Mastering the STAR interview technique
I’ve helped candidates prepare for important job interviews for well over two decades now and it’s fair to say that I know the types of questions which they fear the most.
They are situation-based questions which start with something like “describe a..”, “give me an example of…”, “have you ever…”, “what did you do when…”, and “tell me about a time when…”.
These bombshell questions seem to come up when a job interview appears to be going really well.
There seems to good rapport between you and the interviewer, you’ve really described well the type of work you’ve done in previous roles, and you’ve demonstrated an in-depth knowledge of the company you want to work for.
These types of question are called “competency-based” questions and they’re now a feature at most interviews.
When answering these questions, your response ideally should be in the form of an easy-to-understand and concise story told in logical order where you explain in positive and realistic terms how you contributed to a successful outcome.
So what if your interviewer asks you these types of questions? Using the STAR interview technique is what I and most other experienced career coaches would recommend.
What does the STAR in the STAR method stand for?
STAR is an acronym and it stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Result. To break that down further:
- “S“ituation – tell your interviewer about a challenge you faced or a project you worked on
- “T“ask – describes what your responsibilities were in overcoming that challenge or successfully completing that project
- “A“ction – go step-by-step through the procedures you took to address this situation
- “R“esult – share with your interviewer the successful outcome achieved and how your actions contributed to that success.
What are employers looking for when they ask behavioural interview questions?
They are looking for evidence of one of more of the following:
- accuracy is important to you,
- you have quantitative or persuasive skills,
- you work well in a team,
- you can write and present well,
- you don’t give up easy,
- you are creative and you can put that creativity to commercial value,
- you have analytical ability, and
- most importantly, problem-solving skills.
So, when you’re asked behavioural interview questions, how do you use the STAR method to give interviewers exactly what they want to hear?
Telling a story an interviewer wants to hear using the STAR method
The STAR method provides you with a method to create easy-to-follow and persuasive narrative answers to competency-based questions where you are being asked to describe how you’ve handled difficult and important situations and how your actions resulted in a positive outcome.
Let’s look at each STAR method stage individually and let’s examine how it helps you construct compelling, engaging, and interesting stories which will help convince your interviewer that you’re the right person for the job.
The first part of any answer using the STAR technique sets the scene for the story by sharing the background and context of the situation you’re describing.
If you’re asked about situations involving other people (specifically a teamwork situation), you’ll need to include in your answer details of the project you were working on, who you were working with, when the project started, and where you were at the time within the business.
For the “task” element of your answer, you’ll need your interviewer to fully understand what your role was as well as your specific areas of responsibility when you dealt with the situation you’re describing to them.
It’s particularly important when answering not to tell the story of the project as a whole but only to describe your contributions and what you were responsible for.
The “action section” of the STAR method is arguably the most important.
This is the “meat” of the story – where you share details on how you handled the situation you were in and how you overcame the problem or unlocked the opportunity.
What you want to get across in the “action” stage is how you assessed the situation or problem and how you responded to it and, if applicable, how you got the team you were working with involved in the solution.
Details here are key because you’re describing a past event in which the interviewer had no involvement. Bear in mind as well that your interviewer may not be a subject matter expert like you so you should avoid the use of jargon or acronyms which apply to your industry or to the company you were working for without sufficiently explaining what these terms mean if you need to use them.
Describing in detail the positive result or outcome you achieved is the “R” in the STAR technique.
Did your contribution lead to an increase in sales or order values, for example? Did you figure out a way to generate more sales from your existing client base leading to an increase in the lifetime value of each client? Did you find some way to make it easier for customers to access support services which ended up costing the company less money and took pressure and workload away from frontline staff?
You should try to quantify in figures the result your work achieved in response to all behavioural interview questions.
Examples of STAR interview questions
If you’re asked any of the following types of interview questions, they are behavioural interview questions and you should use the STAR technique to answer them:
- Tell me about the last time you were put under severe pressure to get something urgent done at work. What happened next and how did you handle it?
- Describe to me a situation when something you were trying to do at work was unsuccessful. What did you learn from that?
- When was the last time you had to complete a specific task with very little time to do it in? Share the situation with me and the approach you took.
- Give me an example of a joint project you had to work on with another department? How did it work out and what did you contribute to the outcome?
- How did you last handle it when someone on your team didn’t do their fair share of work? How did you resolve the situation?
- What was the last example of when you showed initiative on the job?
- Share with me the last time you were faced with a tough moment at work. How did you sort everything out?
- Share with me what happened when you last had to make a difficult decision at work. What did you have to do and what did you end up doing?
- Describe a time when you disagreed with something your boss wanted. What happened next and how did you bring it to a resolution?
