STAR: A Smart Method for Answering Job Interview Questions

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Hiring managers typically ask job candidates the same set of questions—and they often hear the same set of boring, generic answers. You aren’t boring or generic. But, you aren’t sure how to stand out from the other applicants without resorting to a gimmick. This is where the STAR interview method can help.

Not only will it help you stand out, it’s also an effective way to show the interviewer that you’ve got the skills for the job.

What Is the STAR Method?

The STAR method (sometimes also called SAR) is a technique that helps you answer interview questions using specific and concrete examples of your skills. Using this method helps you effectively tackle any interview questions in a few easy steps.

STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. According to Brie Reynolds, career development manager and career coach at FlexJobs, the STAR method “gives you a chance to paint a picture for the employer. By telling them a specific story to answer their question, you’re engaging them on a deeper level. They can picture you doing specific tasks. And, better yet, they’re picturing you doing a task well and getting a great result.”

When you’re answering any interview question, remember the letters and what they stand for, then answer each letter in order. This will help guide your response and keep you on track.

But, figuring out how and when to use the STAR method can be tricky. If you aren’t careful, you may paint the wrong picture for the interviewer.

When to Use the STAR Method

The STAR method works best with behavioral questions. Don’t know what that is? Behavioral interview questions usually start with phrases like:

  • Tell me about a time when…
  • What do you do when…
  • Have you ever…
  • Give me an example of…
  • Describe a…

If you hear one of these (or something similar) at the start of a question, you’re hearing a behavioral question, and it’s time to put the STAR method to work.

How to Use the STAR Method

The STAR method does more than help you meaningfully describe your skills to the interviewer. Using the STAR method helps give the interviewer insight into how you have used your skills to achieve the desired result.

For example, if your answer to a question is, “I raised revenue,” that’s great, but it doesn’t mean much. You need to explain how you raised revenue and what that meant for the company. Doing this gives the interviewer more information about you, your skills, and how you approach and solve problems.

Situation

Start with the situation. Explain what was going on and, perhaps, why you were in the situation. It could be a situation at work, volunteering, or even in a group project for a class.

Explain the barriers you faced. What was standing between you and your goal? Why was it a barrier? It doesn’t have to be negative to be a barrier. For example, you could say, “I saw revenue was down for the last two quarters, and I wanted to find out why.”

Task

Describe your specific tasks. Explain what you were responsible for, or explain what the goal was. “I needed to motivate other group members so we could turn in the project on time.”

Action

Talk about what you did to achieve the goal. What actions did you take? However, describing your actions isn’t as simple as “I worked hard.”

Be specific about what you did. “I analyzed revenue streams for the previous six months to identify bottlenecks or gaps in our sales cycle. We then created lead nurturing campaigns that educated potential customers on the long-term benefits of our solutions. This messaging aligned with our sales strategy and helped increase product demos.” You’re giving the interviewer specific, concrete examples of the actions you took that helped achieve your goal.

If you’re describing a group situation, explain how your individual contributions helped the group achieve its goal without taking credit for everything. This can be tricky. But, if you remember that you’re describing how your contributions helped support other members and ultimately allowed the group to achieve its goals, you’ll demonstrate that you’re a team player.

“I created a chart with specific due dates for every team member. Then, when I saw Dillion was behind, I helped him brainstorm ways to complete his task without sacrificing quality.”

Result

What were the results of your actions? Again, it’s not the simple answer of “I raised revenue.” Go in-depth about the results, how they impacted the company, and what you learned from the entire process.

“Because of the impact of lead nurturing, our customer acquisition costs decreased by 20% and our sales team was able to increase demo appointments by 15%. After feedback from the sales team about what pain points potential buyers are experiencing, we were able to create several more campaigns centered around user feedback.”

Common STAR Method Mistakes

Sounds good, right? Simply talk about what you did, how you did it, and what you accomplished. But be careful. It’s not always as easy as it sounds. There are some mistakes you need to watch out for when using the STAR method.

Forcing a Situation to Fit

Of course, you’ve been practicing before your interview. And, you’ve probably come up with a few examples of success you can use during the interview using the STAR method.

However, it’s easy to think, “well, one of these stories will work,” when they don’t. Instead of listening to the question and coming up with an answer on the spot, you use one of your “practice answers” and hope it works.

But, instead of demonstrating to the interviewer that you’ve got what it takes, all it shows is that you aren’t listening and don’t really have the skills they want.

It’s better to say something like, “Well, I’ve never encountered that before. But, if I had, here’s what I would do,” then use the STAR method to explain how you would deal with it, using examples of what you have done in similar situations.

