Inside the STAR Interview Approach: What You Need to Know

This makes a lot of people sweat. It's a common interviewing technique among many employers: the STAR interview. The acronym stands for Situation, Task, Actions, and Results and it simply summarizes the structure of your work experience.
05/21/2013 03:31 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2013

This makes a lot of people sweat. It's a common interviewing technique among many employers: the STAR interview. The acronym stands for Situation, Task, Actions, and Results and it simply summarizes the structure of your work experience. Essentially, STAR interviews require you to give your answers in the form of a story. When you do this right, your well-structured story proves that you have the experience to do the job.

Interviewers ask STAR questions for a couple of different reasons:

  • They want to know whether you've actually had the experiences that prove you can handle this new position. For example, if you can't think of a single story for dealing with a difficult customer, and you are interviewing for a customer service job, then the interviewer can quickly cut you from the list.
  • They want to understand how you think. For instance, how you approach and solve problems, as well as how you apply certain required skills. A past experience allows the interviewer to see how you already applied those skills.
  • The standard STAR structure makes it very easy for an interviewer to compare all job candidates' responses. The STAR interview approach helps them find out if the abilities you describe in your resume are real, and not just a bunch of exaggerated experiences or fluff.

How can you answer each portion of a STAR interview effectively in order to land a job? Let's break it down:

Situation:
This is the backstory--the who, what, where, and when. Your response would typically sound something like this: "When I was working as a UX Designer at XYZ International, there was a situation where I had to design a brand new Web page in less than five hours." This can show what sorts of situations you've been in, as well as the limitations of the situation.

Task:
The task portion of the STAR interview stems from the previous question. What was your exact part to play in this situation? What was your assigned role? How were you able to turn this situation into an opportunity?

To answer effectively, start with something like this: "On the project, I was assigned to design graphics for the new Web page. I saw it as an opportunity to create more eye-catching content which would not only help the organization, but also our customers to see the value in our product." This response shows your exact role in the task, in addition to your plans to solve the problem.

Actions:
The action portion of the STAR approach may require you to answer the following questions: What were the steps you took to solve this challenge? How did you think about any problems? How did you overcome roadblocks and follow the situation through to get results? Was there anything unique about your actions or your method worth mentioning?

Oftentimes, the hardest part of the entire four-part process is describing the actions you took. Explaining the sequence of actions and the thought process for each step can be challenging. However, it's essential that you do this effectively. If we continue with the UX designer example, you can explain your actions step-by-step in a high level of detail to make the story feel credible. This can help paint a picture of the task for your interviewer and showcase your contributions to it.

Results:
Finally, the results portion of the STAR interview method is used to sum up the tangible results of your work. For instance, how were things better off because of what you did? What lessons did you learn? Your efforts may have brought in 10 percent more Web traffic, resulting in more customers. Or, your graphic could have been referred to in articles or blogs. Either way, you need to show what your work resulted in.

High level of detail is also necessary in the results step. You need to use as many quantifiable metrics and specifics as you can to prove that you had an impact. So, if your response is along the lines of, "We made fewer mistakes" or "Projects got done faster," it may not be good enough. Percentages, before and after comparisons, and even client feedback are all helpful to prove the value of your work.

The STAR interview approach is an effective way for a hiring manager to find out you are and what you've done in order to achieve success. If you're faced with a STAR interview, think about the questions that are most likely for your position and then focus your time and energy preparing stories for those. You'll find that painting a clearer picture will help your chances at landing the job.

What do you think? What are some other things to know about the STAR interview approach?

Alan Carniol is the Founder of InterviewSuccessFormula.com an online job interview training system. Learn more here. Or, follow Alan and Interview Success Formula on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.