There are many different ways in which you can answer interview questions, but one technique, in particular, has been utilized successfully in job interviews for many years: the STAR technique gives you specific guidelines for how to respond to the most common types of interview questions, by giving you the basic outline for how to put together the most concrete, detailed but concise answer that you can.
STAR stands for situation, task, action(s), and the result(s); each element should be addressed within your answer. Using the STAR technique to outline particular answers to potential questions is one of the most effective ways in which you can prepare yourself for a job interview.
With regard to the interview itself, the STAR method indicates a path by which you construct your answers to any variety of questions, and the first thing you should do—besides taking a moment to ponder the question—is to lay out the situation in your answer. In general, the STAR technique is primarily focused on the kinds of answers that you would give to behavioral questions (though most questions posed in an interview could readily be behavioral questions). As such, when you are asked a question about past experiences or actions, the first thing to do is to illustrate the situation: essentially, you are describing the situation in which the relevant event was taking place. This context could be anything from working on a team project to dealing with a difficult colleague.
Situation lays down the groundwork from which you build the edifice of your answer, one story at a time. Beware of providing too much background and instead focus on the most relevant parts of the situation: you want to underscore the complexity or depth of the situation so that your resolution seems that much stronger, but you don’t want to dwell on details that have nothing to do with your part in the process (an interviewer doesn’t need to know that the client had been with the company for three years, for example, just that a client in good standing had an issue that you were able to resolve). Two or three sentences to set up the situation is really all that is needed. Remember, there will be plenty more questions to come. Think back to the “five Ws,” as your high school English teacher might have said: what, who, where, when, and why.
Still, even if an interview question isn’t a clear behavioral question, the STAR method can be applied. Character questions (what are your strengths/weaknesses?), experience questions (what were your previous job responsibilities?), and opinion questions (what do you value in a co-worker?) can all be more effectively answered with a story set up in STAR format. It will give you specific details and concrete actions that more precisely reveal your hard and soft skills.
The task portion of your answer details the specific responsibilities you were given in the situation described. These are the tasks that you review before you decide on your course of action, which will be detailed in the following module. Tasks allow you to identify concrete details of objectives that will reveal your attendant skill set. You have already relayed the background in the situation part of your answer; now, show what particular tasks were your responsibilities in dealing with the situation.
As with the situation, a listing task should be brief, but it is crucially important that the tasks be concrete and familiar to the interviewer. If you are discussing tasks that a personnel manager might not understand, then you aren’t really illuminating your skillset. Be aware of your audience before you determine what kind of tasks would best suit an interview question. An interviewer who has deep knowledge of your technical expertise would be better able to relate to highly specialized tasks.
In preparing for an interview, it is an excellent idea to compile a list of skills to which you can refer. These skills should be both soft skills—attitude, communication, conflict resolution, teamwork, flexibility, leadership, problem- solving—and hard skills, the technical expertise, or educational qualifications that you possess. When preparing a STAR answer, refer to your list of skills and be sure that you can relate a particular skill or (better yet) several skills to the tasks you relay in your answer. Being able to show the connection between task designated and skill used to respond is a key component in a strong interview.
When answering behavioral questions during the interview, the action is where you detail the specific steps you took to reach a goal or solve a problem. This part of your answer is the place to showcase the wide range and depth of your skills, and it requires attention to detail and a concrete sense of how you determined a course of action that led to positive results.
The more specifically, you can convey exactly what actions you took indicate to the interviewer that you possess higher-level soft skills as well as the hard skills to execute results. You should also consider preparing several examples of specific actions you have taken in a variety of different professional experiences; be sure to use examples that showcase different strengths, rather than repeating the same one or two. Show that your skillset has breadth as well as depth.
Now that you have a written list of skills (see the tip in the above section), you should start to think of specific examples using concrete detail that show how you have put these skills into action. It is not enough to suggest that you have “effective communication skills”—anyone can claim that—you must come up with actual examples that reveal how your actions put your effective communication skills to work, producing real, desirable results.
The last part of your answer during an interview should focus on the results that your previous actions brought about; you want to emphasize the positive aspects of those results, of course, in addition to any innovative impacts that your actions might have had. Certainly, no interview story should end with, “because my ideas were so radical, I was ultimately let go.” This is not a story to be told at an interview. You want to highlight the successes you’ve had in past work experience (or educational, though most employers want to see something directly related to work, even if it’s volunteer or internship work).
Even if you are talking about a past experience that might have been negative—a time you failed, for example, or a challenge that seemed insurmountable—you should always endeavor to end on the most positive note you can. This might lead to results that reveal how much you learned and changed after a negative experience or how you developed professionally in the face of difficult circumstances. Don’t fall into the trap of telling a story that ends flatly, with no positive trajectory out of the negative experience.
Other questions will inherently emphasize the positive, so you should have no trouble iterating results that matter: an interviewer doesn’t just want to hear about what your responsibilities were or which actions were taken; they want to hear about why those decisions and actions ultimately mattered. If these results are measurable, all the better: if your results are quantifiable—sales numbers grew by X percentage, or productivity rose by a factor of X, or customer interest soared by X-fold—then you demonstrate the concrete nature of how you produce positive results out of decisive and skilled actions.
