Follow the STAR Method to Ace Your Next Job Interview

Behavioral interviewing is the most common form of interview question used by hiring managers in today’s job market. Developed by Dr. Paul Green of Behavioral Technology, Inc. in the late 1980s, behavioral interviews are designed to ensure that candidates hired can contribute to the the organization.

The STAR method is a way to structure your answer to behavioral interview questions to convey the most important information clearly and concisely. Following the Situation, Task, Action, Results framework you can share your experience with a compelling story that is easy to follow and helps the interview flow smoothly.

What is the STAR Interview Method?

STAR is an acronym for Situation, Task, Action, Result but knowing the acronym isn’t helpful unless you apply them correctly. These four parts are the outline for how you answer the question.

  • Situation: A brief introduction to orient the interviewers with the basic facts.
  • Task: State the expected outcome you needed to achieve.
  • Action: Describe what you did to accomplish the goal.
  • Result: Report the outcome of your actions in terms of the goal.

Each step is designed to keep you focused on the important facts and minimize secondary details that lead to rambling answers. With a little practice you can quickly communicate your contributions and experience that build confidence with the interview team. An important aspect of sales has always been “show, don’t tell”. The STAR method lets you demonstrate your capability with real examples instead of just telling them that you will be a good hire. There is no telling exactly what question will be asked during the interview but behavioral questions are easy to recognize.

  • Tell me about a time when …
  • Give me an example of …
  • Describe a situation …
  • How do you approach a situation …
  • What do you do when …

All of these are telltale signs that the interviewer is asking a behavioral question. You want to be able to tell a brief story about every accomplishment on your resume using the STAR technique and also prepare examples of soft skills necessary for the position. The STAR method works works well for all questions, even if the interviewer asks a poorly worded closed end question you never want to answer with a simple yes/no. You always want to support your statements with evidence that demonstrates your capabilities and the STAR framework is easy and comprehensive.

How Do You Answer a Behavioral Interview Question using the STAR Method?

One of the most important benefits of the STAR method is the confidence it provides you as the candidate. Once you know what interviewers are really trying to uncover you can prepare accordingly. Each part of the STAR framework has important elements and common mistakes to avoid.

Describe the Situation (S): When the interviewer asks a question, take a moment to consider and think of a good example before you start answering. During the high stress environment of the interview seconds can seem like hours but don’t rush your response because choosing the right experience to speak about is important. Choose a recent example from the last one or two year, interviewers don’t want to hear about something that happened seven years ago unless it was a major accomplishment in your career.

Give a brief introduction of the scenario to set the stage. Give enough information so they understand the importance of the challenge you were facing as well as any key constraints, that way your results are appropriately impressive. The most common mistake in this stage is to spend too much time talking about unnecessary details. Explain the who, what, where, when and why (5Ws) with emphasis on the why. Target one or two concise sentences and move on.

State the Task (T): What was your objective or goal? Describe what success looked like at the time you started the work. The task could be something assigned to you by your boss, or it could be a Target that you set for yourself that exceeded the business requirement.

Be sure to choose examples where you were a major contributor. Don’t choose an example where you had a minor role just because the team had a great result. You are the one interviewing for the position and they need to make a decision about you, not the team, so tell the interviewer about your role and what you needed to accomplish.

Explain your Actions (A): Share what you did and be specific. Many of us are uncomfortable talking about our accomplishments and being humble is positive trait in the workforce, but now is the time to highlight your contributions with pride. You have to advocate for yourself and clearly communicate the actions you took to achieve the result.

You should use ‘I’ and ‘my’ pronouns and not ‘we’. For team projects be specific about your deliverables within the project context. Provide some information about the overall project if it is really needed to understand your portion, but keep the focus on your actions.

As you explain your actions be sure to include the ‘why’ with the ‘what’ – the reasons behind the actions can be even more valuable then the actions themselves. Anyone can follow the steps given to them by a supervisors, but anticipating problems and taking proactive measures to minimize the impact shows real ownership.

The Result (R): This is the whole reason to tell the story, to connect your actions to the positive impact you made on the business. How you state the results is also important. Don’t just say ‘I accomplished my goal’, restate what you achieved and quantify the result whenever possible.

Remember that companies hire to meet a business need so connecting your result to financials and other major business metrics is powerful. A consistent pattern of delivering results is one of the best indicators that a candidate will be a good hire but as surprising as it sounds many people actually forget to say what they accomplished.

