Magazine

How to Prepare for a Performance Review in 5 Steps

By Ellevest Team

It’s that time again: performance review season. That annual (or biannual) meeting when you sit down with your boss to talk about how well you’ve done your job lately.

A laptop sitting next to a potted plant, a checklist, and a pencil, while icons like five-star rating and a timeline hover above. Illustration.

Maybe you’re nervous. (Normal!) Maybe you’re looking forward to it. (Also normal!) Either way, doing some prep beforehand will be worth it. Because while performance reviews might not be the most comfortable meetings you’ll ever have, they’re actually not just about what you’ve done so far in your role. They’re also a hugely valuable opportunity to talk with your manager, zero in on your goals for the coming year, and get clarity on how to achieve them.

So this year, before you walk in that room (or get on that call), here are five ways to get yourself ready for your best year-end / mid-year review yet.

1. Clarify your goals (annual and beyond)

This is your time to dream! Ask yourself these key questions:

What do you want out of your career? Hell, if not a career, what do you want your future in the workforce to look like?

Are you happy with the path you’re on now? Or do you think you might want to pivot into a new role / department / career track altogether? What would you like to do or learn in the next 12 months? Maybe you want to try …

  • Managing people for the first time?

  • Taking ownership over a new process?

  • Tracking some new metric (or improving an existing one) and reporting on it in meetings where leadership is present and your work can be seen widely?

  • Getting promoted?

But think beyond the next year, too. What might your whole life in the workforce look like? It’s OK if you don’t know — most people don’t! It can be helpful to think of a handful of possible futures that appeal to you, then do some reflecting (and probably some Googling) to map back the major steps between those futures and where you are now. Also keep in mind that career goals change all the time, so this doesn’t need to be an exhaustive list; you can expect to amend your long-term goals as you go.

Having some clarity on what you want (and how it’s been achieved by others) can help you come up with a list of skills you want to learn, responsibilities you want to explore, and other goals you might want to set for the future as you head into your performance review.

2. Write out a list of your accomplishments this year

(Warning: This next exercise might make you feel really, really proud.)

By the time you get to your performance review, decisions about annual budgets will probably have already been made. So believe it or not, unless you know your company does things differently, asking for a pay raise in an annual review may not get you very far. (That said, you should feel confident in bringing up the possibility of a raise at any time of year, so don't save it for review season!) However, it is the time to lay the groundwork for compensation conversations in the future — think of it as the place to start building the case for why you’re being underpaid, if you feel that way.

So modesty has no place in a performance review. Don’t be shy! If there was ever a time to name and own all the great stuff you’ve accomplished in the past year, this is it. This is where you get to stand up for what you’re worth.

Start by writing down the goals you’ve been working toward. (You could include the goals you set in your last performance review, if you’ve been working on them.) If you were given personal performance goals at the beginning of the year, use them. If not, maybe you know the company’s high-level goals, like “grow our customer base by X%” or “improve the company’s operational efficiencies.” And if you aren’t sure about company goals either, think about what your job’s major responsibilities are — start with those.

Then, underneath each goal / responsibility, write down what you accomplished in that area. Go back through your calendar, documents, emails, presentations, etc, to collect as much evidence of your contributions as possible.

For example, if you work in advertising, maybe you launched campaigns that brought in a certain amount of revenue. If you work in customer service, maybe you handled a certain number of calls or maintained a satisfaction rating of a certain percentage. If you manage people, maybe your team completed a major project. If you work in HR, maybe you hosted a learning initiative or hired a certain number of new people for the team.

Numbers are always good — money made, deliverables delivered, projects completed, etc — but don’t forget the non-number stuff, too. Spend a few minutes listing out the skills you learned this year, the relationships you built, and the personal accomplishments you hit. (Super-pro tip: Start a spreadsheet to track those accomplishments as you go — links to big projects, praise from leadership, hard data, and so on — and this step will be a breeze next time.)

3. Decide what questions you want answered

While it is an assessment of your recent progress, your performance review is also the perfect time to make sure your job expectations are crystal clear — for you andyour manager. Knowing what’s expected of you is also a big piece of the how-to-get-a-raise puzzle. (You might be knocking it out of the park on the reg, but if half of your best work lies outside your lane, you’re less likely to be recognized for it.) When you know what your boss wants you to accomplish, you can more easily track your progress toward those accomplishments — and then show them exactly why you deserve that promotion.

