How to Use the STAR Method to Ace Your Interview

The Prepped Team

7 minutes

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Getting to the interview stage in your job search is exciting after weeks or months of networking, reviewing job listings, and submitting resumes. Now, you’re that much closer to landing the job you want, but there are still a few crucial steps left. 

To ensure you put your best foot forward during the interview and maximize your odds of getting a job offer, it’s imperative to prepare well for your interview. Using the STAR interview method can set you up for success, whether it’s your first interview or your tenth. In this article we describe what the STAR method is, when and how to use it in an interview, and provide useful examples to get you started with your own preparation.

In this article:

What is the STAR method?

The STAR method is a job interview technique that helps you structure responses clearly and succinctly in a storytelling format. It neatly packages each response in a compelling way using personal examples to showcase your skills, professional experience, and qualifications. The storytelling component is important because people find stories more engaging and memorable than simple explanations or sharing of facts. This helps keep your interviewers engaged and increases the odds that they’ll remember you (and your responses) in a positive light. 

STAR is an acronym that stands for: 

  • Situation: The context or background that sets the scene for your example. It could relate to a past job, your university or college studies, volunteer work, internships, or even your personal life.
  • Task: A description of your responsibility or objective in the situation.
  • Action: The steps or actions you took to fulfill your responsibility or achieve your objective.
  • Result: The outcome of your actions, as well as what you accomplished and learned from the experience—even if the result wasn’t favourable. 

There are a few variations of the STAR method, including STARS (situation, task, action, result, skills) or START (situation, task, action, result, takeaway) or CAR (context/challenge, action, result).

Advantages of using the STAR method in job interviews

The STAR method offers several advantages in how you prepare for a job interview, and perform in one. Here we outline the main benefits: 

  • Ensures your response is focused: The STAR format ensures every answer addresses a behavioural question in a concise manner while still covering all the essential elements needed for a complete response. Using a real-life example, you can craft a response that touches on all the crucial aspects interviewers are interested in, including the skills you applied and the outcome you achieved.
  • Provides a consistent structure: Regardless of the behavioural question asked, the structure remains the same, calling attention to the skills and qualities you feel are most pertinent to the job. The consistent format can also make it easier to remember your prepared answers, as well as come up with strong responses on-the-spot during interviews. 
  • Helps you prepare for interviews effectively: The simple four-step STAR approach makes it easier to craft and rehearse answers to possible interview questions. Once you come up with the best real-life example to use, crafting a quality response can be done quite effortlessly.
  • Helps keep your answers brief and succinct: It can be easy to ramble during interviews when you’re nervous, as it’s tempting to fill in silence with more talking. The STAR method, however, helps you provide answers that have a clear conclusion to prevent you from continuing to talk unnecessarily. 
  • Makes answers compelling: Everyone enjoys hearing stories. The STAR method uses a storytelling format which makes your answers engaging and memorable for interviewers. 

What type of interview questions is the STAR method used for?

The STAR method is used to answer behavioural questions, which are common in interviews. They are designed to ask about your past actions in a certain situation. 

Some common behavioural questions asked in interviews are:

  • Describe a time you failed at something and how you handled it.
  • Give me an example of a situation where you had a conflict with someone.
  • What is your proudest accomplishment?
  • Tell me about a time you had to manage multiple conflicting priorities.
  • Give me an example of a time you showed initiative.
  • How do you handle pressure at work or school?

Tip: You can even use the STAR method to showcase achievements when you craft your resume. Use the four steps to define what you want to write for each bullet point, then incorporate into one powerful sentence or point.

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How to use the STAR method to answer interview questions 

Although it may initially seem daunting to come up with real life examples for every answer, the formula is actually quite simple once you get used to it. The entire response should be no longer than two to three minutes, so keep that in mind while practicing. Here’s how it all comes together:

Situation

In one or two sentences, set the scene for your story. Describe the situation with a little bit of background so the interviewer understands the context of the example you’re about to share. Don’t provide too much detail—get to the point quickly. As a recent grad, you may have little or no work experience yet, so you can use examples from school, part-time work, volunteering, or internships. 

