The news that you’ve been offered an interview for a job can often bring mixed emotions – you’re thrilled that you’ve got the next stage in the application process but feeling nervous about how well you’ll perform.
We all know that a little preparation can go a long way and when it comes to interviews a candidate is more likely to impress if the employer can see they’ve done their research and understands the position they’ve applied for. But faced with hundreds of possible questions that could come up, it’s easy to panic and miss valuable opportunities to prepare.
Depending on the organisation, recruiters use different types of interviews to assess whether a candidate is a good fit for the advertised position. Some are keen to explore a candidate’s natural strengths and motivations and how they respond to different situations - known as strengths-based interviews, these don’t always require you to back up your responses with concrete examples.
Competency-based interviews on the other hand, are designed to seek out the different behaviours, skills and abilities a candidate might have by looking for evidence of past experiences where those competencies were used. This type of interview might be more familiar to us and is used particularly in the public sector. The employer may want to assess, for example, your problem-solving skills, how well you communicate with others, or how you might manage a difficult situation with a customer or co-worker alongside more job-specific skills. Some interviews may use a combination of both styles.
The good news is that there’s a tried and tested method for preparing for an interview at which you’re likely to be asked to give examples of when you’ve used a skill; what’s more, this method can also have benefits beyond the responses given. This article looks at how employing the STAR technique in these situations can be an effective way of acing an interview.
What is the STAR technique?
STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result.
It’s a way of structuring a response to a competency-based question in a clear way. If you’re not sure how to recognise this type of question, these are some typical examples which can be answered using this technique:
- “Tell me about a time when you faced a difficult situation at work”
- “Can you give me an example of a time when you had to use your initiative?”
- “Describe a situation where you had to use your organisational skills”
- “Tell me about a presentation that you’ve given and how it went”
Thankfully, STAR is an easy-to-remember acronym, now you just have to learn how to make it work for you. Let’s explore the steps…
This part is where you place yourself in a time when you were in a challenging situation. It doesn’t have to be work-related if you don’t have a work example to draw on, it’s more important that it allows you to draw on your past experience of using the skill the employer is looking for evidence of.
You might start with:
“When I was working at…”
“During my time at [college, university, xxxx employer]”
“While I was waiting for my exam results…”
“When I was a carer for…”
Then provide some detail which introduces the situation.
“When I worked for my last employer, every year we would produce a guide to local organisations that provided help and support for people with a wide range of issues. This would coincide with an annual event that we ran where partner organisations could take the publication away with them. They very much looked forward to receiving the updated guide as it was the best way of finding this information all in one place.”
Now that you’ve set the scene, you can go on to describe the challenging situation in which you found yourself and what your specific role was. If there was a group of you involved in the task, try to talk about your own involvement as much as possible.
It could be:
A deadline you had to meet
An important project or presentation that you were involved in delivering
A range of tasks which all needed to be completed at once
A situation where something went wrong
“I was tasked, along with a colleague, with updating the information – making sure that the organisations were still offering that service and that their contact details were correct. We carefully planned between us who would update the different sections and the date to complete this by; we needed to take it to the printers in the week before the event. I was tasked with checking over the whole document before it went to print and my colleague was to liaise with the printers. Unfortunately she fell ill the week that the guide was supposed to go to the printers. When I picked up this task, I discovered that they hadn’t actually booked it in and now the printer didn’t have time in their schedule to do the job.”
This is the part where you can really demonstrate your skills! You should now have described a situation which demanded a successful outcome (it doesn’t matter if a successful outcome wasn’t actually achieved).
What did you decide to do?
Why did you do it that way?
How did you do it? Which skills did you use?
