The STAR Interview Format


Pull up your online video service and search for the STAR Interview format and you’ll find a number of videos – some good and some poor of course – explaining what the format is and how to use it in a job interview. Why follow a format at all and why this one? Excellent questions.

The one thing a format does for you is give your answers some structure; structure keeps you from rambling and then wondering whether you’ve said too little or too much and of course it keeps your answers focused. One problem I note from many of those I work with is that they stray from the question while responding, drifting and then suddenly realizing they have done so and this undermines their confidence overall.

So the format:

S = Situation

T = Task

A = Action

R = Result

Your objective in mastering this format is not about memorizing answers themselves but rather the above 4 words which as an acronym are represented as STAR. If you can remember the 4 during the interview process, you’ll be better equipped to give answers that pull experiences from your past which will prove you have the skills and experiences the interviewer is going to want to hear.

Let’s use an example. Suppose you’re looking at a job posting and teamwork is one of the key requirements the job entails. It becomes highly probable that teamwork is then going to be one of the things you’re asked about. Rather than being future-based and hypothetical as in questions that begin, “What would you do if…”, interviewers are far more likely to ask for proof from your past or present where you have actually performed well in a team setting. These questions are formed with the words, “Tell me about a time when…” or, “Describe your team-building experience….”

Using the STAR format, start off by setting up a SITUATION you were involved in from your past and be specific in your example, don’t generalize. So what company were you working for with respect to your example? How many people were on the team and what was your role? You’re painting a mental image for the interviewer so they can visualize you there.

Now relate what the goal was that the group was TASKED with completing. So what had to be done? Was there a deadline or a specific quantity of things to produce or a certain number of people to be seen in a day? During this part of the answer, there is typically something that challenges the goal; a problem that threatens success, a delay of some sort, some personnel conflict etc.

Up to this point you’ve been talking about the team and what the team set out to do. That gives credit to not just you but everyone in your example, You however, are the only one sitting in the interview and therefore need to stress what you personally did in your example to respond to the challenge and eliminate the problem so that the target can be realized. So for the ACTION part of the acronym STAR, what action did you personally take? Your answer is going to impress the interviewer if you articulate clearly positive responses at this point. They will go on the premise that how you’ve acted in the past is how you will likely act if they hire you.

Now you demonstrate the positive outcome that came about as a RESULT of the actions you took. Did you and your team meet the target goal? Did you keep the line operating, did you display leadership, exercise tact and discretion, put the teams needs ahead of your own, save the company time or money?

Now most of those online videos stop at this point. There is however one last thing that I recommend in giving your answer and that is to summarize things by going back to the original thrust of the question posed to you. If it was about teamwork then finish off by returning to the subject saying, “Teamwork is something I truly excel at and I thrive on building good working relationships as evidenced in my example; you can count on me bringing this with me here.”

When you use such a format, here’s another benefit: you know when to zip it, confident that you’ve answered the question. In your mind you’re going S, T, A, R, summarize, done. Gone are your rambling answers, no more verbal diarrhea where you talk for 9 minutes and fail to answer the actual question. Gone are your brief one or two-word answers that leave the interview perplexed. Gone are the moments you leave the interview and then recall some fantastic example that you couldn’t recall in the interview itself.

I can’t take credit for this format but it is one I adopted myself well over 15 years ago. It’s used internationally, by organizations big, medium and small. It shows your behaviour in past circumstances and this is the best predictor for how you’ll behave should they hire you.

While you can pull examples from your personal life, do so sparingly. Examples from volunteer positions and more significantly paid employment have the most impact and will impress the most.

One final thing, specific examples make your stories believable and credible. Don’t generalize as I said earlier as you sound less convincing. Recall that specific moment or incident, label the skill and you’ll fare much better.

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