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How to Use the STAR Method for Interview Questions

A woman using the STAR method to answer interview question

When it comes to answering interview questions, there are lots of ways you can prepare. For example, you know the interviewer will probably ask you what your strengths and weaknesses are and why you applied for the role. And because you know they’re coming, you can prepare answers that work in every interview.

However, it’s also common for interviewers to ask you behavioral-based questions. These questions are much harder to prepare for since there’s almost no way to create a single response that’s relevant to every question.

But using the STAR method in an interview can help you create an answer on the spot that not only answers the question but also helps the hiring manager see why they should hire you. This guide will help you understand how to use the STAR method to answer behavioral-based interview questions:

What Is the STAR Method?

“The STAR method is a technique that can be used to respond to interview questions that might be described as behavioral, situational, or competency-focused,” says Amira Hernandez, assistant director of career services at Oxford College of Emory University.

STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. The acronym helps you remember the critical elements you should include when answering a behavioral-based interview question.

Here’s how it works. When you hear a behavioral-based question, remember STAR to include each of these elements:

Situation: Describe the situation you faced

Task: Discuss your responsibilities or what you needed to accomplish

Action: Explain what you did to complete the task or meet the challenge

Result: Talk about the outcome, accomplishments, or what you learned

As an example, if the interviewer asks you to talk about a time you had to deal with an angry customer, you would start with why the customer was angry (they didn’t get their package). Then talk about the problem you needed to solve (you had to calm the customer down). Then talk about what you did (tracked the package, offered a refund, sent an expedited replacement) and what the result was (the customer was satisfied).

Using the STAR method helps you tell the interviewer a story about a time you used your skills in a situation that’s probably similar to those you’ll encounter on the job. Your answer can help the interviewer better understand how your skills fit the role and what you’ll contribute to the company.

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How to Use the STAR Method in an Interview

Because “tell me about yourself” is a common interview question, you can prepare and practice an answer in advance. However, while you know you’ll probably encounter behavioral-based interview questions, it’s highly unlikely you’ll know exactly which situations the interviewer will ask about. This makes it difficult to prepare and rehearse an answer before the interview.

But while you can’t pre-plan your answers to behavioral-based interview questions, you can prepare for them.

Review the Job Description

Start by reviewing the job description and identifying the skills that are either called out in the posting or you think might be relevant for the role. For example, if the job description says you’ll have a lot of customer interactions, it’s safe to deduce you’ll need excellent verbal and written communication skills.

Identify Your Unique Strengths

After reviewing the job description, identify the strengths you possess that you’ll likely need in the role. If you’re stuck, think about which of your skills are versatile and used in all situations. A broad skill is a safe bet (like communication), but you can also use your transferable skills (like adaptability). Behavioral-based interview questions often ask about overcoming challenges and difficulties, so try to identify the skills you might use in those situations.

And don’t only focus on one skill. Often we use multiple skills to overcome barriers and face challenges, so it’s OK to highlight several in your answer.

Take a Breath

Unlike other questions, this isn’t one you’ll necessarily be able to answer immediately, so don’t feel rushed into blurting out an answer. You’ll probably need a few moments to think of a story that best answers the question. It’s OK to buy yourself a bit of time to think.

Feel free to take a breath while you think. Or, repeat the question back to the interviewer and say, “That’s a good question,” while you consider a good answer. It’s also OK to be silent for a moment or two as you come up with an example.

The situation may feel uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be. The interviewer will (hopefully) appreciate that you’re taking a minute to come up with a good answer that illustrates how you use your skills on the job instead of saying “something” just to answer the question.

Stay Focused

Because you’re answering in the moment and you’re in an interview, your nerves may get the better of you, meaning you might lose focus as you answer. The STAR method can help you stay on topic. Keep each point in mind as you speak to ensure you tell the entire story without rambling.

But don’t feel you need to limit the story, either. Answering this kind of interview question may take longer than other types of questions, and that’s OK. You’re telling a story that highlights your abilities, and some stories are longer than others.

It’s also critical to remember that your story doesn’t need a lot of drama and conflict. Great fiction has a lot of action and excitement, but your answer probably doesn’t need it! Sometimes a simple answer is your best bet.

What if You’ve Never Experienced the Situation?

Depending on where you’ve worked, it’s entirely possible you’ve never encountered the specific situation the hiring manager is asking about. In that case, it’s fine to say, “Well, I’ve never encountered X, but here’s how I would handle it,” then talk about the skills you would use in a similar situation.

Likewise, it’s possible you encountered part of the situation but not all of it. For example, if the employer asks how you handle angry coworkers, you may have never had to deal with that situation because you recognized what was happening and used your de-escalation skills. In that case, you’d start with, “Well, when I see things are getting heated, I…” and explain what you do to keep the situation from getting worse.

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Bonus: Use the STAR Method on Your Resume

Here’s a bonus STAR method tip from Hernandez: “The STAR method can also be employed when developing strong citations for your resume. Just as in an interview, when used as a writing technique, it will help you develop concise, measurable, and impactful descriptions of your experiences.”

Instead of listing your job tasks, describe them using the STAR method. For example, when describing your job at summer camp, instead of saying:

  • Co-counselor in charge of 10 kids

You could say:

  • Collaborated with co-counselor to create weekly educational and engaging arts and crafts activities for a group of 10 children

In this case, the situation was you had to keep 10 kids happy and entertained. Your task was keeping the kids occupied, and the action was planning the arts and crafts activities. The result was you created weekly activities that were educational and engaging.

STAR Method Interview Questions and Answers

While you’ll need to create an answer that’s unique to you and your abilities, here are two sample questions and answers to help you see the STAR method in action.

Example 1

Question: Tell me about a time you couldn’t meet a deadline.

Answer: 

Situation: We were in the middle of a sprint and had to ship a lot of code in a short period of time. 

Task: This project had a lot of moving parts and was part of a major overhaul of the website. What the client wanted wasn’t impossible. It was just more complex than we realized at the beginning. We could complete the project, but not by the deadline.

Action: Once I realized what was happening, I explained the situation to the project manager. She asked me to join the meeting telling the client we wouldn’t make their deadline. While they weren’t happy at first, once I explained all the details, they understood why we couldn’t make the deadline, but the client still needed a revamped website by that date. 

Result: We agreed that we would drop some of the more complex features and roll out the new website in two phases, with the “easy” stuff ready in time for the launch. It was a decent compromise, and the client was satisfied with how the site ultimately turned out.

Example 2

Question: Explain a time when you used data to make a recommendation.

Answer:

Situation: Our website experienced a drop in traffic. As a result, we weren’t selling as much of the product anymore, and revenue was dropping.

Task: I had to figure out what the problem was. There hadn’t been a core update, so we had to figure out what else could be causing the traffic drop.

Action: I started analyzing traffic patterns and user acquisition and discovered two things. First, our pages weren’t loading as quickly as they needed to. This was partly due to some tracking pixels we inserted but also because we started adding more complex graphics to the pages. Second, some of the information hadn’t been updated in a few years, and the data was outdated (and flat-out wrong in some cases).

There wasn’t much I could do about the tracking pixels, and after talking to the writers, there also wasn’t much we could do about the graphics. However, we created a long-term plan to update the older articles and set up a timeline so I could track when each post was updated and monitor performance.

Result: After about three months, traffic to those pages started to tick up. And as I monitored those pages, I also learned that the more internal links we included, the more likely people were to stay on the overall website, which helped boost our positions. As a result, people learned more about our products and were 10 times more likely to purchase them.

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