How to Use the STAR Interview Method to Land a Job

Sharing anecdotes created with this simple acronym helps convey your experience and skills in a lively, memorable way.

Written by Lisa Bertagnoli
How to Use the STAR Interview Method to Land a Job
Image: Shutterstock
UPDATED BY
Matthew Urwin | Apr 12, 2024
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The STAR method is a technique for organizing your answer to job interview questions that ask you to “describe a time when you” encountered a particular situation. It stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result.

 

What Is the STAR Interview Method? 

During a job interview, you will probably be asked to tell a story about a time you handled a specific scenario or applied certain skills in the past. The best way to answer these types of questions is to use the STAR method, in which you tell a compelling story by describing the situation you faced, the task needed to be done, the actions you took to complete the task and the results of your actions.

The four steps — which form the acronym STAR — are as follows:

  1. Situation: Set up the scene of the situation and give necessary context.
  2. Task: Describe your task and responsibilities in the situation.
  3. Action: Explain the actions and steps you took to complete the task.
  4. Result: Discuss the results and positive outcomes of your actions.

The STAR method is especially useful for interviewees who aren’t great at thinking on their feet.

“It provides a candidate with a method of communicating a response in an organized method with a focus on behaviors and results,” said Theresa Adams, senior HR knowledge advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management.

 

When Do You Use the STAR Method?

The STAR method is best for answering questions that require you to talk about an experience where you demonstrated a desired skill or trait. These kinds of scenarios arise when interviewers ask behavioral questions

Behavioral interview questions gauge how candidates may react in certain work situations. Examples of behavioral questions can include “tell me about a time you led a work project” or “tell me about a time you experienced conflict with a coworker.”

It’s best to limit the STAR method only to interview questions that ask you to provide concrete examples of skills and abilities. Basic interview questions like “Why do you want to work here?” or “Where do you see yourself in five years?” don’t mention a specific situation, so the STAR method would be inappropriate in these instances. 

 

How Does the STAR Method Work?

STAR interview answers follow each letter of the acronym as a step.
 

1. Set Up the Situation

First, set up the situation at hand. Give the interviewer a clear (but brief) picture of where your example takes place and what was occurring. Include several details relevant to the interview question at most to avoid a lengthy response. You should spend no more than 20 percent of your talking time setting the stage, so keep your description concise. 

 

2. Describe the Task

Describe your main task, objective or goal in the situation, and what your responsibilities entailed. The interviewer should understand what your role was in the scenario and what you were expected to accomplish. Keep the summary as short as possible since you should spend no more than 10 percent of your answer talking about the task. 

 

3. Explain the Actions You Took

Explain what you did to accomplish your task, and what was significant about the action you chose to carry out. Don’t give a generic overview — it’s worth highlighting any details specific to your action and scenario. This is the most important part of your answer and can take up as much as 60 percent of your talking time. So, take the time to emphasize at least one or two key steps you took to resolve a situation or achieve a goal.  

 

4. Share the Results

Remember that stories you tell during an interview need to accomplish two things: Demonstrate your past capabilities and show the value you’ll add in the future. This is the time to not only reveal the result, but share what you learned during the experience and how you might handle it differently. Still, the results shouldn’t make up more than 10 percent of your answer. If you can promptly highlight your achievements and growth, the STAR format can be a strategic way to format your accomplishments into a strong narrative.  

 

How to Prepare for an Interview With the STAR Method

Anyone can say that they’re hardworking, responsible or adaptable — but you need to back up your claims with evidence. Instead of listing your qualities and skills, tell a specific story about a time you exemplified them. Doing so will make your interview more memorable and give the employer a glimpse into how you behave in the workplace.

Here’s a few tips for practicing the STAR method and how to best apply it in an interview.
 

Be Brief

“Do your best to avoid long-winded answers,” said Octavia Goredema, a career coach and author of Prep, Push, Pivot: Essential Career Strategies for Underrepresented Women. Practice pre-interview so you’re able to share answers confidently and with impact. “Interviewers will listen for relevant examples and details that convey how you solved a problem or overcame a challenge,” Goredema said.

 

Wait For Your Cue 

Getting your timing right is as important as choosing the right story. Relying too heavily on the STAR method can make your answers seem unnatural and may signal that you aren’t engaged in the current conversation, which is a turnoff for employers. Don’t leap in to share an anecdote every chance you get. Instead, listen for cues from your interviewer to pick the right moment to share. 

“When an interviewer is asking you to give an example of a situation where you had to overcome major obstacles to meet your objectives, the STAR method can be a useful tool in thinking about how to frame your answers and effectively answer their questions,” said Savanna Thompson, vice president of people at 98point6

 

Be Authentic

An effective workplace story doesn’t have to be one where everything went perfectly. Don’t be afraid to tell stories where mistakes were made or things didn’t go entirely according to plan. Ultimately, the STAR method should show how you generated a positive impact at work and give you a chance to explain what you learned. 

 

See Interviews Holistically 

“Tell me about a time when…” most likely won’t encompass the entire interview, Goredema said. She recommends making a list of all tough questions like “why should we hire you” and practicing responses.

 

Example STAR Method Questions

Tell Me About a Time You Overcame a Difficult Challenge 

Situation: “I was just about to go into a board committee meeting when I received some emergency family news.”