Example:

During the summer, I worked as an office assistant at a tech start-up that developed apps for small businesses. I noticed their social media accounts were rarely updated because the staff were too busy to do it.  

Task

Describe your task—whether it was allocated to you or you took the initiative—in one or two sentences. 

Example: 

I offered to take on the task of posting on their social media channels to help drive traffic to their website and increase their followers.

Action

Showcase what you did to fulfill the task, including the skills you used to achieve your goal.

Example:  

I devised a well thought out social media plan that outlined the company’s brand and target audience, then researched social media scheduling apps and selected the best one for the company based on price and usage requirements. I then set up a weekly publishing schedule that included their blog posts, design tips, testimonials from existing clients, as well as behind-the-scenes photos from the office. 

Result

Highlight how you created a positive impact and, where possible, provide measurable results.

Example: 

By the end of summer, the company’s followers increased by 25 per cent on Instagram and 20 per cent on Facebook and were getting regular comments and shares. In that two-month period, almost 10 per cent of their website traffic came through social media, up from almost zero. I was also asked to continue working part-time as a social media coordinator through the school year because they were so happy with my work.

Here are some additional examples of STAR responses:

Describe a time you failed at something and how you handled it.

In my first year of university, I really struggled academically. I barely scraped by in two courses and if I did not make some changes immediately, I would fail. That summer, I reflected on how I was going to move forward in the fall. Did I want to give up and drop out of the engineering program? Or was I ready to really commit to school? I realized I truly wanted to become an engineer but had to take my studies more seriously to succeed. I knew I could do better. My second year, I developed an effective method for taking notes and studying. I resigned from two of the four student clubs I had been part of and, instead, joined study groups for my toughest courses. I wrote down my goal at the start of the year to achieve at least 80 in every course. That year, I earned an 84 average, and my marks increased each subsequent year. I graduated from my engineering program this year with a 4.1 GPA, which is a 90 average.

Give me an example of a situation in which you had a conflict with someone.

For two summers, I ran a paint business where I quoted on and fulfilled jobs painting house exteriors. One customer was irate because he claimed the paint job was poorly done, and refused to pay for the work. I had already inspected my crew’s work and found it was done well, but I knew arguing with the customer would not change his mind. I explained that I would do whatever was necessary to ensure he was satisfied with the work and asked him to show me exactly where he was dissatisfied with the job. This response immediately decreased his frustration, and it turned out he was unhappy with only two parts of the home, not the entire paint job. I offered to send a new crew out to repaint those sections. He agreed and was happy with the results once it was done. He even sent me two referrals that summer!

How to prepare for STAR interview questions

The STAR method can help simplify your interview prep thanks to its consistent structure. Be sure you have a good idea of what common interview questions may be asked and plan a response for each. Here are some useful tips to get started, and prepare answers using the STAR method.