So ask them:

  • What are the company’s goals for this year?

  • What are our team’s goals?

  • What are your goals for me?

  • How will I know when I’ve hit those goals?

  • What are the specific metrics I can track to ensure I’m doing my job well?

If there's a big enough difference between your existing job description and what your manager tells you is expected of you this year, this might be the right time to broach the subject of getting your title expanded or changed altogether. A raise might be a difficult ask in a performance review, but a title commensurate with your daily duties could be an easier fix.

4. Plan to ask for (at least) one thing you want in the coming year

It can be daunting to ask for things we want. But if you don’t ask, you’re a lot less likely to actually get it. Your performance review is the perfect time to tell your boss about what you want out of the next year.

This could definitely include asking for a raise or promotion in the near future, but it could also be a stretch goal — like those “start managing people,” “take ownership over a process,” or “report on metrics to leadership” type goals you thought of in step one. Your wording could be something like, “I’d like to start talking about [a promotion / a raise / becoming a manager / etc] and what next steps we’ll need to take to make that happen.”

Fair warning: You might not get the things you ask for right away. Your manager might think you need to develop extra skills first, or what you’re asking for might not fit with the overall company plan right now. But don’t be discouraged. Ask your boss to help you set mini-goals to help you get there. By communicating your eagerness to grow and then putting that plan into action, you’re not only going to make it easier for the higher-ups to say yes later on; you’re signaling to your manager that they can trust you to be ready when the time is right.

5. Be ready to receive — and engage with — feedback

If you’re nervous about your performance review, you know that they’re not just about pats on the back. Constructive criticism is a big part of it, too, so you should expect to get at least some feedback. That’s kind of the whole point, y’know? How can you grow if nobody points out any opportunities for improvement?

Still, receiving constructive (or even straight-up negative) feedback is rarely comfortable — for the receiver or for the giver. So do some mental preparation ahead of time, and get ready to stay open-minded. Because the more professionally you respond to constructive feedback, the better it will be for your development, your relationship with your boss, and your future in that role.

Start by trying to anticipate what feedback your boss might give you — where do you think your own areas of improvement are? Be honest with yourself, because if you can answer this question in your mind ahead of time, you’ll be better prepared to a) hear it from them, and b) respond productively. (Side note: You might already have a leg up in the feedback department if you’ve ever worked a retail or service job.)

During your review, you’ll want to listen carefully. Don’t make excuses or get defensive, and try not to get flustered, even if they’re not very good at delivering the feedback kindly. Thank them for their honesty. Ask for specific examples if you aren’t sure what issues they’re talking about, and for suggestions as to how you might improve. If they point out something you know is true, own up to it and (if it’s appropriate for the situation) tell them how you plan to do better in the future. If you aren’t sure how to respond, or you start feeling overwhelmed, tell them you want to take some time to sit with the feedback so you can discuss it with them more productively later on, when you’re feeling more controlled.

Here are a few sample scripts to get you started:

“Thank you for bringing this up with me. I know that I had difficulty [doing X] this year, and I’m sorry it [caused specific disruption or difficulty]. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and going forward, I’d like to [plan of attack for doing X better in the future].”

“I hear what you’re saying, and I appreciate that feedback. I want to make sure I’m super clear on the issue — could you give me an example or two of a time when I fell short of those expectations? That’ll help me make a plan to do better in the future.”

“I see what you mean, and thank you for pointing that out to me. Can you help me make a list of a few ways I might get better at that this year?”

“I appreciate that feedback — if it’s all right, I’d like to spend a few days thinking it over so I can make a plan to improve in the future. Can I put 30 minutes on your calendar next week to talk about that some more?”

Those five steps — setting goals, listing accomplishments, coming up with questions, asking for what you want, and accepting feedback — will help you feel really prepared for your performance review so you can get the most out of it. Good luck — not that you need it.


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Ellevest Team

The Ellevest team is working to help women reach their financial and professional goals.