“I felt that I had two choices. We could either stick with the same printer and bring the guide out at a slightly later date or I could find a different company who could fit us in. In the end I decided to try and find another printer because I knew that our partner organisations were looking forward to receiving their guide at the event and that we had already publicised that it would be available. Also, if they couldn’t be collected at the event it would cost us additional postage because we’d have to post them out. It wasn’t easy to find another printer, I got onto the task straight away but wasn’t able to find anyone suitable. In the end I used a bit of initiative and my negotiation skills to persuade our usual printer to fit them into their tight schedule and I would collect them myself on the morning of the event. I could see the importance of the situation to our partner organisations, but also to their clients, and I was prepared to show flexibility and commitment so that they weren’t let down.”
What happened as a result of the action you took? Sometimes there’s a clear positive – you won the contract, you raised more money than last year, you improved sales by 50%. It’s absolutely fine to give a quantifiable answer if relevant; in other situations it might be that disaster was averted.
However, it might be that on that occasion, things didn’t quite go to plan. If this is the case, being able to reflect on why it didn’t work and how you might do it differently if faced with that situation again also demonstrates your ability to learn from your experiences – something employers really value.
“I collected them from the printers on the morning of the event and we were able to have the guides ready for people to take as they went home. It was a tense few days but I kept a cool head and it made me realise the importance of building short meetings in throughout the project to make sure that all the tasks are on track. In the end though it worked out!”
First steps to interview success
There are clues to the questions you might be asked in the job description and specification of the role you’re applying for. Therefore, your first step in preparing your STAR examples is to identify the competencies or behaviours that the employer is looking for. These might be presented clearly as a list of ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ expectations or you may have to look more carefully at the language used in the job description.
Try to choose at least five or six skills and behaviours to focus on, more if you can, and if there are any common skills which don’t appear to stand out, such as team work, it would be a good idea to prepare for those too.
One by one, take each skill and consider firstly, some of the different ways in which that particular skill can be demonstrated. Then think back to any examples you can draw on from when you’ve done something which shows you’ve used this skill. It might be that you can think of more than one good example and in this case it’s a good idea to consider either the most relevant or the most recent. If you don’t have an example you can use from a work-related situation then try and think of another situation you’ve been in where this could be demonstrated.
Once you have your examples it’s time to prepare a more detailed illustration using the STAR technique. Using this method not only guides you towards structuring clear responses, it also serves as a memory prompt – not to be sniffed at when you’re in a pressured situation!
Five tips for preparing interview responses using the STAR technique
- Make sure you talk about how YOU used YOUR skills in the situation.
- Be honest with your answers.
- Be as concise and clear as you can.
- Practice reading your responses out loud (this may help you to edit if you find yourself waffling).
- Try to use the most recent examples you can but don’t worry if you need to draw on experiences from further back.
The added benefits of using the STAR technique
We all welcome a bit of practical advice when it comes to interview preparation but the benefits of using the STAR technique can go beyond what you actually say to the interviewer.
- Using this method can help you to feel and appear more confident – a trait that employers value.
- The clear structure of your responses can make it easier for the interviewer to understand your skills and experience; sometimes you end up revealing more positive personal skills and qualities than the question required – always a bonus!
- Giving fuller answers shows that you care enough about the job to have prepared in advance – this helps the employer to see your commitment.
- The STAR technique is perfect for demonstrating success and employers like to hear about a candidate’s past achievements. Even if a situation you describe didn’t quite go to plan at first, the employer is able to recognise your positive response to it and that you’re willing to learn.
- This method of interview preparation encourages you to develop self-awareness and reflection skills – more traits that employers value.
- Another merit of the STAR technique is that it can also be applied to CVs and application forms.
Using this method to prepare for interviews can really help you to focus if you’re unsure where to start. However, it shouldn’t replace other important elements of interview preparation such as careful research of the organisation you’re applying to and how you see yourself fitting in. It can be helpful to save your responses for any future interviews you may have and over time you’ll become a pro at using this useful technique.
Helen Janota, Updated November 2023
Helen is an experienced information and careers professional working as a freelance writer and trainer. She writes about careers and the labour market for a wide range of audiences and organisations and aims to produce easily accessible, informative content that reflects the current jobs and careers landscape.