  • Identify what qualifications the employer is looking for: Review the job description you’re interviewing for. What are the skills listed? What experience is the employer looking for? What personality traits are most important? You can also expand your research by reviewing similar roles to clarify most sought-after skills. Make a list based on your findings. 
  • Leverage your network for your research: Depending on how much time you have before your interview, you can reach out to professionals working in the company you’re interviewing with. Set up coffee chats to learn about company culture, the skills the employer looks for in candidates, and even tips on the types of questions you might be asked during the interview. For new graduates, job fairs where the employer is actively recruiting for entry-level positions are a great platform to meet the hiring team and get insights on the company’s culture and recruitment process. Take advantage of these by maintaining a strong connection with the contacts you meet. They may offer additional support once you’ve been asked for an interview. 
  • Make a list of your skills: Now that you’re clear on what the employer is looking for, make a list of your skills that align with the job description. Start by brainstorming. For each skill you jot down, make a note of situations in which you exhibited it. Don’t get too caught up in the details as you can expand on each skill when you craft your STAR responses later.
  • List your accomplishments: It’s not always easy to come up with compelling examples of how you put your skills to work. Another way to approach this is to brainstorm your accomplishments. Think about how you achieved them and why they’re noteworthy. Then reflect on the skills you used. Once you’ve come up with a solid list of skills, match them up to the skills you identified for the job. These are the ones you want to focus on for the interview.
  • Write out complete answers for common questions: While you can never predict what questions will be asked in each interview, there are common questions you should prepare for. For each behavioural question you’ve come up with, write out a complete answer using the STAR method. Often, you’ll find you can repurpose some examples for a different question. For example, your response to how you managed a conflict at work could also be used to answer a question on how you handled a difficult situation. That said, it’s good to have multiple examples planned, just in case you’re asked both questions.
  • Rehearse your responses: Practice makes perfect. Get comfortable with the STAR structure and learn when to stop talking once you’ve finished the answer. It can be tempting to keep talking to fill silence, but these answers are structured to have a beginning, middle, and end. The interviewer will appreciate your succinct responses. Try to visualize yourself in each situation you describe, rather than memorize. Your responses will likely not come out exactly as you prepared them. That’s ok. You want to come across as authentic—not overly rehearsed. Refrain from embellishing or twisting the truth. Trust that your own experiences are strong enough to prove your candidacy.
  • Do a post-interview assessment: You’ll likely feel tremendous relief once the interview is over. But before you rush off to do something else, make a note of any questions that you struggled to answer. This is easy to do after a virtual interview since you’re already in front of your computer. For in-person interviews, consider making notes on your phone after you leave the workplace while it’s still fresh in your mind. You can then refer to the notes to address these gaps for future interviews.

Tips on using the STAR method to ace your interview

As you grow more comfortable coming up with answers using the STAR method, you’ll likely discover there are ways to help ensure you really excel in your interview responses. Here are some useful tips that you can put to use immediately to flatten your learning curve on using the STAR method:

  • Use authentic examples: Always stick to real-life examples with positive outcomes when responding in a STAR format. There are times when it’s okay to use an example with a negative outcome, as long as you conclude the story with an explanation of what you learned from the experience and how it positively impacted you. Refrain from embellishing or stretching the truth to make your story more impressive. If the recruiter asks follow-up questions, you will struggle to respond if you’re not being truthful.
  • Make sure your examples are relevant: Whether you’re preparing answers in advance, or responding to an unplanned question during an interview, use examples relevant to the question and the job. Your example can be taken from work or volunteer experience, school, or even your personal life—as long as it exhibits the relevant qualities. For most people, it’s easier to drum up the perfect example when you’re sitting at home planning for your interview, which is why the more scenarios you can brainstorm in advance, the better equipped you’ll be to answer on-the-spot.
  • Keep the situation brief: One of the benefits of using the STAR method is that it creates answers that are succinct. Each response should take two to three minutes, in total. So, keep the context part of your answer briefest, leaving more time to expand on the action and result.
  • Highlight your accomplishments with data: Use every opportunity you can to explain what you accomplished using hard data. This helps quantify your impact, and makes your story more persuasive for interviewers. For example, “My updates to the website sped up the loading time of the home page by half and reduced the bounce rate by 15 per cent,” is better than “My updates to the website sped up the loading time of the home page so that visitors stayed on the site longer.”
  • Use “I” instead of “we”: An interview is not the time to be humble, so get comfortable using “I”, rather than “we”, when describing your actions and accomplishments. If you’re describing scenarios in which you were part of a team, try to find a way to zero in on your role. For example, “I performed the market research to design an app that offers travel discounts to students on a gap year,” is better than “We built an app that offers travel discounts to students on a gap year.”  
  • Avoid sharing confidential information: In your responses, it’s best to err on the side of caution when talking about other companies’ work. Most companies appreciate confidentiality, and may view it as a red flag when a candidate openly discusses client work. When in doubt, use generic language, such as “a client” or a general description such as “a financial institution” rather than the company or brand name when discussing potentially confidential projects. Use your discretion. At other times, and when you are certain it’s appropriate, describing reputable brands you’ve worked on will be highly regarded by interviewers. 

Talk in a conversational manner: During an interview, you don’t want to sound too rehearsed. Not only does this make it harder for you to prepare (because you need to memorize your responses), it can come across as awkward and inauthentic. Try to get your points across in a conversational way. This is one of the balancing acts of job interviews—not too formal, but not too casual, either.

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