Task: “I knew my attention wouldn’t be completely on the meeting, but this meeting had been on the books for months. I had to decide how to handle the situation.”

Action: “I decided that transparency was the best course of action. I went to the meeting and told the board what had happened. I offered to stay at the meeting. The board chair told me I should leave, and she offered to record the meeting so I could listen to it later.”

Result: “I was able to attend to the emergency and the board meeting continued. I listened to the recording during the week and was able to share a few thoughts with the board chair. I felt that trusting them with my news, and that in this case, vulnerability was a desirable leadership quality. The board’s understanding verified my choice.”

 

Tell Me About a Time You Were Suddenly Given a Leadership Opportunity

Situation: “I had been at my company for about six months when my manager had to take substantial FMLA leave to care for his parents. I was asked if I’d step in as acting manager during the time he was away.” 

Task: “My task was to keep my team on track and handle my own workload.”

Action: “Before he left, my manager, his manager and I met to go over the day-to-day aspects of managing our team as well as prioritize projects. Because I was cognizant that I’d have to get my own work done and manage the team, I got permission to place two long-term projects on hold until my manager returned. I then met with my team to devise a weekly plan for meeting deadlines and we set up a weekly 15-minute team meeting, in lieu of formal one-on-ones, to keep us on track. To keep my own work on track, I created a day-by-day plan and stuck to it.” 

Result: “Everything ran smoothly during my manager’s time away. I felt proud that I had asked for, and gotten, certain dispensations during his absence; I feel it showed that I understood priorities, for instance handling my own work and keeping the team’s day-to-day work on track, and didn’t try to be a superhero. My manager returned and was happy how things had gone during his absence, and six months later, I received a promotion.”

 

Describe a Time When a Project of Yours Didn’t Turn Out as Expected

Situation: “My team was asked to onboard a client that had been with the company in the past. The client had left the company because it felt it wasn’t getting proper customer service, but decided to give us a second chance.”

Task: “My task was to onboard and welcome this boomerang client in a way that they would feel that they made the right decision in returning.”

Action: “Before meeting the client, my team, sales and customer service met to figure out exactly what happened during the first go-round, and then outlined clear steps for rectifying those situations. For instance, the client had previously gotten check-in communication from customer service every two weeks; we decided to ask the client if one week would work better. We also decided that the account manager would, situation permitting, fly out to see the client every three months, and also offered the client a three-month free trial of a product we’d just introduced.”

Result: “The client seemed happy and satisfied with our efforts, but still left our company after a few months. In retrospect, maybe we tried too hard to keep them as a client, or perhaps it was just meant to be. In any event, I, my team, and the other teams learned a lot about each other and about client retention tools, so end over end it was a good experience.”

 

Why Is the STAR Interview Method Effective?

STAR answers form a connection between job candidates and interviewers, said Timothy Golden, a professor in the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. They help demonstrate your merits as a candidate, and also give interviewers a glimpse into how they’d operate as a potential employee.

“The beauty of the STAR method is that you never know what you’ll get,” said Martin Welker, CEO of Zenkit. “The open-ended questions can reveal a wealth of information about the candidate’s potential as an employee as well as how they would fit into the team and company culture.”

That’s especially true for remote interviews. “One of the biggest differences in remote interviews is that the job candidate and the interviewer have the potential to feel psychologically distant from one another,” Golden said. “They feel less psychological closeness because they are spatially distant from each other. Both the job candidate and interviewer should work to psychologically connect with each other, through sharing stories and facial expressions.” 

Successful interviews, for both interviewer and candidate, will bridge that separation, and create an environment where the job interview can help both parties to truly understand one another. Where one person walks away with a job offer, and the other rejoices in a fine addition to their staff, it’s a win-win.

 

Former McKinsey consultant Victor Cheng walks through the STAR interview method. | Video: caseinterview

How the STAR Method Can Help Alleviate Implicit Bias

Behavioral-based questions produce key insights into a candidate’s competencies, said Elaine Obukhova, Academy of Management Scholar and assistant professor at McGill University in Toronto. Understanding how people have responded to certain past situations can help predict how they’ll respond in the future. 

So how can STAR curb implicit bias? Obukhova offers one example: Chinese-American job candidates, she said, can be stereotypically viewed as competent, but also as “cold” or “lacking leadership potential.” STAR questions can get past that bias because they focus on what people did rather than how they seem. 

“People from different backgrounds express themselves differently,” she said. “Interviews that focus on the discovery of ‘fit’ or ‘passion’ often disadvantage people from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds,” she said. “Asking about strengths and weaknesses will tell interviewers how well-spoken the candidate is, not necessarily reveal competence.”

 

Frequently Asked Questions

The STAR method is an interview technique that helps candidates format answers for behavioral questions. STAR stands for situation, task, action and result.

"Tell me about a time you led a project" or "Describe a time when you were under pressure at work: how did you handle it?" are examples of STAR questions. 

Between one to four minutes long; approximately a few minutes.

  1. Situation: provide the setting and context.
  2. Task: describe the challenge you faced.
  3. Action: outline the steps you took to resolve the challenge.
  4. Result: share the outcome of your actions.

An earlier version of this story was written by Sunny Betz.

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