How to use the STAR interview technique

Nov 1, 2020

Interviews come in many varieties, from casual to formal, but in the current job market, you are almost certain to come across competency-based or behavioural interviews. It is crucial to know how to use the STAR interview technique to handle these interviews.

The aim of behavioural interviews is to try to make the recruiting process more objective. The interviewer will have set questions that they will ask each applicant, to remove any bias.  Competency-based questions are asked in order to gather information about the candidate’s experiences in certain situations, so as to assess whether they are right for the job.

The kinds of questions asked will also be informed by the type of job you are applying for. For a job in engineering, you may need to answer logical and problem-solving skills.

 Critics of this type of interview say it is too mechanical and makes it more difficult for the interviewer and interviewee to have a natural conversation. Nevertheless, these types of interviews are widely used, so it is imperative you prepare well for them.

STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Result. The STAR interview technique is invaluable in preparing for situational and behavioural interview questions. These techniques will make it easy to give meaningful and concise answers to these types of questions using examples from your life.

Interviewers like to use behavioural interview questions to assess whether you have the required skills and experience for the job. The STAR technique will allow you to clearly explain situations in the past where you have taken decisive action to overcome challenges and to explain the action’s positive results.

You can read more about behavioural interview questions at Wikijob.

How does the STAR method work?

When using the STAR method to answer a question, it creates a four-part response which is easy to follow, with a problem and a clear resolution. Here is an explanation for the four-letter of STAR:

Situation

Provide context for your response by explaining the situation you were in and the challenge you or your team had to deal with.

Ideally, you want to talk about experiences at work. However, if you can’t think of a relevant example from work or if you lack work experience then you should give an example from university or from volunteering or internships.

You don’t want to spend too much time outlining the situation, as the action you took and the resolution are more important.

Example: “A customer phoned us to complain that they had not yet received their package which was now far outside of our normal delivery times.”

Task

For this part of your response, you should detail your role or responsibility in regards to the situation. Basically, talk about the task set for you to resolve the situation.

This part of the response should also take little time describing the situation.

Example: “I had to address the customer’s complaint, find out what had happened to the delivery and ensure that their package got to them as soon as possible.”

Action

Here you should clearly explain what actions you took to resolve the problem. This part of your response should be the longest, as the interviewer is most interested in how you deal with difficult situations. You need to tell the interviewer the most important steps you took to fix the situation.

It is important to emphasise your personal actions, even if you were involved in a team effort. Make sure to say “I” instead of “We” when discussing your actions, after all the interviewer is looking to hire you, not your team.

Example: “I apologised to the customer and asked for their details. By checking our system and contacting our delivery firm, I was able to find out that the cause of the problem was an email inbox being neglected by our company and the address misspelt by the customer.

I then called the customer for the correct delivery details and ensured their package was with them the next day. I also offered them a discount on their next purchase.”

Result

Here you need to describe the positive result of your actions. This is also an important part of your response so make sure to give some detail.

Tell the interviewer two or three of the outcomes of your actions to demonstrate that you had a positive impact on the situation. You could also talk about what you learned and how you’re now a wiser employee.

Example: “I recommended a new system to my manager, that would lead to all of the company’s email inboxes being checked more frequently. I contacted the customer a week after, they informed me that they had used the discount and had given us a positive review on google.”

The STAR method is one of the best behavioural interview tools, but we’ve also got tons of interview advice for all stages of the process: All You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Answering Interview Questions.

Why Is the STAR Technique Important?

During interviews, you want to provide a detailed and coherent answer that explains your strengths. The STAR method gives your answers clear and memorable structure. If you stick to the STAR method, you won’t forget anything important, and it also ensures you don’t go off track.

Many companies now train their interviewers to give competency-based interview questions, often having the STAR method in mind. They will be listening intently to see if you use the framework in your answers, as a sign that you have understood the question and answered appropriately.

They may continue to question you if part of your response is lacking, for example, if you don’t adequately outline the results of your actions. Giving coherent STAR answers will impress them and improve your chances of proceeding further in the recruitment process.

