a thoughtful and concise manner will bode well for you when it’s time to apply for internships and for jobs.

Being adept at articulating your reasons for pursuing a course of action will build your confidence when others ask you “what do you plan to do with your coursework?” Or where do you see yourself five years from now?” Having a great answer might surprise you in how much it attracts others respect. Knowing yourself is an attractive trait and can build others confidence in your abilities even without knowing you. When you tell the right person about your vision for making a difference, it could help you get your foot-in-the door in a workplace that needs someone with your talents. Stating your career goals with finesse could also help establish your reputation for someone who is thoughtful, self-directed and as someone with potential for success which is what many hiring managers esteem.