Other Common Mistakes to Avoid: Over the years candidates have become more knowledgeable about how to game behavioral interview questions, even preparing fake examples for predictable questions. Interviewers have responded by asking probing follow-up questions in order to expose candidates that exaggerate their experience or are unqualified.

Why is the STAR Method Important?

Using the STAR technique to answer interview questions gives you a structure to clearly communicate the important information the interviewer needs. When behavioral interviews were new in the 1990s, the STAR method was part of the interviewer training for them to ask follow-up questions to make sure they had the right information to make the evaluation. However, now candidates are expected to follow the structure without prompting.

Following the STAR method helps you organize the flow of information during your answer and cover items in a logical order. Many times I’ve seen a candidate start their answer by jumping right to the actions they took, but the interviewer doesn’t have the context so they ask a question to clarify. Even when the candidate answers the questions smoothly it is still distracting and frequently disrupts their train of thought.

You have limited time in an interview to make a good impression and you want to maintain a good flow to the conversation. With the STAR method the information flows naturally and minimizes interruptions from clarification questions, or worse yet, the interviewer is confused by your answer but decides not to ask for clarification.

Probably the most important benefit of using the STAR framework is that it makes things easy for the interviewer. Many people get thrown into interviewing candidates with minimal preparation or training. Everyone knows well that interviews are nerve-wracking for candidates, but what many people don’t realize is that the process is stressful for the interviewers as well. Comprehensive answers makes their job easier and you will stand out from the crowd.

STAR Method Interview Preparation Guide

Before interviewing candidates, the hiring team reviews the job description and responsibilities to determine what skills and competencies are needed to be successful. Then they select targeted questions to reveal the candidate’s depth of knowledge, experience, and personal characteristics related to those skills and competencies. As a candidate you should use a similar process in your preparation.

Review the job description and pay close attention to what they list in the responsibilities section, usually the first three or four bullet points have the most important items. Know that job postings get reused and are not always reviewed closely so also use your experience and what you know about similar jobs. For example, every interview for a customer service position will probably ask about common challenges:

  • Difficult customers: Tell me about your most difficult customer experience – what did you do and how did the situation end?
  • Unclear requests: Give me an example of a time you misunderstood the customers request – how did you learn of your error? What did you learn from this experience? How has it affected your actions since then?
  • Problems with policies: How do you handle situations when you believe the policy is wrong or unfair? What do you do? Please provide 3 examples.

You can’t predict the exact questions but you can predict the types of questions you can expect. Behavioral questions are grouped by categories (HR calls them competencies) and we give in-depth examples for the most common competencies in The Top 26 Competencies for Behavioral Interview Questions. Our post has 5 or more example questions for each competency (over 130 in total!) as well as detailed information about what the interviewer is looking for in your answer and what you should leave out.

Note how all of the questions request specific examples and details. A traditional interview question might ask How do you deal with difficult customers? Candidates would prepare for these questions and tell the interviewer what they thought the interviewer wanted to hear, but it didn’t mean the candidate actually did those things or that they were successful in their efforts. Behavioral interviews improve on this by having the candidate talk about past behavior as an indicator of future performance.

Some interviewers will ask leading questions in order to get an example they want, but most will keep the first question neutral in order to learn more about the candidate. You would be surprised how much people will reveal their personalities to a question like Tell me about your least favorite part of your current job. Some candidates will proceed to vent about how their boss is unfair or small slights from coworkers. Always keep your interview answers constructive, save your venting for time with your friends.

Now go through your resume and work experience to find good examples that fit. Every project and accomplishment will fit into multiple competencies so identify the top 2-3 during your review. For example, this project was technically challenging, had a tight schedule, and a difficult customer. When you are at an interview you can use the same project to answer one, maybe two questions, but not more. It works against you because if you pull all of your answers from the same project it could be that you just got lucky, instead of stringing together a solid streak of wins. The interview team will probably ask you to use a different example so don’t let it reach that point.

Behavioral Interview Questions with 7 Example Answers using the STAR Method

Give me an example of a challenging goal you achieved: The best way to answer this question is with a goal you set for yourself and then made it happen. Step through why you set the goal, what you wanted to achieve, your plan, and the major obstacles you had to overcome along the way. You can use an example where your boss assigns a difficult goal but its not as meaningful as internal motivation.

Technical certifications are not required in my role, in fact my company doesn’t even pay for employees to get them, but I want to continue growing in this field. XYZ program is normally two years my goal was to complete it in 18 months.

