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How to Interview When They are Looking for a S.T.A.R.!

image If you are in a job hunt, and interviewing often, sooner or later you will undoubtedly be asked a behavioral question. Often they are structured in a S.T.A.R. model like:

Tell me about a time in your previous roles where you dealt with _______. Tell me the Situation. What was your Task? What Actions did you take? And what was the Result?

Without preparation, most people have long pauses and stumble through an answer. With this type of question, perhaps more than any other, preparation is key.

So, what are they really looking for when they ask a behavioral question and what kind of answer do you need to give?

The question is designed to tell them a number of things about you:

  • Past behavior is usually the best predictor of future success. How you handled situations in the past tells them a lot about how you’re likely to perform in the future.

  • How well can you communicate a detailed story? Do you pick good key details? Do you ramble? Is your story cohesive? Does it make sense?

  • Can you communicate what you did in a way that strikes the right balance between demonstrating your ability as well as being part of a team? Not claiming a project was all you, while not looking like you were just tagging along in a team either.

Most of the time people assume they have to give a story that had a positive outcome. Relating a positive story is good, but often a story with a failed or negative outcome can be just as, or sometimes even more effective. Describing a failed project or situation along with what you learned in the process and specifically how you would do things differently next time can show a great deal of insight, personal awareness, and willingness to learn on your part.  Those are attractive characteristics in a candidate.

If they ask multiple behavioral questions, however, don’t make all of your answers examples of failed results!

The key to nailing behavioral questions when asked is to think about them and write out answers in advance. Think of your previous responsibilities, and try to imagine several potential situations they may ask about. Such as: a difficult employee, difficult customer, a long term project, a crucial sale, or ‘crunch’ deadline.

Actually sitting down and writing/typing out your answers is a critical part of the process. Otherwise most people only vaguely think about what they would discuss if the question was asked. Furthermore, since they haven’t finalized an answer in advance, they often just keep talking until they think they’ve told the whole story. Often resulting in a long-winded rambling answer. Writing your answer in advance forces you to articulate it in complete sentences and hopefully hone it so that it’s more succinct. Once you’ve written it and read it, it’s much easier to memorize as well. It’s not necessary to memorize an answer word-for-word, however, writing it helps you remember enough to stay on track.

When crafting your answer, it’s critical to make clear what you specifically did, not just your team. It’s admirable to show team spirit and give recognition to others, however, if you describe everything in terms or ‘we’ or ‘the team did…’ then it’s easy to conclude you were there, but didn’t actually do anything productive. On the other hand, if you make it sound like you did everything and the team did nothing, you appear arrogant. Strike the right balance.

Next, practice! Practice out loud to yourself in a mirror, in the car, have your family ask you and you give the answers over dinner, or practice in a closet if necessary… but practice.

Go through the same process with several situations so that you’re prepared regardless of what is asked. Make your answers direct, and succinct.

Once you’re prepared it can have great benefits in your interview! You gain a great deal of confidence when they ask a complex question and you’ve got it nailed! Furthermore, you can use your answers even if the question wasn’t asked. If they ask a question like:

Have you ever had to deal with a difficult client?”

and you’re able to answer with a STAR model answer like:

Definitely, let me give you an example of a time when we thought we would lose one of our most important customers and how I approached the problem…”

That’s a much more impressive response than 99% of candidates are likely to give!

As with most interview questions, preparation makes you a far better candidate. Even if you are someone that can generally speak very well ‘off the cuff’, you will be even better if you’re prepared.

So the next time you’re asked a STAR question, show them that you are a star candidate!


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Jeff Lipschultz said...

Harry's advice is so critical to differentiating yourself as a STAR candidate versus just another candidate. You cannot be over-prepared for an interview.

Knowing your key selling points and experiences going into the interview is important. Practice is important. I go as far to advise my candidates to build a checklist and bring it with. When in the heat of the interview, you might forget your best answer or forget to include a key asset or experience that should be shared (even if not specifically asked about it).

I talk more about this preparation and ownership of the interview in a free eBook available to everyone (which supplements Harry's advice quite well). Find it at:

Good luck in your future interviews!

Unknown said...

This is great advice. Behavioral interviews are a great way to really find out a candidate's strengths and weaknesses. It's important for a candidate to have answers prepared, and to be able to quantify them as much as possible. I've written more about this at http://www.phcconsulting.com/WordPress/2008/08/01/job-interview-tip-how-to-handle-behavioral-interviews/

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