Are you good at telling stories? Do you get right to the point and include all the relevant details? Or do you maybe tend to forget to mention some key context or have a tendency to ramble? What if you add the stress of a job interview? Is it still easy for you to relay a well-structured story about your past work experience in response to an interview question—you know, the ones that start with “Tell me about a time when…”?
Yeah, that’s a bit tougher. Especially if you’re struggling to think of an example that answers the question and then have to jump straight into telling it as an easy-to-follow anecdote with a clear takeaway.
First of all, take comfort in the fact that we’ve all been there. Second of all, there’s a strategy you can use to come up with way more impressive answers to these dreaded questions: the STAR interview method.
- What is the STAR method?
- What questions the STAR method used for?
- How exactly do you use the STAR method?
- A STAR method example answer
- How do you prepare to use the STAR method ahead of your interview?
What is the STAR method?
The STAR method is an interview technique that gives you a straightforward format you can use to tell a story by laying out the Situation, Task, Action, and Result.
- Situation: Set the scene and give the necessary details of your example.
- Task: Describe what your responsibility was in that situation.
- Action: Explain exactly what steps you took to address it.
- Result: Share what outcomes your actions achieved.
By using these four components to shape your anecdote, it’s much easier to share a focused answer, providing the interviewer with “a digestible but compelling narrative of what a candidate did,” says Muse Career Coach Al Dea, founder of CareerSchooled. “They can follow along, but also determine based on the answer how well that candidate might fit with the job.”
What questions the STAR method used for?
The STAR method can be used to answer behavioral interview questions (or any other kinds of questions where you need to tell a story). In other words, use the STAR method for those prompts that ask you to provide a real-life example of how you handled a certain kind of situation in the past (i.e., how you behaved in the past).
Don’t worry—these questions are easy to recognize. They often have telltale openings like:
- Tell me about a time when…
- What do you do when…
- Have you ever…
- Give me an example of…
- Describe a situation…
When it comes to answering these sorts of questions, thinking of a fitting example for your response is just the beginning. You also need to share the details in a compelling and easy-to-understand way—without endless rambling. That’s exactly what the STAR interview method enables you to do. “It provides a simple framework for helping a candidate tell a meaningful story about a previous work experience,” Dea says.
Sample behavioral interview questions you can answer using STAR
Here are some of the most common behavioral questions you might get in an interview and can use the STAR method for:
- Give me an example of a time you had a conflict with a coworker.
- Tell me about a time you made a mistake.
- How do you handle pressure at work or school?
- Tell me about your proudest professional accomplishment.
- Describe a time you failed and how you dealt with it.
- Tell me about a time you went above and beyond.
How exactly do you use the STAR method?
Knowing what the acronym stands for is only the first step—you need to know how to use it. Follow this step-by-step process to give the best STAR interview answers.
1. Lay out the *situation.*
First, set the scene for your interviewer. It’s tempting to include all sorts of unnecessary details—particularly when your nerves get the best of you. But if the hiring manager asks you to tell them about a time you didn’t meet a client’s expectations, for example, they don’t necessarily need to know the story of how you recruited the client three years earlier.
Your goal here is to paint a clear picture of the situation you were in, so the interviewer can understand the rest of your answer. Keep things concise and focus on what’s undeniably relevant to your story and the interview question you’re answering. “The STAR method is meant to be simple,” says career coach Emma Flowers. “Sometimes people provide too much detail and their answers are too long. Focus on just one or two sentences for each letter of the acronym.”
For example, imagine that the interviewer just said, “Tell me about a time when you achieved a goal that you initially thought was out of reach.” The situation portion of your response might be:
“In my previous digital marketing role, my company made the decision to focus primarily on email marketing and was looking to increase their list of email subscribers pretty aggressively.”
2. Highlight the *task.*
You’re telling this story for a reason—because you had some sort of core involvement in it. This is the part of your answer when you make the interviewer understand exactly where you fit in.
This can easily get confused with the “action” portion of the response. However, this piece is dedicated to giving the specifics of what your responsibilities were in that particular scenario, as well as any objective that was set for you, before you dive into what you actually did.
Continuing the example from above, for the task portion of your answer you could say:
“As the email marketing manager, my target was to increase the size of our email list by at least 50% in just one quarter.”
3. Share how you took *action.*
Now that you’ve given the interviewer a sense of what your role was, it’s time to explain what you did. What steps did you take to reach that goal or solve that problem?
