Career Resource Center

Answer Interview Questions Effectively with the STAR Method

Responding to interview questions can be difficult and scary if you don’t know how to prepare yourself effectively.  Use the STAR method to ensure you make a fantastic impression during your interview by answering questions confidently and thoroughly.

Learning how to answer interview questions correctly is the key to having a successful interview every time.  If you’re giving out too much information – or not enough – you’re likely hurting your chances of getting hired.

Figuring out how to answer questions succinctly and thoroughly is actually much easier than it sounds.  You simply need to use the STAR method.  By using the STAR method, you can showcase your experience, education, and skills in a format the interviewer can easily digest.

What is the STAR method?

STAR is an acronym that stands for:

  • Situation: Explain what was happening at the time.  Try to be as specific as you can by using actual examples that illustrate the situation.  I.E. “For example, sales had decreased by over 20% during the last two years and the company called an emergency meeting to rectify the situation.”
  • Task: Why was the situation your responsibility.  Try to be as brief as possible while providing examples: “As the new sales manager, it was my responsibility to fix the declining sales.”
  • Action: What was your specific response to the situation?  You’ll want to explain in detail what action YOU took.  “I implemented key performance indicators (KPIs) for my sales team that helped us identify the sales strategies that were no longer performing.  Then I spearheaded the implementation of new strategies and followed up to ensure these were performing well.”
  • Result: What changed because of what you did?  Many people are overly modest during interviews, remember this is your chance to demonstrate the value you’re bringing to the table, so don’t be afraid to toot your own horn! “After implementing the KPIs and new strategies, we recovered the 20% decrease in sales and actually added another 12% in new sales growth in the following year.”

Hiring managers want to hire people who take action

When an interviewer asks you a behavior-focused question, such as “Tell me about a time when…”, use the STAR method to explain why you were involved, why it was important, what you did, and what the impact was.  Think of it like telling a story – every story should have a beginning, middle, and an end.  By telling a compelling story you can engage the interviewer, which is exactly what he or she is looking for.  Demonstrating your ability to respond to situations effectively tells them that you’re someone they can be confident in hiring.

The advantage of the STAR method is that it not only helps you in your answers to interview questions, but it actually helps the interviewer by giving them additional insight that they aren’t likely to get from other candidates.  Behavioral interviewer questions, such as “Tell me about a time when…” are often the questions candidates struggle with most.  Successfully answering these types of questions will set you ahead of other applicants by leaps and bounds.

Examples of questions where you would use the STAR method

Although the STAR method is great for many interview questions, it certainly shouldn’t be used for EVERY interview question.  Try to only use the STAR method when you’re responding to questions about specific behaviors.

Here are a few sample interview questions that are perfect for using the STAR method:

  • Tell me about a time you had to persuade someone to change their mind on an issue.
  • Describe a time when you set a goal but were unsuccessful in achieving it.
  • Provide an example of a situation that required an immediate response.
  • Have you ever struggled with completing a project?  How did you overcome this challenge – and if you didn’t, why?

These are called “probing” questions and they’re designed to illicit a detailed response from you.  By using the STAR method, you can demonstrate your ability to communicate – an important soft skill employers look for – while also giving an interviewer the information they’re searching for.

Prepare for behavioral interview questions before you go to the interview

To successfully respond to interview questions with the STAR method, you’ll want to be prepared for your interview.  This means thinking about examples that will be effective responses to potential interview questions.  Then, once you have several examples in mind, start practicing your responses.

When practicing your responses, focus on providing examples of recent situations.  Remember, employers aren’t interested in what you were doing 20 years ago, so try to give them examples that cover your more recent work history.

Here are some teaser questions to help you craft the best examples to use for your STAR answers:

  • Have you ever calmed an angry customer or diffused a bad situation at work?
  • Did you ever collaborate with a colleague to develop an improved process?
  • Have you ever trained a new employee?
  • Have you pitched a new product, service, or processes – what was great about your pitch?
  • Have you ever implemented a new system or saved your company money/time in some way?
  • Have you ever had to fire someone?
  • Did you ever have to step in and take the lead in a situation or task you weren’t familiar with?

Even if you only have limited work experience, try to find situations where you did something out of the ordinary that benefited your school, community, or employer.  Then, use the STAR method to create answers that clearly describe these situations to employers.

Probing questions continued. . .

Another great aspect of the STAR method is that it gives the interviewer lots of opportunities to ask follow-up questions.  Many candidates wrongly assume that follow-up questions mean that they didn’t provide a sufficient answer to the first question; however, this really isn’t the case!  Follow-up questions mean the interviewer is interested enough in your response to dig deeper.  You should be more concerned if the interviewer simply moves on to the next topic without pause.

Continuing on our previous example where the candidate explained how he/she resolved a down-turn in sales, here are a few examples of follow-up questions that an interview could ask:

  • What type of KPIs did you set?
  • How did you determine what KPIs to use?
  • When one of your team members missed a KPI, what action did you take to set them back on track?

Questions like these can increase the overall length of your interview, which is also a great way of ensuring that your interview is memorable.

Customize your STAR interview answers with some research

You’ll want to make sure that your STAR interview answers match what the employer is looking for.  You can do some initial research to ensure your answers are correctly targeted.  To get started, review the job description of the position you’re interviewing for and make a list of the key responsibilities that the employer is looking for.  Pro tip: these responsibilities are often listed at the top of the description.

From there, do some additional research into the actual company you’re applying for.  Are they interested in green initiatives?  If so, that’s a great opportunity to talk about how you helped your previous company go paperless.

Write down a few notes to bring with you to the interview

Taking notes is a great way of helping you calm yourself before an interview.  Notes will also help you remember important information about the position you’re applying for – or the STAR responses you practiced.  Often, people who take notes find that they don’t even need to look at the notes during their interview because the act of writing the notes helped ensure the content was memorable.  Just make sure that if you bring your notes with you, you don’t waste the interviewer’s time by reading them too closely.

Slow down, it’s not taking as long as you think

Take a deep breath and remember that you don’t have to rush through your responses.  It’s often better to take too long on a question than to rush through your response and forget to include an important detail.  An unfortunate quirk of the human mind often causes us to overestimate how much time we’re spending on a particular response.  Pausing to collect your thoughts and answer the question effectively will impress the interviewer and save additional time by helping to ensure your response is clear.

The bottom line

Open-ended and behavioral interview questions aren’t trick questions. Interviewers use these types of questions because they’re often the best way to see how much expertise someone really has.  If you can provide accurate and thorough responses, you’ll have set yourself above other candidates who aren’t familiar with the STAR method and/or didn’t prepare for their interview.

If you haven’t yet gotten an interview – or would like to get more interviews – the team at Resume Writing Group can help you translate your achievements and experience into words with a fantastic resume.

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