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5 Easy Steps to Answer “What Motivates You?” in an Interview

Skills and experience are great. You’ll need them to impress that recruiter and the hiring manager and everyone you meet with when you’re interviewing for a new job. But they’re not enough. You also have to have the drive to put those skills to use and draw on your experiences so that your prospective employer actually benefits from them.

When someone asks “What motivates you?” in an interview, they’re not just looking for another arbitrary tidbit of information about you. They’re also trying to figure out whether you’d care about what you’d be doing and bring the full weight of your abilities to bear in this particular role at this particular company. In other words, they want to know if you’ll be an engaged, happy, and productive worker inspired to do your very best in that environment.

“What they’re ultimately looking for is, does this person in some way align with the things that we believe in here, with the values we have here, with the mission we have in the company?” says Rajiv Nathan, a Muse career coach and founder and CEO of Startup Hypeman. “Because you could have someone with a really good resume, but if you ask them what motivates them and their answer has zero alignment with the company, they’re going to get a feeling [that] it’s a bad fit.”

“What motivates you?” may sound like an intimidating existential question, but answering it in an interview is actually pretty straightforward if you follow these five steps.

1. Reflect on Your Past Experiences

“Think about what you’re passionate about,” says Jennifer Sukola, a Muse career coach and human resources professional. “What is it that you find most gratifying in your work?” If you can pinpoint those things, she explains, you have the basis of your answer.

Take some time to mull over—and maybe even write out in a list—the aspects of previous jobs that excited and energized you most, the ones you always wanted to do more of or wished were your entire job.

Perhaps it was being an active member of a team and contributing to a big project or spearheading a brand new initiative. Or maybe it was speaking to customers and making them feel heard. Or it might have been seeing your sales numbers go up and your name climb the leaderboard. Maybe it wasn’t something in your day-to-day responsibilities at all, but something about the mission of the company or who it served.

“It’s definitely worth doing some self-reflection on, even if it’s not for an interview,” says Tara Goodfellow, a Muse career coach and owner of Athena Consultants, Inc.

2. Make Sure Your Motivation’s Relevant and Aligned With the Role and Company

It almost goes without saying that one person could be motivated by many things, depending on the context. This isn’t the time to expound on your deep love of ice cream and dogs and wax poetic about how you’d cross oceans and climb mountains to eat a cone or pet a pup—unless of course the job is ice cream taster or dog walker.

When you’re answering the interview question pick one career-focused idea that’s relevant to the role and company you’re applying for. “If it’s a small startup and growing company and you are motivated by learning new things and being challenged, that’s a great answer because that’s going to be the environment you’re in,” Goodfellow says.

On the other hand, “if you’re going to be doing accounting analysis all day and state that