Resist the urge to give a vague or glossed-over answer like, “So I worked hard on it…” or “I did some research…”
This is your chance to really showcase your contribution, and it’s worthy of some specifics. Dig in deep and make sure that you give enough information about exactly what you did. Did you work with a certain team? Use a particular piece of software? Form a detailed plan? Those are the things your interviewer wants to know.
The action portion of your answer might be:
“I started by going back through our old blog posts and adding in content upgrades that incentivized email subscriptions—which immediately gave our list a boost. Next, I worked with the rest of the marketing team to plan and host a webinar that required an email address to register, which funneled more interested users into our list.”
4. Discuss the *results.*
Here it is—your time to shine and explain how you made a difference. The final portion of your response should share the results of the action you took. Lydia Bowers, a human resources professional, warns that too many candidates skip over this crucial step. But, she says, “That’s the most important part of the answer!”
Remember, interviewers don’t only care about what you did—they also want to know why it mattered. So make sure you hammer home the point about any results you achieved and quantify them when you can. Numbers are always impactful. You can also add in any long-term effects of your actions—did you or your team develop a new way of communicating or completing a task? Did the contract with your client continue? Did you get great feedback on your presentation?
Of course, the result better be positive—otherwise this isn’t a story you should be telling. Does that mean you can’t tell stories about problems or challenges or that every situation you talk about needs to have gone perfectly? Absolutely not. But even if you’re talking about a time you failed or made a mistake, make sure you end on a high note by talking about what you learned or the steps you took to improve.
Here’s the result portion of our example answer:
“As a result of those additions to our email strategy, I was able to increase our subscriber list from 25,000 subscribers to 40,000 subscribers in three months—which exceeded our goal by 20%. And webinars have now become a regular event to boost and maintain our email list.”
A STAR method example answer
It’s making sense now, isn’t it? Here’s one more example for some added clarity.
If the interviewer says: “Tell me about a time when you had to be very strategic in order to meet all of your top priorities.”
Your response might be (just, you know, don’t actually say “situation” and so forth):
- Situation: “In my previous sales role, I was put in charge of the transition to an entirely new customer relationship management (CRM) system—on top of handling my daily sales calls and responsibilities.”
- Task: “The goal was to have the migration to the new CRM database completed by the start of Q3, without letting any of my own sales numbers slip below my targets.”
- Action: “In order to do that, I had to be very careful about how I managed my time. So I blocked off an hour on my calendar each day to dedicate solely to the CRM migration. During that time, I worked on transferring the data, as well as cleaning out old contacts and fixing outdated information. Doing this gave me enough time to chip away at that project while still handling my normal tasks.”
- Result: “As a result, the transfer was completed two weeks ahead of deadline and I finished the quarter 10% ahead of my sales goal. The new CRM has also helped us get more organized as a team, and overall our department sales are up 25% year over year.”
How do you prepare to use the STAR method ahead of your interview?
To be ready to use the STAR method in your next interview, it will be helpful for you to prepare what stories you might tell ahead of time as well as how you’ll tell them. These tips will help you out:
- Look over the job description: The job posting you applied to contains all sorts of useful information that will tell you what an employer is looking for in a candidate. Think about what qualities and skills are most important to the role and choose stories that emphasize them. For example, if you’re interviewing for a client-facing role, you’ll want to have a story about a time you provided great customer service.
- Choose a few strong, versatile example stories: The STAR interview method won’t be helpful to you if you use it to structure an answer using a totally irrelevant anecdote. There’s no way for you to know ahead of time exactly what the interviewer will ask you, but you can prep a few stories about different types of experiences that you can tweak and adapt for various questions. For example, interviewers are likely to ask questions where stories about overcoming a challenge or working with a team will be useful.
- Write down key details: It’s OK to go into an interview with some notes or a cheat sheet. For each of your stories, jot down some of the important points. And don’t forget to write down any specific numbers as well.
- Practice your storytelling: While the STAR method is a great technique, you still want to make sure your delivery is up to snuff. “Whether it’s in a mock interview or just practicing your answer in the mirror, talk through your response so that it feels natural and comfortable when you’re actually in the interview,” Flowers says.
- Don’t rush yourself: If you’re struggling during your interview to come up with an example that fits, “It’s OK to take a few seconds,” Flowers says. “I’m always impressed when a candidate asks for a moment to think so that they can provide a good answer.”
The STAR interview method might seem a little overwhelming at first. But with just a little preparation and strategy, you’ll soon view behavioral interview questions as less of a burden—and more of an opportunity to emphasize your awesome qualifications.
Regina Borsellino contributed writing, reporting, and/or advice to this article.
STAR method infographic