The first month or so went smoothly but then we got really busy at work and the program work also increased intensity at the same time. I spent 10 weeks juggling priorities with a lot of busy nights and weekends to meet all my work requirements and the certification deadlines.

In the end it was all worthwhile, I completed my certification in June and in August my company decided to publish the work we did on ABC project. My first publication included the additional certification letters after my name.

How do you make decisions when there is time pressure and you don’t have all the information? This is worded as a situational question but the STAR method provides an even better response. Would you rather hire the candidate that responds with “We’ve studied this in class and I know the right answer xyz” or the candidate that gives a real example of how they have made a decision without all the information? Even if the first candidate gives a very detailed and correct answer, knowing something is different that actually doing it. To quote Mike Tyson “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”. Most things don’t work out exactly how you expect, you will need to adapt and overcome.

This happens regularly when I create the production schedule for the upcoming week. Before I took over this task we would always get urgent requests that disrupted the schedule and forced overtime. The team was really demotivated because it seemed like they were always having to make up for mistakes in other areas.

I tracked events for about a month then brought my boss a proposal. On average, 15% of our time was spent doing urgent requests so I set our baseline level at 85% of full capacity. Now when urgent requests come in we can usually get them done without overtime and if our regular scheduled work goes above our 85% capacity the team gets more warning that overtime will be needed.

Using the method I implemented we’ve reduced overtime by 40% in the past two months and team morale is much better. I am are still making improvements to the model, and I’m excited about some recent progress working with the department that brings us the most urgent requests. I’m coordinating with a shift lead in that area to get early notice when they are running behind.

Notice how this answer doesn’t directly state the goal, the objective of improving the situation flows naturally from the story and is easy to understand. The result is connected to a hard business metric (overtime cost) as well as team morale. The forward-looking statements about ongoing improvements are another nice touch.

Tell me about your last two improvement ideas: This question can be very revealing about the candidate’s level of ownership. Ideas and suggestions are easy to make, real follow-through is rare. How many times at work have you heard the phrases “somebody needs to …”, “this shouldn’t have happened”, or “it would be better if …”? Those ideas could be absolute gold but most people think to themselves ‘that’s not my job’ and keep going with their day.

Pick examples where you saw a problem or opportunity, discussed it with the stakeholders, and then took action. Even if it didn’t work out in the end, the hiring team is looking for proactive examples and employees that take responsibility.

When I worked in shipping & receiving I was on the project to replace our old scanners with a new model. During the pilot test I noticed that the new scanners had features that we were not using. After researching more about the scanner and our software I realized that many of our existing manual checks could be automated, but it was beyond the scope of the current project.

I met with the project leader and my manager to show them what was possible and they were very skeptical because I’m not a programmer, but they agreed it was worth investigating. It turned out that the developer writing the code never really came to the shipping/receiving area and had misunderstood how things really functioned. When I walked them through our process they were able to see how we could use the additional features to accomplish what I suggested.

We had to wait for additional funding, but the project started a month later and reduced our processing time by 25% – the project lead calculated an 8 month ROI and I received an award from my manager.

Most candidates will come prepared with one example, but not two. One of the tactics interviewers use is they ask for two examples and move quickly through the first one and spend more time on the second one. This gets the candidate off their ‘script’ and talking about unrehearsed material.

Tell me about a time when you disagreed with your boss: Everyone has disagreed with their boss at some point. The key to answering this questions is using an example that is handled professionally and has a productive outcome.

We were having problems with one of our suppliers, they were frequently late with their deliveries and we had quality issues with some of their products. At a team meeting my boss outlined their plan for how to handle the situation and I didn’t think some parts would be successful. I didn’t want to undermine my boss in front of the team so I met with him in private later.

We had a good discussion about the issue and I explained how the supplier was becoming less and less responsive and I didn’t think the collaborative approach would be effective. He didn’t change his plan but he did move forward with getting samples from another supplier that we then qualified. After the problem supplier had their next order reduced by 30% they were suddenly more responsive.

I learned more about how business works from the experience and since that interaction I’ve noticed that my boss has asked my opinion more frequently on other challenging issues.

Tell me about a significant mistake you made at work: This is a favorite questions for interviewers because everybody has made a mistake and there is no way to avoid the question. It is never comfortable talking about our mistakes so this question in particular is a good one to practice out loud ahead of time. Don’t stress too much about the details of the mistake as long as it was work related and one you were able to recover from. Just don’t choose a mistake where you were completely negligent or simply lazy.

