As with anything in life, there is a proper way and an improper way to respond to behavioral interview questions. Use the STAR method to ensure that you make a great impression!

Knowing how to answer interview questions is the key to having a successful interview. A lot of time, interviewees tend to give too much information or not enough. The result is the equivalent of rambling. 

There is a method to answering questions in an interview that will ensure you give succinct yet full answers. It's called the STAR method. By learning how to answer interview questions with the STAR method, you will be afforded opportunities to properly showcase how your experience, education, and skills align with the company's goals. 

What is the STAR method?

STAR, in this instance, is an acronym that stands for:

  • Situation: What was happening at the time? Be as specific as possible using examples from professional experience, volunteer work, or something from when you were in school (if you're still in school or a recent graduate). 

  • Task: What was your responsibility in the experience you're relating? Keep this part relatively short. It's a key part of your story, but a hiring manager isn't too interested in your responsibility. Let's face it, a lot of people are responsible for doing a lot of things that simply don't get done. 

  • Action: What did you do to address what was happening? It's important to focus on what YOU did, not what your colleagues or managers did. If you led a team, you can talk about the guidance you offered your team to navigate the situation. In the end, this is your interview and the answers should reflect on your past. 

  • Result: What changed because of what you did? While you don't want to be boastful, this is the time to take credit for what you accomplished. Try to think of a response that allows you to provide more than one positive result, if possible.

Hiring managers want to hire people who take action

When you answer an interview question, especially a behavioral interview question (i.e., “Tell me about a time when…”), using the STAR method you talk about what was going on, what you did, and the result of your actions. This type of storytelling is exactly what the interviewer is looking for. It shows them that you are less the type to show up to collect a paycheck and more the type to do something.

Not only does using the STAR method give you a formula for answering interview questions, but the responses also provide the interviewer an insight into your background they wouldn't ordinarily have. Most people struggle to come up with examples of “Tell me about a time…” questions. This formula helps narrow your response into something actionable.

Examples of questions where you would use the STAR method

The STAR method won't be suitable for all questions. It's best used when you have to give an accounting of an event. It's best to use real-life events to describe how you handled specific situations. 

Here are some sample interview questions where using the STAR method would be appropriate:

  • Tell me about a time you had to persuade someone to change their mind on an issue.

  • Describe a time when you set a goal but were unsuccessful in achieving it. 

  • What's an example of a situation you found yourself in that required you to make an immediate decision?

  • Have you ever been in the weeds on a project? What did you do?

These are all open-ended questions that are prompting you to tell a story. Just like all stories, there should be a clear beginning, middle, and end. Being able to answer using the STAR method also demonstrates your ability to communicate well. Communication skills are one of the top soft skills that employers seek

Prepare for behavioral interview questions before you go to the interview

If you've been searching for a job for any amount of time, you've likely encountered advice to the effect of “be prepared for your interview.” One thing you can do to prepare is to start thinking about examples that will effectively allow you to answer interview questions with the STAR method. Then practice your answers.

Interviewers want recent experience. Your resume will be designed to showcase between 10 and 15 years of experience, so keep your STAR answers to that timeframe. 

Here are some brain boosters to help you come up with some instances you can potentially use for your STAR answers:

  • Have you ever calmed an angry customer?

  • Did you ever work with managers to redefine how something was done?

  • Have you ever trained a new hire?

  • When was the last time you had to pitch a new product? How did that go?

  • Have you ever worked in an office where everything was paper-based, and you convinced them to go paperless?

  • Was there some instance where you could tell that the company's focus on a thing was too broad and needed to be narrowed?

  • Have you ever had to fire someone?

  • Was there a time when you were new to a role but had to take the reins on a major change?

  • Was there an instance where you saw someone being bullied or harassed at work? 

You can easily talk about each one of these things using the STAR method. 

An example STAR method answer

It can be tough to explain a time that you failed at something during an interview. Just remember, failure is a human condition. Everyone has failed at something at some point in their life. Using the STAR method to talk about failure not only gives you a chance to show that you're not afraid to fail, but also that you know how to handle failure. 

"Tell me about a time that you set a goal but didn't achieve it."

If you use one of the brain teasers, like taking the reins on a major change when you were in a new position, you can demonstrate that you missed a step on one part but course corrected and achieved success on the overall project.