How to prepare for an interview with the STAR method

Photo by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels

It is important to learn how to use the STAR method when preparing for your interviews, in order to give yourself the best chance of success. But first here is some background on behavioural or competency-based questions to help you better understand how to apply the STAR method to answer them.

What are behavioural interview questions?

Interviewers use behavioural interview questions to learn how you have worked in previous roles. They want to know about specific examples in the past that will give them an idea of how you will deal with problems and what you will bring to the company.

The questions will often ask about soft skills such as communication, teamwork, and leadership. For graduate jobs, teamwork and being able to learn quickly are popular skills.

You won’t know the questions ahead of the interview. Most interviews however will concentrate on past work experiences that demonstrate a variety of skills.  

There are several specific categories that behavioural questions all fall into:

  • Teamwork
  • Problem Solving
  • Initiative/Leadership
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Pressure

When preparing for your interview, review the role you are applying for and try to think about what types of questions they will focus on. If it is a customer-facing role, they will be most interested in your interpersonal and conflict resolution skills.

By focusing on the skills that the company is looking for in the role, it will help you prepare appropriate answers from your work experience.

STAR interview question examples

Here are some examples of common behavioural questions you might be asked during an interview:

  • Have you ever made an unpopular decision? How did you and your team handle it?
  • Describe a time when you were put under a lot of pressure at work. How did you cope?
  • Describe a mistake you’ve made. How did you handle it?
  • Give an example of a time you had to make a difficult decision. What did you do?
  • Tell us about a time when you disagreed with your boss. What happened?
  • Describe a situation when you had a conflict with a colleague. How did you handle it?
  • Describe a situation where you used data or logic to make a suggestion.
  • Tell us about a time when you had to persuade a co-worker to do something.
  • Share an example of a time when you failed. What did you learn?
  • Have you ever had to motivate others? What did you do?
  • Share an example of when you set and achieved a specific goal.
  • Tell us about a time you collaborated with other departments to complete a project. How did it go?

You can read here for more examples of possible STAR interview questions.

Steps to prepare

1. Review the job description

Re-read the job description and reflect on what sorts of skills are required and challenges you might have to face in the position.

2. Go over common behavioural interview questions 

The list above is a good place to start. The questions will not be exactly the same, but the themes will be.

The interviewer might ask about a situation where you have had a tight deadline or they might ask about handling stress at work. Their goal in either question would be to understand how you perform under pressure. It is invaluable to go over the question and prepare answers for them so that you will not be caught out on the day.

3. Write down examples

Make sure to write down examples of situations you’ve had in your professional life that would display the sorts of skills you’ll need to gain the role. Again, make reference to the example questions to help.  Prepare each example using the STAR structure.

4. Practice giving your answers 

Practice speaking your replies out loud to make sure each story is clear and coherent. This will also help you to feel more confident and relaxed during the interview.

5. Be quantitative.

Recruiters and managers like hearing about numbers. If you can quote tangible results to support up your STAR stories, they will be impressed. For example, maybe your actions increased productivity by 10%. Having facts and data to support your stories will always be welcomed.

6. Be concise

You want to keep your stories short and to the point. You don’t want to lose yourself in unnecessary details or bore the interviewer. Always have the STAR structure in mind and don’t spend too long on one section of the answer.

7. Be honest

Companies want to hire somebody who is genuine and honest. You don’t want to bother impressing the interviewers with false stories. They may pick up on it or it could be revealed later on in your employment, either way it will not reflect well on your character.

An Example of a STAR Response

Question: Describe a situation when you had a conflict with a colleague. How did you handle it?

Response: Yes, in a previous role there was a colleague who took against me early on. She would ignore my suggestions in meetings and on more than one occasion gossip about me in the office cafeteria.

I decided to deal with the situation in a mature way. I understand that you cannot get on with everyone in the workplace, however, situations like this can negatively affect the whole company. Therefore, my aim was to find out if I had annoyed her in the past and try to find a solution.

