A guide to the STAR method and how to use it to ace your interview

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While potential employers are always concerned with your hard skills as well as past performance in a job, they are able to find most of that from your resume. That’s why, when it comes to landing the job, the key to acing an interview comes down to telling great stories about your past achievements. We might all be experts in our field, but that doesn’t mean we’re expert story tellers, which is where the STAR method comes in to save the day.

Ladders spoke with Denise Dudley, behavioral psychologist and founder of SkillPath Seminars, to learn what the STAR method is, how to use it in interviews, and how to practice this method of storytelling.

“Personally I don’t like acronyms because I think they’re very forced, but this one works…it’s the way to answer these questions in an interview,” Dudley said.

What is the STAR method?

The STAR method is a procedure taught to help people provide thoughtful answers that contain fully-formed beginnings, middles, and ends. STAR stands for Situation,Task at hand, Action you took, and Result. This method allows you to tell a fluid story starting with the situation, moving to the task you were assigned, going onto the action you took, and finishing up with the result of what happened in this particular instance- so hopefully it was a good one.

“We use this method so that we know that we’re going through and telling a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end,” Dudley said.

Using the STAR method in interviews

The STAR method comes in handy during interviews because many candidates have trouble focusing their stories on information that will help them impress the interviewer. Even if a candidate tells a story in which they were the hero, if it is not delivered well, the message may get lost in translation. A messy story could confuse, or even annoy, an interviewer, which is the opposite of an ideal outcome.

The STAR method helps candidates walk through their stories in a logical, clear manner. Here are questions to answer for each section of STAR:

Situation: Set the scene for what was happening in your example story.

  • What happened?
  • How did this come about?
  • Who was involved?
  • What was the main issue?

Task: Describe your responsibility in the situation.

  • What responsibility did you take on to solve the problem?
  • Did your manager assign this task to you?
  • Did you take on this task on your own?
  • Did others have tasks as well?

Action: Explain the steps you took to address the problem.

  • What did you do first?
  • How did the person/situation respond?
  • What did you do next?

Result: Share the outcomes of the actions you took.

  • What was the end result of the situation?
  • Was your manager satisfied?
  • Did you continue to handle this issue as time went on?
  • Were you given new responsibilities because of this particular event?

Examples of interview questions to practice the STAR method

Anecdotal (or behavioral) interview questions ask candidates to tell a story about a time they experienced a certain situation and how they handled it.

Here are some examples of anecdotal questions that candidates can expect to be asked in an interview:

Q: What was your relationship with the best boss you ever had?
Q: What’s been the toughest criticism you received so far in your career? What did you do with it?
Q: Can you tell us about a time you took initiative on a project or a task at work?
Q: How do you approach a task that you’ve never done before?
Q: Have you ever unintentionally offended or upset somebody? Can you describe the details?
Q: Can you tell me about the last time you had to act and there was no formal policy or procedure on how to do so?
Q: Can you tell me about a time that you let someone down? How did you handle it?

How do you practice the STAR method?

Practicing the STAR method stems from using those example questions to lay out a few stories ahead of the interview. Start by writing the stories out, which will help you remember details compared to saying them out loud. The next step is to practice telling someone else these stories. So if you can, grab a friend and sit down for an hour or two to run through your list of practice stories.

Even if an interviewer doesn’t ask the exact question that you have been practicing, chances are that one of your stories will fit the bill for what they asked.

Why the STAR method is useful

According to Dudley, behavioral questions are becoming extremely popular as employers realize the importance of soft skills. Behavioral questions are meant to prompt a story from the applicant and so the answer needs to be told like a story.

“I want to hear that they actually took a leadership role or that they solved a problem or that they stopped two people from getting into a big fight,” Dudley said. “I want to hear those sorts of stories and I want to believe them, of course.”

Of course, the STAR method comes into play because while listening for the outcomes of those stories, interviewers are also judging the candidate’s soft skills and ability to get their point across.

“In the act of telling those stories, what I’m looking for is the content of the story itself, but I’m almost more so looking at how they talk,” Dudley said. “Do they get excited? Are they enthusiastic? Are they positive? Do they have a good attitude? Are they making eye contact with me? Are they somebody I want to work with?”

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