What motivates you?

By Nancy Wu

“It’s not what you do, it’s why you do it”

Most interview questions ask for the hard facts: where you worked last, what your salary was, what your professional accomplishments are. These are undeniably important; interviewers and companies use them to determine if the candidate’s industry experience is relevant and if their qualifications are appropriate. But it’s the indeterminate, no-right-answer questions that are truly telling of a candidate’s disposition and character, of how they’ll fit with the company culture. For recruiters, the question “What motivates you?” is an absolute goldmine.

With just one question, the interviewer gains insight into your personality, ambitions, values, skills, expectations, and generally, what makes you tick. It can seem a little daunting to answer, due to its open-endedness. But just because the question is vague doesn’t mean your answer should be. In fact, it’s better to be as specific as possible in your response. If your answer is vague, you run into the trouble of seeming uninterested or unprepared.

When the recruiter asks this question, they are not asking what motivated you to apply for this job, or what your career aspirations are. They are asking about what you value, what you enjoy doing, and ultimately, if you’re a good cultural fit for their team. The way to approach this question (and similar ones) is to self-reflect and be honest. Think about what your past positions, your preferred work environment, and how you work best. What did you like about past jobs? Do you work better in a quiet, secluded environment or a loud, high energy one? Do you prefer working on a team with lots of interaction or by yourself with no distractions? A workplace with lots of hard deadlines, or one with less structure?

The more detail you give, the better. Back up your claims with examples from your past positions or general professional experience. It might benefit to also tailor your answer to the job. For example, if you are going for a competitive sales role, and you are someone who is motivated by setting goals and hitting targets, be sure to mention that. In contrast, if you are applying for a research-oriented academic position, and you are an internally-motivated individual who prefers a quiet environment where you can work alone, let your interviewer know. Doing so gives your interviewer a concrete and tangible picture of how you fit into the role.

If you would like further advice or interview coaching, please contact us and we would be glad to speak with you.