How to smash any job interview question using STAR - a how to guide

Do you want a simple memorable way to ace any interview question? THEN READ ON!

STAR is an exceptionally easy way to structure your answers to show off your skills and qualities.

I first heard of the STAR technique for answering interview questions about 15 years ago. A recruitment consultant was preparing me for an interview with one of the largest IT companies in the UK, she gave me a list of commonly asked project manager interview questions, and told me to prepare my answers using STAR: Situation, Task, Action, Result.
the star model for job interviews
The STAR method is a response to the increasing use of competency-based recruitment and interviewing. Employers have created Competency frameworks that focus on the set of qualities that are required for a particular job rather than experience or qualifications. For example Project Managers require planning and communication skills and Developers require problem solving and analytical skills.

When I became a manager at the IT company I learnt that competency frameworks and competency-based interviews are designed to make recruitment more objective. Managers are taught to structure their questions so that applicants are given the opportunity to reveal their competence rather than forcing them to attempt to answer from just experience or technical knowledge. Competency-based questions are particularly useful in graduate recruitment when applicants have little job experience.

Traditional interview questions may start with:

  • How do you manage risk?
  • How do you motivate a project team?
  • Do you know how to use Microsoft project?

Competency-based questions guide you to give example of how you demonstrated a skill:

  • Tell me a time when you have managed a risk?
  • Can you think of an example of how/when you motivated your team to complete a challenging task?
  • Describe a way in which you go about planning a project?

How to use STAR

As you can probably already guess it is easy to end up rambling when answering these open ended questions. STAR helps you to structure your answer keeping it concise and focused.

Structure your answers to any interview question using this model:
the star interview technique explained

Situation

– describe the background and context of your example. For example, 'I was managing a project to implement a new software solution for the HR department. The software needed to be live in 3 months before the end of life of the legacy solution.'

Task

– explain what was required of you. For example, 'as the project manager I needed to manage the risks carefully to prevent delay'.

Action

– describe the actions that you took. For example, 'I got the team together and asked them to list all of the things that could cause a delay. I then facilitated a risk management session to identify mitigating actions and owners for each action.'

Result

– explain the outcome. Remember that the interviewer is looking for the results of your action. For example, 'By identifying the risks and ensuring that the mitigating actions were carried out I was able to head off issues early and the project was delivered in 2 months with a successful smooth go live. The customer sent an email to my director complimenting the go live and successful project.'

Tips and Tricks for the ultimate STAR answer to an interview question

STAR is a great system for answering interview questions, and you can make your answer even better by use these 5 tricks:

Give specific examples in your answer

Avoid something general like it was a busy period. When explaining the situation add some colour and a sense of what was at stake by using numbers e.g. '300 people were depending on' or we 'needed a 1 million pipeline by x date'.

Describe your responsibility

When explaining your Task make sure you describe your responsibility rather than a team responsibility. The interviewer is interested in you and what skills you could bring to their organization.

Say 'I' not 'We'

Avoid saying 'we' the interviewer wants to know what you did. WOMEN should particularly take note of this tip. We are conditioned to share the credit, to be inclusive and fair and that is often our downfall in interviews. If you say 'we' the interviewer will assume you were just along for the ride, you must say 'I' even if you didn't actually do the work say 'I led,' 'I facilitated,' 'I made sure,' 'I laid the groundwork,' 'I set the scene,' 'I mentored,' 'I coached' – OWN IT!

Use metrics

When describing the result use add metrics if you possibly can e.g. increased sales by 10%, came in 10k under budget, got 90% CSAT score which was an increase of 20%. Expressing the result using a KPI will be worth considerably more than just saying things improved, got better, faster etc.

Write out your answers to common questions

Prepare for interviews by writing out your answers to common interview questions using STAR. This will help you remember and feel comfortable with the model. It will also force you to come up with examples that really showcase your skills.

If you haven't prepared you brain is likely to keep serving up the same examples that are at the forefront of your mind usually because they are recent or painful. Don't keep referring to that recent project from hell that went over budget and got escalated at every project board! By preparing some model answers you will find 3 or 4 situations that you can use as the basis for most of your answers.

Don't forget you don't have to use examples from work. You can STAR your volunteering work, your latest garden project, the time you helped a friend through a crisis or your Saturday coaching, etc. Part of the reason competency based interviews are popular with HR managers is that they allow interviewees to draw on more than just their work experience.

That's it! Thank you for reading this guide I hope it helps you to ace your next interview!

STAR interview model – references and further reading

enterprise rent a car. Tips on using the Star technique to answer job interview questions [online] Accessible at:https://www.enterprisealive.co.uk/connect-with-us/tips-on-using-the-star-technique-to-answer-job-interview-questions/ [Accessed 25 September 2017].

The Guardian. Using the Star technique to shine at job interviews: a how-to guide [online] Accessible at: https://www.theguardian.com/careers/careers-blog/star-technique-competency-based-interview [Accessed 25 September 2017].

Linda Matias. (2009) 201 Knockout Answers to Tough Interview Questions: The Ultimate Guide to Handling the New Competency-Based Interview Style. AMACOM.

Robin Kessler. (2012) Competency-Based Interviews: How to Master the Tough Interview Style Used by the Fortune 500s. Career Press.

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