How to answer "Where do you see yourself in 5 years?"

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(MoneyWatch) Tough interview questions are meant to separate the men from the boys and help the interviewer spot a diamond in the rough -- or something like that. In reality, they merely set people who are naturally talented at interviews, or those who are well prepared, apart from those who struggle with these meetings or are less prepared. One typical tough query? "Where do you see yourself in five years?" Here's how the experts suggest you attack this question. Got a better way? Please share in the comments section below.

Focus on your anticipated goals rather than position

Instead of honing in on your title in five years, discuss how you'll help your team today and over that period of time. "While every company wants to hire someone who wants to stay for the long haul, don't go over the top talking about how you want to be at the organization for life," says Tracy Brisson, founder of The Opportunities Project, a career coaching firm for younger employees. "If you're unsure about your plans for the future, play that uncertainty down."

Be vague if necessary

It can be problematic to say "I want to be at this company in five years, in X position" because that may not be true or even realistic, given today's marketplace in certain industries and companies. "Instead, give an answer that shows that you are interested in this position and in this company," suggests Cheryl Palmer, founder of Call to Career, a career-coaching firm. She suggests "I am very interested in this company because from what I read of your values statement, my values align with the company's. In five years I see myself making a significant contribution to this organization and increasing my skill level."

Don't overreach

The classic answer, "I'd love to have your job" in five years, given to the interviewer who would be your boss, just doesn't work well, says Palmer. It can create fear in them that they're interviewing a potential replacement (before they're ready to be move on) and can sound foolish if that career progression isn't a true possibility.

Choose a realistic position

You probably researched your interviewer, and your salary -- so be sure to do the same for your possible career trajectory, says Colette Ellis, founder of Instep Consulting, a career-coaching firm. "Know whether your desired path is feasible there (or if it would be more of a stepping stone)," says Ellis. This smart step will help you more carefully consider any offer you receive, as well as respond reasonably to this tricky question.

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    Amy Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer who has been published in dozens of magazines (including Glamour, Self and Redbook), websites (including AOLHealth.com, Babble.com and Details.com) and newspapers (including The New York Post and the Boston Globe). To read more of her writing, visit AmyLevinEpstein.com.

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