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How to answer interview questions about your levels of ambition

'How ambitious are you?' Tricky graduate interview question

Whether you feel positively or negatively about ‘ambition’ can lead you off-course when answering questions about your level of ambition. Discover how to avoid this trap.

Be very clear in your own mind what ambition means to you.

You are most likely to be asked about your level of ambition as part of a strengths-based interview. A ‘strengths’ recruitment process is used by some some graduate employers to assess what you are good at, how you prefer to work and (therefore) whether you are a good fit for the role. However, you could also be asked this question as part of a more general interview comprising a mix of different types of question, especially if you are interviewing for a role that involves leadership (such as a trainee manager job or a place on a graduate leadership development programme) or meeting targets (such as you would need to do when working in sales).

Why are recruiters asking how ambitious you are?

The usual reason for asking you this to see if your general outlook and values (what you want out of your career and life) align with those of the employer. All organisations are ambitious for their future success and progress in areas that matter the most to them – whether that's profits, increased custom, sustainability targets, international expansion, the provision of excellent service and so on.

By extension, they are seeking to discover whether the role you are applying for fits in with your career ambitions. After all, you are unlikely to stay working for an organisation that does not share your worldview or facilitate your career development – and employers want to retain good employees for as long as possible.

You may also be asked this question if the interviewer is keen to discover how driven you will be to achieve targets. This is most likely to be the case if the role encompasses people or team management – they will need you to set goals, inspire and be ambitious for your team – or if it involves reaching agreed and set targets, such as an amount of sales revenue.

As such, this question may also be implicitly asking you:

You will probably find yourself answering one or more of these questions in your answer to ‘How ambitious are you?’. But don’t worry about this too much: if your interviewer specifically wants you to cover one of the topics above, they will ask you it as a follow up.

Where interviewees can go wrong with the ‘how ambitious?’ question

What can make this question difficult to answer is that ‘ambition’ is interpreted very subjectively. How you feel about it can lead you to over-complicate your answer or to inadvertently imply something you don’t mean. For example, that you are so ambitious to reach the top of the profession or to start your own business that you do not intend to stay with the company very long. Or, conversely, if you want to avoid seeming boastful or self-aggrandising, that you don’t have any of the positive skills associated with ambition.

It can even lead you to feel that you have to say that you are ‘highly ambitious’ when you don’t feel that you are – and the odds are that such an answer will sound insincere and unconvincing to your interviewers.

How to answer a question about how ambitious you are

The key to answering this question sincerely and well is to be very clear in your own mind what ambition means to you.

It’s helpful here to go back to the dictionary definition of ‘ambition’. It is a strong desire to do, achieve or succeed at something. We would argue that, because everyone has something that they care about and want to achieve, everyone is ambitious to a greater or lesser extent. It is just that what each individual is ambitious for will be different.

It can be helpful to turn to the dictionary definition of ambition.

So what does ambition mean to you? In a work context, most people assume that ambition means having a massive drive to climb a set career ladder or to start their own business and be the next Steve Jobs. If these are ways that you define ambition and you share one or both of those aspirations, don’t just say something along the lines of: ‘I am very ambitious.’ Outline your goals. Just be careful that you are realistic: that you show a proper understanding of the profession and the career ladder available in it. This could include mentioning professional qualifications and membership of professional bodies. If you do want to add timescales to your career plans (and you don’t have to) make sure that they are feasible. You can say that you hope to start your own business one day – many employers want graduates with entrepreneurial spirit – but we advise also stressing what you hope to learn and contribute while working for the employer.

But what if your ambitions are not related to your career or if you haven’t quite decided what they are? It is important to note that your interviewers won’t expect you to have a detailed career plan. It is perfectly acceptable to talk about what is important to you in more general terms, such as wanting to learn and progress, to be a valued member of a team or or to do something that gives you a sense of purpose.

You can also (or instead) point to a time in the past when you have shown an ambitious mindset, by setting yourself a goal that was important to you and achieving it. Here’s an example of how you could do this (adapting it of course to your own circumstances):

‘I am very motivated when I set myself an objective. For example, when I wanted to save sufficient money to achieve my dream of visiting the Incan citadel of Machu Picchu, I worked out how much I would need to save per month. I took a second part-time job to raise the money and negotiated my broadband deal downwards to save the money. I made sure that I saw my friends around our house rather than by going out, which would be more expensive. It took nine months, but I did get to go.’

By explaining how you achieved an objective, you will indicate that you have the positive qualities associated with ambition. The example above demonstrates persistence and tenacity, planning skills and commercial thinking and negotiation. Highlighting these skills will help to convince interviewers that you are a good match for the role and the company.

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