  • First, describe the situation: I was promoted to a new role after being at the company for less than one year. Within six weeks of transitioning to the new two-person team, the other person had to go on medical leave, and I was left to fend for myself. It would have been fine, there would've been no concerns because the other person did a great job training me. However, the company decided to change software programs. 

  • Second, talk about your task(s): The software was critical in getting the daily reports we needed so that our downline could prepare for their part of the job. With the software change, everything changed–it was like starting in the role all over again. 

  • Third, talk about the action you took: I grabbed the bull by the horns on this new program and sacrificed some personal time to learn the ins and outs of the system so that I would be ready to run the appropriate reports for my downline. There were a lot of settings that needed to be adjusted. I was partnering with the IT folks on a daily basis and had set a goal of being up and running within a week. It was important for me to ensure that I still had access to the old program in case the new one had bugs. I missed the deadline by two days. 

  • Fourth, what was the result of your actions: Once I realized I wouldn't hit the goal, I revamped my process to spend a bit more time with IT and was able to get the new system up and running with three days to spare before the old system was completely removed. I automated processes for running reports reducing the time it took to get them done from two hours to between 30 and 40 minutes. When my colleague returned from medical leave, I had to train her on the new process for doing the job she'd been doing for 17 years. 

It looks like a lot, but if this was your story, you could rattle off those 300 or so words in about 2 minutes. You should also notice that the responses use regular speech. The answers don't have to be given in an overly professional way. If your interview is being treated like a conversation, answer the interviewer's questions in your own voice. 

Probing questions

The beauty of using the STAR method to answer interview questions is that there is a lot of room for the interviewer to ask additional probing questions. If you take this sample response the hiring manager could ask the following:

  • How many reports did you have to prepare on a daily basis?

  • Who was your downline? What did they do?

  • What were the exact course corrections you took to overcome missing the deadline?

These probing questions mean the interviewer is interested in your response and wants to know more. It can extend the timeframe of your interview and could be the thing that makes you memorable. 

Customize your STAR interview answers with some research

In making sure that you answer the hiring manager's questions in a way that shows value to them, it's best to try to customize your responses to the things they seek. There are some steps to take to decide which answers will be appropriate for each job. For example, if you're applying to a role that will not be customer-facing, it would be better to think of an example of de-escalating a situation that didn't involve calming down a customer. 

Start by reading the job description. Pick out keywords that show what they are seeking in an employee. Do a quick internet search for “behavioral interview questions” for whatever role you're seeking. You'll find some examples. Take a look at the company's website. What are their products, services, and upcoming events? Tailor your answers to match their needs as much as possible. 

Prepare your mind, too

In addition to getting the right words to say in response to these behavioral interview questions, you have to get your mind ready, too. Every interviewee will, at some point, have to ignore problems associated with brain activity, including negative thoughts and self-doubt. 

Make yourself some notes

One way to combat negative thoughts and shut down self-doubt is to make notes and take them with you. It can be extremely difficult to recall key achievements on the fly during an interview. Nerves alone can make your brain go blank. Don't be afraid to make some notes and use them during the interview. It's a way to demonstrate another soft skill–attention to detail. 

Of course, you don't want to read your notes while you're sitting in front of the hiring manager. It's okay to refer to them, though. 

Slow down, it's not taking as long as you think

Not only can your mind go completely blank when you're trying to recall details of events–especially numbers related to achievements–it can also trick you into thinking that you're taking too long to answer a question. 

First of all, there is no time limit on providing complete responses to the hiring manager. It's not like they have a stopwatch in a secret nook under the edge of the desk. The time you're taking to respond isn't as long as you think. Don't let your brain trick you into rushing. Thoroughness is more important. 

The 20 seconds you take to think about how to phrase your answer goes by quickly, too. The interviewer will be impressed to see that you take a moment to think about a response before talking. Demonstrating thoughtfulness in your interview answers hints at the fact that you take the time to think in other situations as well. 

The bottom line

Open-ended and behavioral interview questions aren't trick questions. The hiring manager isn't trying to trip you up. They truly want to know about your past, some things you've achieved, and how all of that lines up with what they're looking for. 

When you use the STAR method to detail the situation, talk about your tasks, describe the action you took, and deliver the results the interviewer will have a clearer picture of what you bring to the table. 

Do you need help determining your skills and putting your achievements into words? TopResume's team of expert resume writers can optimize your resume to help you. 

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