- Can you let me know about the last specific work-based goal you set yourself and how you achieved that goal?
- Give me an example of what happened when you last made a mistake at work. What was the mistake and what did you do about it?
- Tell me about a time when you had to make a decision on the spot. What happened and how did it work out?
- Give me an example of when the last time was that you had to tell someone news they didn’t want to hear. How did you go about it?
Tips on how to prepare for an interview where you need to use the STAR method
Before a job interview, you never know quite what interview questions you’re going to face. But, other than using the interview questions listed above as a point of reference for what you might be asked, there are other ways to prepare answers for which we would recommend you use the STAR method.
Look at the job qualifications
What is the experience and what are the skills required to do this job well?
Closely study the job listing and job listings for similar roles within different organisations and businesses. Look in the listings for clues on what the industry in general expects someone in the role to have by way of skills and qualities and make sure that you match as many of them as possible.
Create a list of examples
Think of every time you’ve encountered a problem or been asked to unlock a business opportunity by an employer and then write four short paragraphs with separate paragraphs for situation, task, action, and result.
Match each competency you have to a competency required in the job
From your list of examples you’ve just created, choose the ones which show you and your experience in the best light but which are also as closely related to the job you’re interviewing for as possible.
Practice your answers on your friends and family first to ask them if they understand what you’re saying.
If they get lost at some point during your answer when you’re using the STAR method approach, ask them exactly where they got lost and amend that section for simplicity.
STAR interview method – examples of answers you might use
Can you give me an example of when you demonstrated excellent communication skills?
During my third year at University, I privately tutored A-level Physics students. I had follow the A- Level syllabus and help students understand difficult concepts, simplifying and explaining principles in ways that would be easily understood by students who were struggling with the topic.
On one particular occasion, I had to help a student understand the relationship between a graph the original formula and data.
In order to explain to the student in a way that they could understand, I first asked them to explain their understanding of the problem. By assessing the students’ knowledge, I realised that they had good functional mathematical abilities but a limited understanding of the original calculation.
I focused my attention on explaining in more detail the basic principles of the original calculation, demonstrating how following the equation calculation precisely affected the data and in turn changed the shape of the graph.
I continually asked questions to the student, to confirm that they were following my explanation double check that they understood my explanation and, when they were not following 100%, my explanation rephrased the way I was explaining the calculation.
By changing and adapting my approach the student started to see the relationship between the calculation, data and graphs and how changes in the equation affected the graph. I noticed that by continually checking the students understanding I was able to pinpoint where they had difficulties understanding and focus my explanation to their particular requirements.
Can you give me an example of when you had conflicting priorities and how did you resolve the situation?
At my last organisation, I was a project manager responsible for delivering a complex IT project which had specific deadlines for the implementation of different modules.
Towards the end of the project, I was asked by the IT director to incorporate significant additional functionality to the IT system while still delivering the project to the original completion date which created a number of conflicting priorities.
I identified and quantified the additional tasks that would be required to be carried and mapped out how this additional activity would impact of the delivery of the original project, in order that we were able to prioritise what would be able to be delivered to the original completion date.
For example, how many additional development, testing and implementation days would be required, any additional material and staffing costs, and how these would affect the delivery of the project to the original completion date.
I wrote a one-page report which outlined the high-level the options for the IT director which showed in detail what each additional functionality would cost and the potential time delay.
I outlined what additional resources would be needed and the costs associated with those resources with the goal of project completion still within the original timeframe.
To do this, I prioritised the additional functionality as essential, good to have, and nice to have in order that he could see the benefits associated with any delay or additional costs.
The IT Director and I prioritised which tasks could be adjusted within the project to deliver the essential new functionality to be added to the original project delivery date, they committed additional financial resources to cover staff overtime, recognising that some of the additional works would need to be completed after delivery of the main project at an additional cost.
Situation, Task, Action, Result – preparing for using the STAR technique at your next interview
Your resume/CV shows an interviewer what you have done so far in your career and the skills you’ve amassed along the way.
But your answers to behavioural interview questions demonstrate to them how well you perform when you’re presented with a problem or a challenge. That’s why they’re so valuable – they marry up the skills on your CV with your experience in the workplace creating a more complete picture of you.
The reality is that, with the right preparation and training, no candidate should be afraid of this type of question. Instead, as a candidate, you should embrace these types of questions because they allow you to share with an interviewer or hiring manager what you’re really able to do when the pressure is on and how you could be relied upon to perform when the company requires it of you.
Do you need help to prepare for your next interview? Would you like to learn which answers will sell you and your experience best when an interviewer asks you behavioural interview questions? We offer three bespoke preparation packages for candidates preparing for important interviews so that you have the very best chance of getting the job you want.
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