No Preparation

There’s no way to know what an interviewer will ask ahead of time. While you can research common interview questions (and even answers), the truth is, you never know what’s going to come up. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare for behavioral questions. And, it doesn’t mean you can’t, either.

For example, Reynolds says that “Some of the more successful job seekers I’ve worked with create a document where they write down different STAR stories for a variety of interview questions.” She suggests you think of all the possible behavioral questions you could be asked in an interview, and write down a bulleted list of answers for each question—one bullet answer for each letter.

The simple act of thinking about what stories fit where will help you come up with a STAR-based answer that’s specific for every question you might come across during an interview.

Trying to Turn a Negative into a Positive

It’s a common tip that when the interviewer asks for a weakness, you give an example, but turn it into a positive. “I always overthink things, but that allows me to see things from every angle.”

The problem with a behavioral question, though, is that, if you aren’t careful, you can turn a negative into a more negative.

For example, say your answer is about a time that something went completely wrong. Sure, you took responsibility for it and learned from it, but everything ended in disaster. What does that say about you? Why would the employer take a chance on you?

When using the STAR method, make sure you’re using an example that ends in positive results. It’s OK to mention that something went awry during the action part (“Creating an email campaign that ended up being a lot harder than I anticipated because of our data integrity”), as long as the result is positive and, perhaps, you learned something (“We were able to create a workaround in the system and are now emphasizing data hygiene across the board. I also learned that I need to bring IT in on these things a lot sooner than I did for this project”).

Not Applying the Method

Sometimes you’re asked questions that aren’t really behavioral questions: Where do you see yourself in five years? What are your strengths and weaknesses? How would colleagues describe your work style?

But you can still use the STAR method to help answer some of these “classic” interview questions. Simply add a “behavioral introduction” to the question. For example:

  • (Tell me a story that explains) Where do you see yourself in five years?
  • (Tell me a story that explains) What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • (Tell me a story that describes) How would colleagues describe your work style?

While you likely don’t need to launch into a lengthy anecdote that describes your work style or where you see yourself in five years, using the STAR method to prepare an answer to these questions may help you come up with a unique answer that only you can give.

STAR Method Interview Questions and Sample Answers

Talking about the STAR method is great, but using it is even better. Let’s look at some typical interview questions and answers using the STAR method.

Tell me about a time when you experienced conflict on the team, and how did you resolve it?

Situation: I was tasked with implementing a new project management system. This meant I had to coordinate the tasks and goals across several teams. Unfortunately, there was a long-simmering conflict between two of the team leaders who were going to have to work closely on this project.

Task: I started by creating the timeline, then figuring out when those two people were going to have to work together to accomplish joint tasks.

Action: I met with each of them individually to explain that they would be working together and asked how I could help things work smoothly. As a result of those meetings, I was asked to sit in on all of their project meetings as a neutral third party and provide feedback. And, I was also copied on every written communication to ensure things were handled professionally and appropriately.

Result: There were a few times when friction was a problem. But, because I was involved from day one and acted as a neutral third party, we were able to finish the project on time. Projects that were completed on time increased 20% during Q1 and Q2 this year.

How do you prioritize tasks?

First, reframe the question: (Tell me a story that describes) How do you prioritize tasks?

Situation: If I’m given a project that’s due in three months, I’ll put that date on my calendar in red, but set the due date for a week early.

Task: Then, I’ll work backward, figuring out what needs to be done by which date, and marking those on my calendar.

Action: Once the dates are finalized, I’ll start working on the project. But, as I work, if I see I’m ahead or behind, I’ll adjust the remaining due dates accordingly. That includes the final due date.

Result: By pushing my final due date up a week, I’ve built in time for things to go sideways. It could be that I misjudged how much time a specific task was going to take. Or, it could be that there’s a work emergency that pulls somebody from the project, or somebody gets sick. But, having a “false” due date gives me extra time to complete the project. And, if I don’t need it, great! The project is completed ahead of schedule.

Using the STAR Interview Method Will Help You Shine

The STAR method can help you make a positive and lasting impression on the interviewer, which is exactly what you want. Describing your skills in an in-depth and meaningful way helps paint a picture of how well you can do the job, and you may find yourself with a fantastic job offer.

Ready for some more interview prep? FlexJobs’ career coaches help members get ready for interviews by providing advice, brainstorming responses, and even giving mock interviews.

GET INTERVIEW HELP FROM A FLEXJOBS CAREER COACH >>>

Photo Credit: bigstockphoto.com

A version of this piece was originally published on August 31, 2017.