Hiring managers ask a wide array of questions in an interview, and depending on the type of question asked, there are going to be any number of techniques and strategies for you as a candidate to respond to those interview questions. One extremely common and powerful interview response strategy is to share a story with the interviewer of a time you actually displayed a skill or talent. One of the best ways to format these stories is by utilizing a STAR response.
STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) is a story format used in interviews primarily as a response to behavioral interview questions. While there are alternatives to STAR, it is probably the most common way to format your behavioral interview question responses.
What Is The STAR Format?
First, Whenever you hear somebody talking about a STAR response, they’re talking about a STAR-formatted response.
At its most basic. The STAR format It’s just a way, to help you create a good story, in order to get the most out of it for your interview response. Any STAR-formatted response is just a story, but it’s a story that serves a purpose. This story is essentially going to be a story about you doing something, that highlights one of your skills or characteristics, and should always help answer the question, “why should we hire you?”
There are of course alternatives to the STAR format, and we’ll go over those later, but I’ll also go over a pretty neat trick that if used, makes the STAR format just a little bit better than some of those alternatives.
STAR-formatted answers can be used whenever you need to craft a story response, however, they are most commonly used when responding to behavioral questions.
Behavioral Interview Questions
In short, behavioral questions are those questions that start with “tell me about a time you did XY and Z.” These questions are asking for a specific experience that you have had in the past that demonstrates some sort of skill or proficiency. This could be a hard skill like coding, but more frequently revolve around interpersonal skills or leadership experiences. You’re going to be responding to these questions with a story of your own, and by using the STAR format to organize that story, you’re going to be able to stand out in your interview.
Sample STAR Answer #1
Let’s take a look at our first STAR formatted interview response to the question “When have you faced a challenge at work and how did you overcome it”
Situation: While working a job at a service desk, there was a period of time when we started to receive more negative feedback than normal from customers who were submitting incidents.
Task: As the manager, I wanted to determine the underlying cause and see if we could make changes to improve customer experience.
Action: I reviewed some of the feedback and noticed that most of the negative comments were focused on the time it takes to resolve an incident. I added a few more checkpoints to our incident process where the technician would reach out to the customer and provide a daily update on the incident status.
Result: I found that customers were much more understanding when they knew we were working on their incident, and noticed a considerable improvement in customer feedback over the next few months of implementing my new policy.
S.T.A.R Formula Breakdown
Now that we’ve seen an example and have an idea of how a STAR response is generally structured, let’s take a look at each of the four categories, starting with Situation.
The beginning of any story starts with the setup. You’re setting the scene and building up the context that the interviewer needs to understand in order to appreciate the rest of your response.
The trick with your scenario is to keep it simple. They don’t need to know everything that was happening that day, they just need to know enough, to have the rest of your story make sense.
The biggest thing that I see with these answers, and what you absolutely need to avoid, is rambling on about events don’t directly affect your outcome. Keep your eyes on the prize, and make sure that every single part of your story is leading to the specific outcome you’re looking for with that specific interview question.
The next portion of your response is the task portion. This is where you’re going to express what was asked of you, or what you were trying to accomplish. This can also be the obstacle or the challenge you were trying to overcome, it just depends on the specific story.
Your task in one interview question might be determining the root cause of an issue, and in another, it might be increasing your sales numbers. It could be that you needed to fix a bicycle. This doesn’t need to be a long drawn-out paragraph, it can be a single sentence that simply says what needed to be accomplished.
But your task isn’t really going to make sense or be significant without the context of the situation that came before your task, and it’s not going to matter at all unless you follow it up with meaningful actions that you took.
The action portion of your response is probably going to be the largest section of your response, and that’s because it’s the most important. What actions did you take to accomplish the task you just talked about?
These are going to be concrete actions that show you understood the issue at hand, knew the best solution for that issue, and had the skills to follow through with that solution and accomplish the task.
Now it helps to throw in some qualifications for your actions such as “I did ABC action because of xyz.”
“I added checkpoints to our incident process because I knew more transparency communication usually leads to less aggravated customers.”
but remember, don’t go overboard with this. The benefit here is to give the interviewer some insight into what you were thinking, and the WHY behind some of your actions.
What you don’t want this to turn into is a story about what you were thinking, as opposed to a story about what you did.
Finally, we have your result. This one is also straightforward, what was the outcome of your actions? Hopefully, It goes without saying, but try and stick to positive outcomes. Yes, we grow most from our failures and that’s a good life philosophy, but when it comes to your interview response, leave those moments out.
There are some questions such as “tell me about a time you failed and how you overcame it” where this type of response is okay, but for the most part, you’re here to show the interviewers that you’re competent and know what actions to take to get the desired outcome.
Your results can, and should, go above and beyond the direct impact of your actions. You developed a new sales technique that helped improve your direct sales by 30% over the course of six months. That’s great but don’t stop there.
That same process that you used to increase your own sales, became standard practice across your entire team which led to an additional 25% increase in team sales over the next year, which earned your recognition from the CEO and gave you the opportunity to start sharing that process with other areas of the company.
The direct results of your actions are great, and sometimes that’s really all there is, but when you can, try to maximize your results by incorporating all of the other effects that your actions had on those around you.
