During your job search, interviewers will ask you to tell a story. They most likely won’t preface the question with “tell me a story,” but they will start with “describe a time,” “imagine a situation,” “when did you…” or similar prompts.
What is the STAR method?
- Describe the situation you experienced
- Talk about the task you completed
- Explain what action you took
- Discuss the results of your action
If you want to do well in your next interview, reach for the STAR method. STAR, which stands for situation, task, action and result, is a way to organize your thoughts and relay an anecdote that efficiently and effectively shows your interviewer how you behave in certain situations.
What is the STAR Interview Method?
Questions that call for a STAR answer are called behavioral questions, said Theresa Adams, senior HR knowledge advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management, an association for human-resources professionals. “It provides a candidate with a method of communicating a response in an organized method with a focus on behaviors and results,” Adams said.
Behavioral questions are one of three widely used interview techniques, Adams said. The others are competency-based, which aims to discover how a person performed in certain situations, and then situational, which asks a candidate how they’d approach a hypothetical situation.
“It provides a candidate with a method of communicating a response in an organized method with a focus on behaviors and results.”
Questions that elicit STAR answers provide insight into a candidate’s past performance by describing a real workplace scenario and the actions, behaviors, and results of a candidate’s efforts, Adams said. For candidates, STAR questions help focus on accomplishments or results achieved in a concise and focused manner, she said.
The benefits? “An interviewer can readily evaluate candidate outcomes,” Adams said. “These situations described by a candidate can also be used in the reference checking process and verified.”
Want to know when to use STAR during an interview? Listen for questions along the lines of “Tell me about a time when you…” and “Describe a situation where you…” The interviewer is asking you to tell them a story.
STAR Example: A Negative Experience
- Question: Describe a time when a project you handled didn’t turn out quite 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: 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.
Keep a few stories about your past work experience in your back pocket — they’ll grab your interviewer’s attention and showcase your personality. If you can share stories that make you stand out from other candidates, it’s all the more likely that you’ll get a call back with a job offer.
Here’s a breakdown of the four STAR components.
It’s the first component in the answer to “tell me about a time or instance or situation when you…” Your role here is to set up the situation, and for example, let’s turn to James Durago, director of people operations at Molecula, an Austin, Texas-based software company. Durago used the STAR technique when he was interviewing for his job at Molecula.
The question posed to him: “When did you have to quickly grow a team and how did you do it?” Durago’s situation: He had been charged with staffing Google Cloud’s program management five times in a single year to keep pace with business goals and plans.
Durago’s task was to find and interview thousands of candidates with the goal of hiring hundreds.
For this and all elements of STAR answers, interviewers will listen for the amount of detail, for personal accountability and for consistent information, said Adams of SHRM. Blaming or shaming clients, colleagues or other parties in the case of an anecdote relaying a mistake can send up a red flag, as can stories thin on detail or those packed with inconsistencies.
Durago talked to others on his team to get a perspective on why the team needed to grow five-fold. He also figured out constraints to hiring, formulated a plan, executed the plan, and iterated as needed.
At any point in STAR, an interviewer might jump in with follow-up questions. For instance, Durago said, if a candidate explains that they took a certain action, the followup question might be what other courses of action they considered, and why they moved forward with a particular plan.
The team grew and met expectations, results that met the challenge Durago was handed.
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. 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. The STAR format is a strategic way to focus your accomplishments into a strong narrative.
STAR Example: A Leadership Opportunity
- Question: Tell me about an instance when you found yourself unexpectedly put into an unfamiliar role.
- 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: 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.
How Job Seekers Use the STAR Interview Method
Anyone can say that they’re hardworking, responsible or adaptable — 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.
“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.” Practicing pre-interview so you’re able to share answers confidently and with impact, she said. “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 it seem like you’re reading from a script and aren’t engaged in the current conversation, which is a huge 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, a Seattle-based health-tech company.
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 (“where do you see yourself in five years” and “why should we hire you” are among them) and practicing responses. Pro tip: Video yourself if possible so you can review your answers and make note of your body language and delivery style.
