Use the STAR Method to answer any interview question

It’s interview day. You’ve worked on your handshake, your eye contact, your head-to-toe professional outfit. You know your resume backwards and forwards, and you’ve reviewed the job description so many times you can practically see it when you close your eyes. So, you’re ready. And then in the interview, you get a question you weren’t necessarily expecting: “Tell me about a time when you…” Argh, the dreaded behavioral questions. Now what?

First, don’t panic. You can answer any question an interviewer throws your way, without grinding the whole thing to a halt. It’s as simple as being a STAR.

What’s the STAR Method and how do you use it?

STAR is a method you can use to frame an answer quickly and efficiently. It’s an acronym for:

Situation: Where/when did this example take place?

Task: What was your level of responsibility in this example?

Action: What steps did you take?

Result: What was the outcome, and what did you learn or achieve?

Let’s break down some strategies for using the STAR method in your next and future interviews.

Find the right example

Unless something comes to mind right away, this can be the hardest part. But think of it this way: the question is likely to be a situation that is tied to something on your resume or a task in the job description, so this is something you can think about in advance, even if you don’t know what will be asked specifically. Ahead of the interview, come up with examples or anecdotes for every experience bullet point and skill on your resume. That way, when you’re asked, “Tell me about at time you showed leadership,” you will already have a list of relevant points ready to go.

Relevance is the key—you don’t want to start rambling about something that doesn’t really fit what the interviewer is asking. So the quick internal check should be, “I think this is the right story—does it answer what’s being asked?”

And if you need a bit of time to think things over, say so—it’s okay to ask for a minute to think things over. “That’s a really great question; I’d like to think about it for a minute!” You don’t want your contemplation to go too long, but taking 30 seconds to gather your thoughts will lead to a better answer.

Set the scene

This doesn’t have to be an elaborate, cinematic story. However, you should be able to give a few quick details to show the interviewer what the context is for your story.

I was the lead on a project, and 80% of my team had called in sick…

We were on schedule and on budget, when the client changed his mind in the middle of the meeting…

I took a call from an angry customer, who was not interested in hearing the company’s side of the story…

You’ll want to make it conversational so that it doesn’t sound like you memorized a card. All you need are a few short sentences—no need to provide detailed backstory about everyone involved or a history of your employment. You want the details to be directly relevant to your story. And it’s okay to be humorous or light in your response, as long as you keep the tone professional.

Talk about what you did to solve the problem or approach the issue

Once you’ve set the scene for the interviewer, talk about what you did to resolve the issue. Usually, when interviewers ask behavioral-style questions, they’re just as interested in the how as the what. And again, this doesn’t need to be a long-winded, detailed step-by-step. A few succinct bullet points about what you did in the situation will be just fine. If the interviewer has any follow-up questions, she’ll ask.

Talk up your achievements—or lessons learned

When you’re talking about the results, don’t be afraid to talk about what you achieved—especially if it puts you in a positive light. You don’t want to come off like a braggart, but you should own your accomplishments.

The project came in under budget thanks to my fix, and we broke sales records that year.

Because I caught the order before it was processed, I was able to stop 5,000 widgets from being shipped accidentally. That was a great feeling.

And if you picked an example that didn’t necessarily have a happy ending (because hey, sometimes that’s the only anecdote that fits), be sure to talk about what you did gain from the situation.

Although it was difficult  while I worked to resolve the issue, it taught me that nothing is more important than providing a superior customer experience.

It was definitely a learning experience, and having worked with such a demanding client, I know I can work with anyone to get the job done.

Like with your other STAR points, a couple of sentences should be all you need to summarize and wrap up your story.

Practice beforehand

If you’re not all that comfortable with storytelling, this is definitely a skill you can build before you’re in the interview hot seat. Just like with body language or your handshake, practice until it becomes second nature! Grab a trusted person who can ask you general behavioral questions, and apply the STAR method to your conversation. If you do this enough times in your everyday life, you won’t be sitting in the interview thinking, “Okay, time for S. What’s the situation?” You’ll already be searching through your mind’s archive for the relevant anecdote.   

If you prep for interviews with the STAR method, you can tackle any question an interviewer throws your way, even if it seems like it comes out of nowhere. Quick, to-the-point answers will impress your interviewer and demonstrate that you have one of the most important skills—thinking on your feet.

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