Also note that, oftentimes, when an interviewer asks a behavioral question, he or she will not necessarily ask you to recount what the results were. However, this is implicit in the question itself, so be sure to go beyond just recounting the situation encountered and the actions are taken; an interviewer will want to know what the results, ultimately, were.
Emphasize Employer Expectations
You should already have a thorough grounding in what the job requires and how the company operates, but you should also have a clear understanding of the kinds of skills that employers are generally looking for. These can be grouped into hard skills and soft skills, in addition to some knowledge about overall expectations. When preparing your STAR answers, think about focusing on these particular skills that most employers expect—and want!
Hard skills are the technical and professional skills that are gained through specific education and training. This is the expertise you have gained through formal education and hands-on experience, specific to each particular field or job. This includes not only formal education and technical training, but also apprenticeships, internships, continuing education, certification or licensing programs, and on-the-job experience. Hard skills are easily evaluated through objective definition and measurement.
Soft Skills are the character attributes and personal qualities that a candidate brings with them to the position. These personality traits and behavioral standards are what allow an employee who has standard hard skills to gain an advantage over other candidates.
Managers look for soft skills because no matter how good you are at executing tasks or effectively producing if your interpersonal or communication skills are lacking, then you are likely not the best person for the job. Soft skills are also transferrable skills, appropriate in any workplace scenario, meaning that an employee with excellent soft skills is flexible and useful in almost any position. These skills are gained not through formal training, by and large, but via personal experience and self-awareness; because they are gained over time, the employee with solid soft skills adds value to a company beyond their basic functions. Soft skills demonstrate diversity and broadness of experience, as well as attention to detail and openness to others.
Some soft skills to emphasize include adaptability, attitude (positive!), communication skills (oral and written), conflict resolution, creative thinking, critical thinking, decision making, flexibility, interpersonal, leadership, motivation, organization, problem-solving, teamwork, time management, and overall work ethic.
Next, consider the position itself: what managers will expect depends largely on the nature of the job and the experience and skill set needed to fulfill that job. Thus, if you are looking at an entry-level position, then the expectations for lengthy job experience or leadership roles will be lower. In this case, it is likely that you are just embarking on your career, and so other parts of your resume will be more significant, such as educational accomplishments and other extracurricular achievements.
If you are looking for a job in management or a highly technical or specialized field, then you can expect that interviewers will be looking for specific details on your abilities and accomplishments within that particular field. The position for which you are interviewing plays some role itself in understanding the expectations that hiring managers will have of you.
Following on the above, however, employers looking to hire new workers will be much more interested in how they have demonstrated effectiveness in past work experience, rather than in educational achievements—unless you are seeking a truly entry-level position. So, emphasizing your experience, especially with regard to some of the top skills that employers are looking for (see the following module for more on that), will be the most significant way to impress upon them that you will be a smart choice.
Also, remember that you are likely competing with several other candidates for the job: think about what in your past work experience makes you stand out. You’ll want to be sure to prepare at least a couple of answers that demonstrate your unique abilities and how they are applicable to the current position being offered. Basically, you need to sell yourself as the best applicant for the job.
Always conduct yourself with honesty and integrity. The conundrum of how honest to be during the application and interview process is a fraught one: some advice out there suggests that you be honest . . . but not too honest, that it’s acceptable to bend the truth a bit in the service of your ideal job search. Other advice suggests that managers and employers are truly seeking the most honest and forthcoming individuals for their positions. So, which advice is best?
Certainly, the old canard “honesty is the best policy” applies to just about everything you do in life; the consequences of getting caught up in falsehoods could do more damage than even the “harmless” fib you peddled in the first place might. It reveals volumes about a person’s integrity when lies are exposed, even if they are minor ones—sometimes especially if they are minor ones (“why would she lie about something so minor? What’s wrong with her?”). Thus, it is always best to err on the side of truthfulness than not.
However, that doesn’t always indicate that you have to reveal every single thing about your work history or experience: everyone makes mistakes, and if you have learned from them, it might be an advantage to bring such issues to light in an interview (indeed, many interviewers will ask outright to talk about past mistakes and how you dealt with them). But, everyone also deserves to be defined by aspects of their life besides their mistakes: a particularly damaging or difficult time need not be put on the table unless it becomes highly significant to the conversation or position. Know the difference between revealing that you were fired for a mistake that you’ve since rectified and remaining quiet over an incident with office politics that might be misinterpreted outside the culture of your former company.
Nevertheless, it is never appropriate to list a certification, license, or other accomplishment that has subsequently been revoked for some reason. Even if the accomplishment in question isn’t relevant for the position to which you applied, it is still unwise to elide the full truth. It is likely that the most casual search will reveal your “lie of omission,” which will almost certainly knock you out of the running for the job. Additionally, claiming licensure for certain positions that you no longer have is considered a criminal act in many cases.
Note: After you have learnt the job interview skills in this masterclass, you can start finding jobs online. There are many freelancing platforms where you can find gigs and flexible jobs online. Here are some popular freelancing platforms for you: