Taking the STAR Method to New Heights

Joseph Barber gives advice on how to transform a meandering and unfocused answer to a job interview question into a mini story with structure, drama and a relevant outcome.

September 20, 2021
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When you are interviewing for jobs, you will often be faced with behavioral-based questions. These are often situational questions that focus on where you have used skills that are relevant to the job you’re applying for. So, for a role where you will be working on multiple projects at the same time in a fast-paced environment, you are likely to be asked something along the lines of, “Give me an example of a time where you have juggled multiple projects successfully.” For any skill that the employer values in a role, you will probably have to answer several questions about what your experience in the past has been using that skill.

Your past performance is a good indicator of your future success in the new role. You will find plenty of advice out there on how to prepare for and answer such behavioral-based questions -- and much of that advice will include using the STAR method to give effective responses. I’d like to describe this approach and then suggest a couple of additions to it that can be helpful -- that suggest how you can take STAR to STARER!

So what is the STAR method? STAR stands for situation, task, action, result. It is a way to take what could be a meandering, unfocused answer that your brain tries to cobble together in response to an interview question and turn it into a mini story with structure, a little drama and a relevant outcome. The STAR method builds a nice story arc to keep illustrations of your skills situated in a concise yet descriptive demonstration of a small slice of an experience you have had that is relevant to your interviewer. And having just that small slice is important, because trying to tell a two-minute story about your entire Ph.D. experience when you are answering a question about how you’ve solved problems in the past will definitely result in an unsatisfyingly broad response.

Let’s take a sample interview question and apply the STAR method to it. You will very likely be asked to give an example of a time when you collaborated effectively or some such. After all, effective collaboration is important in most jobs, organizations and industries. Here is how you should frame your response.

Situation. If you just jump into an answer that starts with, “Well, we were working on a project,” you are immediately going to lose your audience. You know much more about the experience than your interviewer does, and your brain sometimes assumes common knowledge of this experience when you begin talking. If the interviewer starts thinking about situational questions like, “When did this happen?” or “Who is the ‘we’ you are referring to?” or “What was this project?” then they are no longer paying full attention to what you are saying.

To avoid this, make sure you start off with a brief overview. For example: “Yes, let me tell you about a project I was involved with at the end of last year when I was working closely with three other students from two other departments. We were completing a biotech-related market analysis project as part of a student-run consulting club.”

Task. I don’t actually like the word “task,” because it doesn’t feel very energizing as part of a story. If a task is defined as “a piece of work to be done or undertaken,” it doesn’t feel very dynamic. I would rather use the word “challenge.” Unfortunately, however, that would turn the optimistic-sounding STAR method into the slightly less appealing SCAR method, which I don’t think would make for an inspirational strategy.

Yet whether you call it a task or a challenge, the key to this part of the approach is to add a bit of drama to the story. Stories are engaging when they have drama and tension that is resolved. To continue the story that I began in the situation section: “One of the challenges we faced as part of this student group is that we all hadn’t worked together before this project and all had different research backgrounds. So we had a hard time agreeing on what we should look at first in terms of the data available to us.”

Action. The challenge you have identified adds the tension; the action that you describe next releases it. Your actions resolve the challenge and so automatically frame your experience through a problem-solving lens even if you are talking about collaboration, communication or any other type of professional behavior.

The primary action you highlight in this action section should align with the subject of the question. So if the interviewer ask for an example of when you collaborated effectively, then the story you share should prioritize this skill. You can certainly cover more. For example, effective collaboration often requires effective communication.

The action you share should also prioritize the role you played in this story. If you give an answer that states, “And so we addressed this by …” then the reader won’t have a very clear image of what role you played. Instead of giving away your power in the story to your unnamed and unknown colleagues, you might say, “To help us develop a strategy within the limited time we had, I developed a decision matrix that led us through a process of prioritizing our individual ideas and then finding the overlap between them that we could all contribute to with our diverse academic backgrounds.”

Result. The result provides evidence of how effective your skill can be. That evidence carries more weight than you just telling the interviewer you have the skill. (“Yes, most of my projects involve some form of collaboration.”) The situation and result tend to be the two parts that the students I work with leave out in mock behavioral interviews, but while they are shorter sections than the challenge and action, they are still important to mention. A result might be: “And this process actually helped us to identify a novel data source that looked at consumer preferences that became the primary foundation of our analysis and recommendations. When we presented this to our client, they mentioned how interested they were in this perspective and that they were going to use this variable in some of their future analyses.”

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Going Further

So that is the STAR method. What is the STARER method? The two extra parts I often recommend adding are:

Emotion. When people have prepared and practiced stories they want to give in an interview (which is important to do), those stories can end up sounding a little too clinical and rehearsed. Your story needs to have energy, and you can add some by reflecting a little on it in the interview. This reflection gives the interviewer a small glimpse into you as a human being and a future co-worker -- a peek at your inner workings and thoughts.

Generating some emotional resonance with your interviewer can be helpful, because you are more than just the skills you use: “One of my favorite parts of the project was early on when we were brainstorming ideas. My teammates were coming up with approaches that I’d never thought about based on some of their own research training and focus areas. For example, one person on the team was a geology Ph.D., and she highlighted impacts of climate change on consumer spending patterns. Every collaborative project I’ve worked on has expanded my perspective, and that is something I really enjoy.”

Relevance. The stories you might choose to use in any job interview should be as relevant as possible to the role you are interviewing for. Sometimes you may need to use an experience from a very different setting to illustrate a skill that is still quite transferable to the new role.

Whether the context of the example is relevant or not, making a connection between your story and the role/organization can be helpful in some situations: “When I was talking to a Ph.D. alumna from my institution at your virtual coffee chats last month, she mentioned the significant role that collaborative brainstorming plays in every project she’s participated in since she started working at your organization. When I was looking at some of the bios of team members that I might get to work with in this role, I was amazed to see their diverse range of academic backgrounds, and so I am particularly excited about this prospect.”

In sum, the STAR method is great for answering behavioral-based job interview questions. The STARER/SCARER method might be even more effective in some circumstances. I just wish the acronyms were better!

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Joseph Barber is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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