It is important to have goals and dreams. Unless we try to achieve something in life (be it in work, family, spirituality, sports, or in any other field of our existence) we will soon find our daily routine boring, or even unbearable. We will simply go to work because we have to, because almost everyone does the same thing. And that’s the end of motivation, enthusiasm, and achieving anything great either for us, or for our employer. Hiring managers realize it very well, and they will ask you at least one question about your goals in almost every job interview.

The two most popular ones are “What are your goals?”–a very general one indeed, and “Can you tell us about a time you reached a goal, and describe how you achieved it?”. When they want to catch the job candidates by surprise, however, they will ask about a time when they set their sights too high, or too low. Many people remain silent at this point, losing valuable points in their interviews. It should not happen to you once you are done with this article.

Let’s have a look at 7 sample answers to the question. You will find on my list both examples of setting sights too high and too low, answers from both work and private life, and also a couple of unconventional answers. I hope you will find at least one which resonates with you and with the message you want to convey in the interviews.


7 sample answers to “Describe a time when you set your sights too high (or too low)” interview question

  1. I recall such an example from my last job in retail. We were paid on commission basis, and I thought I could earn a lot of money. I set a certain sales target for myself, much more ambitious than the one the store manager referred to. And I tried my best each day in work, serving one customer after another, trying to give them advice, recommend products, and eventually up-sell them, when I got an opportunity to do so. I worked my ass off, and felt completely exhausted at the end of each week. But I still didn’t reach my goal. I earned 20% more than the second best sales associate, but I hoped to earn twice us much. Well, what can I say? I was young, ambitious, and dreamed big. Nothing wrong about that in my book. But I didn’t do the simple math. My days at work had 10 hours only, and only a certain number of customers came to the store each day. And I shared them with three other sales associates. I simply set my sights too high, without understanding what was realistically possible.
  2. I’ve set them too high in my last managerial job. I wanted to make an impression on my superiors, and asked them to assign me one extra client. I wanted to show them that I could handle a heavy workload, and deserved a promotion. But I couldn’t be more wrong… Working on seven different projects for three different clients was just too much of a hassle. On some days I spent hours just responding to emails and talking to different managers from the companies of the clients. My to-do list grew longer each week, I fell behind with schedule, and eventually I had to capitulate, and admit that I could not handle so many clients, at least as long as I wanted to stay on schedule and deliver high quality work. My managers understood it, but someone else got the promotion I was after. And that’s one of the reasons why I am here with you today, smarter and more experienced now.
  3. Well, this is my first job application, but I can definitely refer to an example from my personal life. I spent two years trying to start a relationship with one girl I really liked. She was extremely smart, good looking, and had this aura of “untouchability” around her. Perhaps you know the feeling when you are extremely attracted to someone, and cannot even explain why. That was the case with this girl. I kept texting her, inviting her out. I sent her flowers many times. But she responded just with polite messages and never really showed any real interest in me. The thing is, and I realized it much later, that she was out of my league. Eventually she started to date an older businessman, a millionaire, and I spent a week crying. But I think that everything in our life is a lesson. I learned from the situation, and try to have realistic expectations now, in all spheres of life.
  4. I set my sights too low when I was looking for my first job. Any experience is a good experience they say, and I didn’t care about the name of the company or the salary offer when looking for my first job. So I accepted this job with ABC corporation, as you can see on my resume. But the management was terrible, I took care of basic repetitive tasks most of the day, and didn’t really learn anything new to be honest. I quickly realized that I made a mistake, and started to look for another job, in a company that places value on innovation, in a company where people work in small agile teams and have responsibility for entire projects. And that’s exactly why I am here with you today. You are such a company in my book, and it would be amazing to work for you. I set my sights too low first time over, but I am not going to repeat the same mistake.
  5. I set my sights too high when trying to get to law school. You know, I put a lot of trust into my skills, and believed I would convince them in the admission interview, and applied with three best schools only. But I didn’t get any interviews, because my GPA was not good enough for these self-proclaimed elites, and they weren’t interested in meeting me at all. Lesson learned, and accepted. I did a gap year, traveled a bit around the States and abroad, and next year I applied with schools I could realistically get into. It worked. Here I am few years down the road, with my law degree, trying to get a job with your legal office.
  6. To be honest, I never mind setting my sights too high. I believe it is better to aim at the moon and hit an eagle, than to aim at an eagle and hit the pine tree. What’s more, I also believe that nothing is impossible. Have I been disappointed in life because of my philosophy? Not at all! Because I focus on effort, and not on the final result. At the end of the day, many things are always outside of our control. I set ambitious goals, and try my best to achieve them. If it works, great, if it doesn’t, I am ready to accept it and move to the next goal.
  7. Setting my sights too low is a problem I’ve been facing for years. Speaking honestly, I always lacked confidence. Perhaps it is a result of some experiences from my childhood–bad experiences, but I do not want to talk about them in the interview. When you do not trust yourself, you won’t aim high. And this has been my case for years. I always accepted what I got, and never showed an extra ambition. But now it is time to change it. I’ve always dreamed secretly of working for Google. And I finally found a courage to submit my application. I know that you get millions of job applications each year. So maybe I am setting my sights too high, for the first time of my life. And maybe I am just finally being realistic, because with my education and experience I feel qualified to work here, and ready to deliver excellent results…


Best job candidates can admit making a mistake

Just like with other scenario-based questions, the hiring managers care mostly about your attitude. In this case, they want to hear that you can admit setting your sights too high, and failing to reach your goal. They also want to hear that you can get over disappointment quickly, learn your lesson, and move on towards a new goal.

Last but not least, they want to hear that you have some ambition, and don’t do just the required minimum at work. You set goals, fight for them, but eventually accept the final outcome, and–if it is the case, can admit that you set your sights too high. Sample answers no. 1 and no. 2 on my list will help you demonstrate this attitude…

* Special Tip: What if I told you that you can practice your answers to ALL tricky behavioral interview questions, getting an immediate feedback from a life-like AI interview coach? And that you can start doing it for free, and it is a lot of fun too? 🙂 Check out this page on our partner website, Real Mock Interviews, pick a question, enter your email, and start practicing for free, either on your mobile phone or on your computer.

An example from personal life or school is a great choice at this point

Show me one man who has never dreamed of dating a woman who was out of his league, at least secretly. Such man does not exist in this world, and the hiring managers sitting opposite to you in an interview are also men and women, from flesh and bones.

Talking about an example from your private life, you can easily connect with them on a rather personal level. More likely than not, they’ve experienced a similar situation, or they are even experiencing it right now. Having something in common with you creates a subconscious bond, and they may eventually vouch for you at the end of the interviews.

Do not be afraid to answer some questions with an example from your personal life. It doesn’t mean that you should answer all scenario-based questions with such an example. But sharing one or two fitting situations from your personal life with the interviewers, demonstrating your point, can only help you with eventually getting the job…

Ready to answer this one? I hope so! Do not forget to check also 7 sample answers to other tricky interview questions:

Matthew Chulaw
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