Some experts will advise picking a mistake that you can spin as a positive but interviewers will see right through that tactic. It comes off as disingenuous and rehearsed. Experienced interviewers might ask for another example but its not the way you want to start a relationship with your future boss or coworkers.

Most importantly, don’t try to spread the blame for the error or explain how it wasn’t really a mistake. Show your ownership for the mistake and the steps needed to fix the situation. The best examples include lessons learned that you apply to prevent yourself or others from making the same mistake again.

In my first year as a system admin I was working a problem and I made some changes that I wanted to validate on the test environment. I pressed the commit button before I realized that I was actually on the live system. I immediately contacted my supervisor and let them know what happened and we were able to get it rolled back.

Even though there wasn’t much impact I knew how serious my mistake was so I was surprised that I didn’t get yelled at. Instead my supervisor met with me later that afternoon after all the recovery and verification was complete. We discussed what happened and how I made the mistake. She assigned me the action of making sure it never happened again.

I started with some of my own ideas but I knew I didn’t have all the answers so I also met with experienced members in the department and found out that my error happened more often than I knew. I put together a prioritized list of preventive countermeasures but it turns out the most effective one was also one of the most simple – we changed the live system to have a red menu and background while the test environment kept the standard gray color.

Have you ever dealt with a sticky situation involving another department? In case it isn’t obvious the interviewer is telegraphing that the open position is likely to be involved in sticky situations with other departments. They want to learn about how the candidate handles these issue because it is important to success in this role. Be honest if you truly do not have an example, but know that the hiring team will start to question if you have the necessary experience.

About a year ago our department was overloaded with work and I attended a meeting for my boss. I came prepared for the agenda items but then another manager started calling out my department for the current delays and was also saying that we were responsible for missing next month’s targets as well.

I took a breath to remain calm before responding “Yes, we’ve had several difficulties this month but we are currently ahead of schedule on the catch-up plan we shared last week at this meeting. Our forecasts show no impact to next month’s performance but I’ll meet with you right after this meeting to make sure I fully understand your new concerns and we get them addressed together.”

Later that day one of the directors stopped by to talk to me and said they were really impressed with how I handled the situation. There was some friction between that manager and my boss but because I kept focus on the issue and facts the discussion stayed professional and didn’t escalate into an argument.

Tell me about the most important accomplishment in your career: With this question the interviewer wants to learn more about you and how you see your career. Do you value technical achievements, business triumphs, or academic recognition? Why do you see it as your biggest accomplishment? What made it challenging?

While there are not any right or wrong answers, some can be better than others. For example, the high tech industry works in teams and is notoriously secretive about their IP. So if you choose an example where you highlight individual academic research that was published in a journal you need to help the interviewer make the connection.

Last year I was working on a major project that my boss was leading. It was an 8 month project and we were about 5 weeks in when my boss had to go out on leave for family issues. My director wanted to postpone the project but I requested to take over the project so it wouldn’t be delayed and he agreed. At the next meeting I overheard some of the members from other departments, who were senior to me in title, talking about how I would never be able to get everyone to deliver their items.

I knew that I needed to be transparent with progress so the team would also hold themselves accountable, and collaborate on key decisions while keeping the project moving. I made sure to check in with key items between meetings in order to get ahead of any issues before they caused delays. There were two items that I had to escalate to my director during the project to get his buy-in on our proposed actions before moving forward.

We completed the project just 1 week behind the original schedule. Many of the tools I used during the project have been adopted by other teams and are now widespread within the company.

Here are 11 more common questions to expect at your next interview.

  • Give me an example when you had a conflict with a coworker:
  • Tell me about a time when you were unable to meet a deadline:
  • Tell me about a time when you were faced with a stressful situation at work
  • Give an example of when you showed initiative and took the lead
  • Tell me about a situation where you have had to speak with an unhappy customer
  • How do you motivate others at work?
  • Describe a major change or adjustment to your job and your reactions to the change
  • Tell me about a time when you encountered conflict in the workplace and how you handled the conflict
  • Provide an example of when you went above and beyond
  • Discuss a setback you have overcome in the last 12 months
  • Provide an example where you pitched an idea to a senior leader

Dan Sawyer

Founding editor and head writer of Dan is a job interview and career expert, with more than 20 years of experience in senior roles at high tech leaders Space Exploration Technologies and Samsung Austin Semiconductor.

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