How to ace your next interview using the STAR formula

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One of the most common questions I get as a Career Advisor is how to answer behavioural questions.

“Tell me about a time you dealt with conflict at work,” for example, is asked regularly in interviews and is met with uncertainty and stress around answering it well. And while these questions can be daunting and require some preparation, they are actually an excellent opportunity to stand out from the crowd.

Employers ask these questions because it is challenging to assess a candidate’s soft skills. Soft skills are used in every job and are universally desirable; examples include communication, time management and conflict resolution skills. But how do you assess for these skills in an interview? An employer could simply ask, “How’s your time management?” And every candidate will say, “I have excellent time management skills.” It would come down to taking someone’s word for it, and that could be risky business.

But enough about the value of these questions for employers; let’s talk about how to answer them. There is a simple and effective formula that you’ve probably heard of before: the STAR formula.

When you answer a behavioural question you want to:

  • Give a specific example that includes a brief summary of the Situation;
  • A clarification of your Task within the situation;
  • The Action that you took to complete your task; and
  • The Result of your action.

Here is an example for the conflict resolution question:

Situation: At my previous job there was a person that used to give me tasks that were not a part of my role; worse, he used to leave these things on my desk with a sticky note, usually on his way out for a long lunch. At the time I was new and didn’t feel comfortable saying no, so I took these additional tasks on. Over time, I felt my resentment build as this pattern continued. I began to actively dislike him and would get angry when he would leave me one of his notes.

Task: I realized that I wasn’t dealing with the situation well and wasn’t sure what to do. Because the frustration had built up over time it was challenging for me to see the issue clearly, but I knew that I needed to change my approach.

Action: I spoke to my manager and asked for advice; she told me I simply needed to speak to him, clarify my role and ask him nicely to stop leaving me these notes. This might seem like a no brainer, but to a 22-year-old with little professional work experience, it was a scary suggestion! I realized that I felt nervous, so I wrote myself a script, practiced saying it a couple of times, and finally approached him.

Result: I’m happy to say that he responded very well! It turned out that he was unclear on my responsibilities and had no idea that he was overstepping; he was kind and apologetic, and our working relationship after our conversation was excellent. I learned so much from that experience and have continued to use and develop those skills further throughout my career.

You’ll note with this example that the steps taken in the Action section are very specific: this is the key to nailing these types of answers! If you spend all sorts of time explaining the situation but don’t tell them exactly what you did to resolve it, the employer will still have no idea if you have the skills they are looking for!

Secondly, it is extremely important to prepare for these answers. Don’t wing it! You have likely done excellent things in your career, but sometimes they can be hard to remember on the fly, let alone describing them in an articulate, linear manner. Sit down and ask yourself: what was the toughest day at work I’ve ever had, and how did I get through it? What did I learn from it? Very often we use our soft skills the most when in difficult situations, so think about not only the easy successes but also the really challenging tasks you’ve faced.

So what if you actually haven’t faced a particular challenge at work yet? Every customer has been a dream, you’ve gotten along with all of your coworkers and you haven’t had the opportunity to stretch your leadership muscles yet. In this case, use examples from your personal life, school or even hypothetical situations. Employers want to see that you have the skills to respond in these situations, so as long as you are specific in describing the action you took or would take, these examples are valid!

We develop soft skills in all areas of our life, and showing employers that you know how to transfer these skills from different environments is powerful.

This article originally appeared on the YWCA Metro Vancouver's blog and is reprinted with permission.

Anne Fehr is a youth case manager and employment facilitator with YWCA WorkBC Employment Services in North Vancouver. If you're looking for work, visit a YWCA WorkBC Centre to get free services and support to help in your job search. This post is part of an employment series we're partnering on with our friends at CharityVillage.

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