What does it mean, to be excellent? We can talk about great food we cannot forget for days, fantastic movie which kept us on the edge of our seats, or a young gymnast who just performed unimaginable exercise on the bench. When we experience excellence, in whatever form, we immediately know it. But how to define it in a job interview? An what the hiring managers want to hear from us, when giving us such a strange question? That’s not an easy one to answer, but I will try my best.

Let’s start directly with 7 sample answers. I tried to include on my list answers fitting for a variety of jobs and mindsets, and I also added a couple of rather philosophical responses to this intriguing question. Once done with reading the answers, and hopefully labeling at least one of them as excellent, proceed to the notes below the answers, for additional hints on how to impress the hiring managers while answering this question.


7 sample answers to “What does excellence mean to you?” interview question

  1. To me it means approaching perfection. Be it in sport, art, or in a job–for example in graphic design, my field. Excellence means standing out from the crowd, and being able to deliver designs that are easy to distinguish and remember. Designs that sell, that stay in the mind of anyone who spotted them, designs that shake the status quo in the given field. That’s how I would define excellence, and you can be sure I always aspire to deliver it.
  2. To put it simply, excellence means being better than the vast majority. Take 100 cars, horses, managers, or even ice creams, as an example. You let the customers to try each, or you set some other criteria for grading them. Then you categorize them into percentiles, worst ten percent, ten above that, and so on. And the things that end up in the highest tier–the top 10%, we can label as excellent. Simply because they’ve beaten the rest of competing people, products, services, or whatever, in the criteria you set.
  3. In my opinion, excellence means simply meeting the expectations of the customer to the last detail. Take this hotel as an example. The customer has to feel welcome and respected from the moment they enter the door, until the moment they check out, and pay their bill. Each and single employee plays a role in this process. People at front desk, maids, waitresses in the restaurant, cooks who prepare the food, and of course managers and everyone responsible for the daily operations of the hotel. Only when every employee tries their best for the guest, and takes care of all their duties, will the guest leave the place extremely satisfied. And then they will go online and post reviews and label their stay as excellent. There’s a lot of hard work beyond that simple word, however. And I sincerely hope that I will get a chance to join the ranks of your employees, and help you deliver excellence.
  4. More than anything else, excellence is something I aspire to achieve in all roles of my life. Be it a role of a father, husband, son, the role of an employee, or even the role of a friend. Because I consider life a serious endeavor, and when I got this gift and a chance to live on Earth, I want to make the best out of it–not only for me though–for everyone I am entangled with in the complex red of human relations. Sure enough, I do not always succeed. In my last job for example, on some days I knew I delivered an excellent work, and on others I did just an average job. But we are humans after all, we make mistakes, and cannot expect perfection–be it from ourselves, or from the others. Nevertheless, I will continue my pursuit of excellence in everything I do in life.
  5. Speaking honestly, to me excellence is just another corporate term with a little meaning, just like diversity or corporate culture. Sure enough, we should try our best. But who is the excellent one? What is excellent, and what isn’t? In my opinion, that’s a highly personal thing, and it depends on the standards of each individual. Someone goes to eat at cheap fast food places each day, and they just love the experience, and the food. They would not change it for a dining experience in some five star posh place. But someone else may be disappointed even with the posh place: the quality of ingredients is below par–or at least below his expectations, there is a hair in his soup, etc. You see, what one labels excellent, other one may label as poor. That’s why in my opinion it is only an empty word, and we should not put too much emphasis on it.
  6. Excellence simply means escaping mediocrity. It means being the one in the spotlight, one achieving exceptional results. And we can calk about sport, art, or employment. Because at the end of the day, you can set some goals in every sphere of life. My job is sales. Let’s say we have ten sales representatives in the department. The average monthly sales volume they each generate is $50,000. But that’s the average. In fact, some people generated just $20,000, some $45,000, but there was one guy who generated $95,000. And while it doesn’t necessarily mean he is an excellent salesmen–it could be just one month fluke, we can definitely say that he achieved excellent results. And I can assure you that I will try to be the best one, because I realize the more I sell the more I will make each month.
  7. To be honest, I am still trying to understand the meaning of excellence. Sure enough, I can recognize it when I experience it. Excellent cake, dining experience, seeing an excellent movie, or other artistic performance, meeting an excellent human being. When you experience such things, you immediately know you are experiencing something special, something that’s not ordinary. But to me it is more of a gut feeling. You often cannot attribute it to a single quality. You just know it is there, way above the average, and you enjoy it. But what does it mean exactly I still cannot tell.


However you define excellence, you should claim to pursue it

Regardless of the definition you opt for, regardless of your level of experience, and the job you are interviewing for, you should always aspire to reach excellence. Now it doesn’t mean that you will achieve it, or even approach it. Because excellence by definition rules out 90% of people from achieving it, in any form and shape. But you still have 100% people doing this or that thing, working for this or that company. Some will be excellent, some mediocre, and some poor. And the distribution can change over the years! Someone starting as a mediocre manager may learn and progress and end up the very best one, in an entire organization.

What matters for the hiring managers, however, is your attitude. They want to hear that you try your best each day in work, that you continue improving on your skills, and simply do what you can to become better in your profession. Whether you eventually achieve excellence or not is not that important, because you never have things fully under control. As long as you try to achieve it, they will be satisfied with your interview answer.


Stand out with an unconventional answer

Speaking honestly, “What does excellence mean?” is almost a philosophical question, and hence every answer is a bit unconventional. It just isn’t the same like answering “What are your weaknesses?”, or “What are your goals in five years time?”, or “Describe a conflict you had with one of your colleagues in your former job?”, or other basic interview questions.

However, you can still try to say something nobody else will likely say. Look at the sample answer no. 5 for example. That’s a highly philosophical one. Instead of talking directly about excellence, the job candidate discusses a broader issue–the so called “corporate values”, or “corporate buzzwords”. These are the things organizations promote on their websites, but once you visit them, you see that they have very little in common with the reality in the workplace. And in a way–at least in an opinion of some people, excellence is no different.

Because it is a highly personal thing, and what one calls excellent, other one may call mediocre, or fail to label at all… Give your interviewers some food for thought, and make sure they will remember your answers once they are done with interviewing the last job candidate. This can do wonders especially when you compete for the job with many other, skilled candidates.

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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