Again just keeping in mind that these impacts should bolster your skills and impact, not distract from them. This story is still in response to an interview question that has a very targeted purpose. Anything that doesn’t serve that specific purpose, should be left out of your story.
Sample STAR Answer #2
Let’s tie this all together by going through another example together for the common interview question “tell me about a time you had a conflict with a coworker”.
Situation: I had just started a new job and during the first week I felt like one of my new coworkers was going out of his way to be aggressive and hostile toward me.
Task: I knew that I needed to figure out what was going on and de-escalate the situation.
Action: I set up a one-on-one meeting with the coworker to figure out what was going on. In my experience, it’s best to go straight to the source and open up communication. After bringing up my concerns, the coworker apologized and hadn’t realized how their language was coming across, and that the hostility wasn’t intentional.
Result: After that meeting, I noticed a change in how the co-worker would speak to me, and I felt like this really improved our communication and collaboration when we worked together on projects.
Alternatives To STAR Format
We’ve gone over the STAR format, we know it stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Result. And we know that it’s a way to help you organize your interview response stories to be the most effective. But like I said earlier, there are alternatives to the STAR format:
- SOAR (Situation, Obstacle, Action, Result)
- STARL (Situation, Task, Action, Result, Lessons learned)
- PAR (Problem, Action, Result)
- CAR (Challenge, Action, Result)
I think you’re getting the picture; they’re all fundamentally the same thing. They help tell the beginning, middle, and end of a story. What did you need to do, how did you do it, and what happened afterward?
So if they’re all fundamentally the same, does it matter which one you use?
Well no, not really. A story is going to be just as good regardless of which one of these you pick, and truthfully, there’s no right or wrong answer to which format you have to pick to form the best interview response.
With that being said, I’m going to explain to you why I suggest that you craft your interview responses in advance and that you use the STAR format to do so.
Why I Suggest Using The STAR Format
So why do I suggest using the STAR format? Why is it any better than any of the other 30 acronyms we went over?
Well, like I said. Fundamentally, it’s not that different, but what I find is that there are two functional benefits to picking the STAR format as your go-to behavioral response format.
The first reason is that if the interviewers are going to ask you to specifically utilize a formatted response to a behavioral interview question, it’s going to be the STAR format. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it can really throw a candidate off. You’d be amazed at how difficult it can be to turn a regular story into a STAR-formatted story on the fly.
And for that reason alone, barring any other major differences between these formats, I suggest using the STAR format. But, there’s a second reason why I like to use a star format, and that’s for its ability to modify your story to your needs.
Now, what do I mean by that? Well in an interview. You’re not usually going to be asked ALL of the behavioral interview questions, you’re more likely to be asked three to five behavioral interview questions In addition to a couple of the other core interview questions.
That’s why I don’t think you really need a completely separate story for each of your behavioral questions. And honestly, you probably have a handful of super memorable moments in your career that really highlight your skills and abilities, and if you try to memorize 30 completely different responses for each potential behavioral interview question, some of them are going to be extremely weak.
So that’s why I say pick five or so really strong moments in your career and use those for each of the questions asked.
That’s why I like and suggest using the STAR format because you can have five solid situations, and then you can branch out with different Tasks, Actions, and Results depending on the question asked.
If your situation is tied to your challenge or task like it is with PAR, then it makes it difficult to morph the rest of your response to the specific question asked.
Maybe your situation is that you were part of a project somebody made a mistake that delayed the project’s completion. Depending on where you want to take this interview response, you can utilize the same base situation, but branch off to different tasks, actions, and results.
In this situation, your task might be to resolve the conflict that arose within the team because of the issue. Your task might be to overcome this failure by completing the project on time with extra effort. Your task could be to deal with the customer who was expecting this project on time and would have to wait.
Depending on the interview question asked, you can morph this one story fairly easy to adapt to meet your needs, without needing to come up with a completely different situation for each possible question.
What Not To Do
Now there are a few things that you’re going to want to avoid when giving a STAR-formatted response. And the one I see most often goes like this:
“Okay so situation. I was working at Walmart on Black Friday.
For my task, I was to make sure all the electronics stayed in order.
For Actions, I made a grid system and just kind of cycled through each area reorganizing.
Then for the Results, everything stayed organized and I got an award from my boss.”
Can you see what happened here? Ignoring the [lack of] strength of the story itself, the delivery of the story feels very strange because it’s literally calling out the Situation, Task, Action, and Result in the response, rather than just using those ideas to structure a story.
This is what a lot of new people do when they just get started with STAR-formatted stories. It’s not great but it’s not going to tank your interview. A good star response, even if it’s presented this way, isn’t going to be horrible. In fact, you’re still probably going to get your point across, but it just kind of eliminates some of the fantastic benefits that can come from a well-delivered story.
So the biggest thing I want you to refrain from in crafting your STAR response is being too rigid with the structure. The benefit is not that you’ve broken your response up into four labeled sections, the benefit is that you have a clear and concise story. The STAR format just helps you trim out the fat, and get. To. the point.
Key Takeaways (BLOG)
So just to recap. The STAR method of answering questions stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Result. You want to use this method any time you’re asked to tell a story or give an example of previous actions; these usually come in the form of behavioral interview questions.
By formatting your responses this way, you’re giving yourself the best shot at impressing your interviewers.