Job interview questions like “If you were a pizza delivery man, how would you benefit from scissors?” are the stuff of legend – and luckily a thing of the past for pretty much everyone.
Most organisations have realised that ‘brain teaser’ questions like this are completely useless for assessing candidates, and instead try to use ‘structured’ interview questions – these are questions that allow them to assess an interviewee’s prior experience or capabilities, and then compare that easily with other candidates.
So in your next job interview, what’s the best way to approach these questions that ask you to reflect on your past experience? Here’s one simple but powerful technique.
Using the STAR method for behavioural interview questions
The STAR method is a great technique for answering ‘behavioural’ questions that are now standard in job interviews. Behavioural questions are based on the idea that past behaviour can determine how you’d react when faced with a similar situation again.
They can be easy to spot as they usually start with:
“Tell me about a time when…”
“Can you share an example of…”
“Have you ever…”
Your answers to these types of questions should aim to showcase your skills in problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration and communication.
How does the STAR method work?
The STAR method provides a simple framework for providing a detailed and easy-to-understand example to your interviewers. STAR stands for:
Situation: Set the scene of the dilemma or problem you faced, including relevant context;
Task: Explain your role and responsibilities in this scenario;
Action: The steps you used to approach the task; and
Result: The outcome of your actions and what they achieved.
By using this method, you’re demonstrating that you understand the question, that you’re able to reflect on your past experience, and ultimately how you might be able to apply your skills to similar challenges if you’re successful in winning the role.
Your answers to behavioural interview questions may also speak to your:
Sense of judgement – e.g. making difficult decisions under complex circumstances;
Performance under pressure – e.g. how you conduct yourself in high-pressure situations;
Leadership potential – e.g. your initiative and ability to step up when you have little or no direction; and
Self-awareness – e.g. how you perceive your strengths and weaknesses.
A step-by-step guide to using the STAR method
With good preparation and a bit of research, you can use the STAR method to nail any behavioural interview questions you encounter.
1. Anticipate behavioural questions – Go through the job ad or position description and identify key skills and experience required for the role. The key selection criteria are the best place to look for these.
For example, if a key selection criteria for the role is “An ability to work to tight deadlines”, then it’s highly likely your interviewer might ask you a question like “Tell me about a time when you needed to work to a tight deadline, and you were successful”.
2. Think of situations that speak to these requirements – Reflect on all the times you can remember that demonstrate each of the skills and experience in the Key Selection Criteria, and choose the top ones that show your experience in the best light. (You might want to skip that example where you almost made the deadline, but didn’t quite get there!)
3. Plan your responses using the STAR method – Carefully consider how you would convey the details of each example using the STAR method.
4. Come up with multiple examples – Be ready to reel off more than one example for each skill or experience to avoid repeating the same one. If you’re asked two different questions, it’s best to have two separate examples rather than reusing the same example, even if it’s relevant to the second question. Preparing more examples also means you’re less likely to be caught off guard in the face of a potentially unforeseen question.
5. Practise your responses – Go through your prepared examples out loud, either in front of a mirror, to a friend or family member, or recording into your phone camera. Practice will help you shake off those pre-interview jitters!
Some example STAR answers
Initially, answering lots of questions using the STAR method may feel overwhelming. But with some practice, it’ll flow naturally in no time.
Here are two examples that might be helpful in getting started with this method. They’ve obviously been condensed for space, but they should clarify how to use the STAR method for real life questions you might be asked in your next interview.
Example 1: ‘Tell me about a time when you received constructive feedback’
Situation: Provide an overview of or background to the situation you were in, in a couple of sentences.
Eg: “I was planning an event, and as part of the role, I was responsible for stakeholder management.’
Task: Explain how you and your responsibilities were relevant in the scenario. Remember that it’s OK to talk about mistakes – as long as you’re able to reflect on what you learned or should have done.
Eg: ‘I emailed the client all the details in advance of the event. After the event they told me that that hadn’t realised that things would happen the way they did. I obviously hadn’t communicated clearly enough to the client – perhaps I should have run through the plan with them over the phone too.’
Action: Demonstrate what you did you address and resolve the situation. What was the most important thing you did to receive the feedback?
Eg: “I apologised to the client and accepted that the email wasn’t clear enough – I knew the most important thing was to avoid getting defensive. I made a commitment that for upcoming events, they’d receive a more detailed plan and they were reassured by that.’
Result: Describe the outcome – including what you learned.
Eg: “We implemented this new process for the next event. The client was thrilled with second event and appreciated me taking on their feedback. I learned to always double check what the client needs to know before an event runs.’
Example 2: ‘Share an example of a time you had to manage multiple competing priorities’
Situation: Explain the scenario. Why was it difficult or complex to manage?
Eg: ‘During my time at [Example Organisation], we were working on a big project with a lot of moving parts.’
Task: Give an overview of your responsibilities and how they played a part in the situation.
Eg: ‘A colleague was taken off the project, so extra responsibilities fell to me. We were working to a tight deadline, so I needed to manage the project and make sure that all the tasks were done on time.’
Action: Break down the steps and tactics you used to manage your time, responsibilities and priorities. Take time to highlight the most important actions you took.
Eg: ‘I mapped out all the project’s deliverables with a Gantt chart, with steps and key milestones. I then communicated the plan to my manager, and delegated parts of the work to my colleagues, making sure they understood the scope and the deadlines.’
Result: Share the outcome. How did your actions and critical thinking make a positive impact?
Eg: “Thanks to my collaborative approach, we were able to launch the new project ahead of time – which was a first for the organisation.’
The journey from jobseeker to team member isn’t always easy. Once you’ve overcome any common resume mistakes and secured yourself an interview, the STAR method can hopefully help set you up to score your dream ethical job!