While preparing, don’t neglect the “easy” questions, such as “tell me about yourself,” Goredema said. “Before your interview, ask yourself, ‘what do I want this person to walk away knowing about me?’” she said. “That way, you can make sure you weave the most important information to your responses.”
STAR Example: Overcoming Challenges
- Question: What’s the most challenging situation of your career so far, and how did you handle it?
- 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.
How Interviewers Use STAR Interview Method
“The beauty of the STAR method is that you never know what you’ll get,” said Martin Welker, CEO of Zenkit, a SaaS platform for project management, database collaboration. “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,” Welker said.
Because of the nature of the questions asked, the interview can become more casual, as the job candidate relaxes and more follow-up questions are asked, Welker said. “They are more likely to share a greater level of information as a result, which would not necessarily occur from cliché questions such as ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’”
Just as job candidates prepare for interviewers, so should hiring managers. “Approach the interview with as much openness as possible,” Welker said. He advises against asking questions in the hopes of getting a specific response, or worse, asking questions that will trap or trick a candidate. Use behavioral questions, a la those that elicit a STAR response, to launch a casual conversation so both parties can get to know each other, he said. “No one enjoys answering exam-style questions where they feel constantly graded on their performance,” he said.
Before the interview, identify competencies that are important for this specific role, added Elaine Obukhova, Academy of Management Scholar and assistant professor, Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal.
“Team-player? Leadership? Problem-solving? Social skills? Ability to show empathy? Listen for these in the responses,” she said.
Preparing also means simply being ready, said James Durago of Molecula. “If you know you need to handwrite your notes, have a notebook, pen and page ready to go,” he said. “If you need an outline to take notes, do that.” (Durago writes STAR at the top of the page to keep track of the answer’s trajectory.) “Interviewing is already hard,” Durago said. “Make the setting conducive to you doing a good job.”
Ask Questions That Beg for Stories
Welker has several, including “describe a mistake you made and how you handled it” and “give me an example of a goal you met.” These questions, he says, “give the candidate a lot of leeway in terms of where they can take the answer, giving me a better picture of their overall personality without intruding too much or asking several followup questions,” he said.
If a candidate seems shy or withdrawn, Welker has another question: “Describe a time when you went above and beyond.” It is, he said, a good way to give shy candidates a platform to “step up and show off.”
Listen to the Answer
Answers to the question should be authentic, and from the heart. “If someone is genuinely sincere, it doesn’t matter how long the response is, because their passion shines through,” Welker said. In these cases, he’s found that the response is well-structured because it comes from the heart and not from a place of trying to impress.
Be Prepared to be Asked a STAR Question
If the interview is going well, the candidate might well ask a STAR question or two of their own. “This is something I believe many of us forget about interviews,” Welker said. “They are not meant to be one sided. Both parties are technically being interviewed.”
Welker recalls a candidate who began asking him about a project Welker had mentioned. “It had obviously piqued their interest, and they wanted to know more about it and the steps I took to complete it,” Welker said. His answer didn’t follow STAR to the letter, but it took the same basic path. Welker said he exited the interview impressed with the candidate’s curiosity.
How STAR 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, Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Toronto. Understanding how people have responded to certain past situations can help predict how they’ll respond in the future, she said.
- So how can STAR curb implicit bias? Obukhova offers one example: Chinese-American job candidates, she said, can be viewed as competent, but also as “cold” or “lacking leadership potential,” she said. 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.”
Why is the STAR Interview Method Effective?
Think of your childhood, when few activities were more engaging than being told a story. Stories reach back thousands of years; they are the stuff that life is made of. Given this shared love, 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.
“These types of considerations help bridge the distance and create an environment where the job interview can help both parties to truly understand one another.”
That’s especially true in this era of 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.” Successful interviews, for both interviewer and candidate, will bridge that separation.
“Both the job candidate and interviewer should work to psychologically connect with each other, through the use of video interviewing, sharing stories, and facial expressions,” Golden said. “These types of considerations help bridge the distance and create an environment where the job interview can help both parties to truly understand one another.”
That’s the mark of a successful interview, where one person walks away with a job offer and the other rejoices in a fine addition to their staff. In other words, it’s a win-win.
Sunny Betz wrote an earlier version of this story, which was published in 2021.