I approached her and asked her if we could have a private meeting when convenient. We sat together away from our colleagues. I calmly explained my concerns about our professional relationship in a non-confrontational manner. At first, the conversation was difficult but then she relented and apologised for her obtuse behaviour.

We both agreed that we should foster a professional and cordial relationship for the benefit of both of us and the department. I think it is crucial to tackle interpersonal conflicts in a professional manner before they develop into larger problems.

Common Mistakes When Answering STAR Questions

1. Not answering the question

If you are asked a behavioural question and you can’t think up an answer on the spot, then it is better to come out and say that. This is always better than trying to invent a story.

You shouldn’t ask the interviewer to move on though. You could instead explain to the interviewer what you would do in the given situation, maybe with reference to your previous answers.

2. Not being well prepared

An interviewer will be able to tell if you haven’t done your homework. If you are coming up with an answer every question on the spot your answers will likely also be less clear and concise.

Make sure that you have prepared well and it will come across to the interviewer. It will also help you relax.

Prepare about 4 or 5 STAR stories that demonstrate a range of your skills and the behaviours an interviewer is looking for.

3. Appearing too prepared.

You don’t want your responses to come across as being overly-rehearsed or robotic. They need to seem organic. Do not memorise your responses exactly word for word, but make sure you know the key points to build your responses around.

4. Giving a response that is not a success

Make sure you stick to giving responses that have positive outcomes for the company and for your own growth.

The interviewer might try to inquire into your story in order to pry extra details out of you. So be aware of this and make sure the examples you cite do not have traces of details you don’t want to reveal or bad outcomes.

5. Giving an irrelevant response

Giving a response that does not refer to the question asked tells the interviewer that you are not focusing, or that you just want to give a well-rehearsed response even if it’s irrelevant. Either way, it will not come across well.

6. Over-Exaggerating

You might be tempted to exaggerate your responses to make yourself sound better to impress your interviewer.

Don’t give a response where you are a superhero who saved the company from financial ruin. You do not need to exaggerate your actions or the results, the interviewers are looking for competent and truthful candidates. Also, it will not reflect well if you belittle the efforts of your past co-workers or make it seem like you were the only employee getting things done.

If you’ve just graduated and don’t have a long work history to draw from, you can consider examples from volunteer work, internships, or group work you completed for university. Sometimes you will be asked for an example from outside work, so also think of challenges you’ve tackled in your personal life. You can click here if you are struggling because you are a graduate with no work experience.

The key to all your responses is to make sure they have a clearly defined Situation, Task, Action and Result. This is the best way to demonstrate your skills and abilities that relate to the role.

Key Points to Remember

The fundamental points when remembering how to use the STAR interview technique are the following:

Memorise

 Having the STAR acronym memorised will help you put your thoughts in order to answer a list of behavioural interview questions.  Also, remember the proper order to give a clear answer and tick all the interviewer’s boxes.

Practice 

Devote some time to writing out STAR responses to practice questions before the big day. Make sure all the points have enough detail for the story to be coherent, but not too much that the important points get lost.

Prepare 

Prepare well for your interview and avoid panicking on the day by studying the practice questions above.

Conclusion

Learning how to use the STAR interview technique will pay off in your interviews.

Standing out to your interviewers at a behavioural or competency-based interview relies on you giving clear and concise responses to their questions. You don’t want to leave any doubt in their mind that you are a competent employee who can overcome a range of challenges. Add quantifiable data to your answers when possible to support your claims.

It’s okay to add on some mistakes that you made in order to come across as relatable and human. It will also help convince the interviewer that you are being truthful. Do not focus on mistakes and make sure your responses have positive outcomes.

Do not over-learn your responses so that you find yourself reeling them off word for word. You need to come across naturally. Keep your responses natural and conversational and you will find that the STAR technique is invaluable in helping you demonstrate your skills in an ordered and easy to remember the way.

For more advice on interviews and the recruitment process, you can visit Graduate Coach. We also offer one to one interview training.

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