What Is the STAR Method when Interviewing?

July 5, 2020

Listening is one of the most important skills for an interviewer to learn. Asking questions is a core part of the role, but being able to listen to the answer and apply it to the job role is crucial. 

Candidates are taught to answer questions in a particular way, so it helps to think about things from their perspective. When you understand how a candidate is formulating their answer, it becomes a lot easier to extract the information you need. In this guide, the Nolan Recruitment team have gathered their insight into this popular interview answer technique and what you need to be aware of. 

What is the STAR method?

The STAR method is a popular interview technique which teaches candidates how to present their answers coherently. It is often used to behavioural interview questions such as:

  • Can you tell me a time when you faced a challenge at work?
  • Tell me about a situation where you faced conflict.
  • Give me an example of how you perform under pressure.

STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result. This gives a set format for the candidate to outline their answer in a way that ensures they aren’t rambling or missing out key bits of information. For nervous candidates, this can be a great way to calm their nerves and help them to succeed in an interview. Don’t be surprised if you hear answers which almost seem rehearsed – chances are, they are!

How should candidates answer using the STAR method?

Let’s look at an example here. If you were to ask a candidate, can you tell me about a time when you faced conflict at work, you might expect them to answer in the following format.

First, they will outline the situation. This typically means telling you about the company they worked for, their role, if they were part of a wider team and any other relevant information for the story. 

Next, they will tell you the task. As you asked for a situation where they faced conflict, the task should involve an opposing force. This might be a senior member of staff, a difficult colleague, or even a member of the public.

They will next explain the action they took. Candidates will sometimes use an example where they took the wrong action to prove that they can learn from their mistakes. This will be more common with recent graduates.

And finally, they will explain the outcome. Typically, they will be told to frame the result as a learning experience. They might tell you what they learned from the situation and how this influenced their behaviour in the future.

For candidates prone to rambling, this is a great way to structure their answers in a way that ensures they don’t miss any key points. 

Who uses the STAR method?

The STAR interview answer method is not exclusive to any one industry or field. It can be used in any interview setting where a candidate might be asked to outline a previous situation they were in. It could be used in a traditional interview just as much as it could be used in a technical interview.

If a candidate has done some research into interview technique, you can be confident they will use the STAR method to structure their answers. This kind of storytelling interview technique may come naturally to some candidates, particularly if they are confident public speakers. 

Situation: What to note

When the candidate outlines the situation, check that the context fits in with their CV. Are they explaining a recent situation or one that happened at the start of their career? Is their seniority in their situation at the right level, or are they inflating their responsibility? This can be a great source of follow-up questions if you are confused about their role.

Task: What to note

If you have asked for a very specific situation and the task doesn’t match your expectations, you may be facing a candidate who isn’t really listening to the questions. As a candidate, being prepared can backfire if you are unable to answer any questions beyond what you were expecting. It can lead you to give answers that don’t really fit with the question.

Action: What to note

When the candidate gets to the action portion of their response, pay close attention to the pronouns they use. Do they say “I did this” or do they say “we did this”? If you’re looking for a team player, someone who shares credit for their actions with their whole team might be a better fit. But if you are looking for a self-starter who can work independently, your ideal candidate will be more likely to start their statements with “I”.

You should also note the technical language they use concerning their role. Someone comfortable and confident with their knowledge and experience will be far more likely to use industry keywords in place of layman’s terms. 

Results: What to note

If you’ve asked for a situation where the candidate boosted profitability or reduced costs, you should be listening for the stats to back this up. Candidates should be specific in their response and make sure any claims they make can be backed up with stats. “I helped to cut costs” doesn’t tell you anything about how successful the candidate was in their task.

If you asked for a situation where the candidate made a mistake in their role, you want to know that they learned from the situation. The result is a key part of the answer and candidates will often be vague, particularly if they haven’t prepared properly. It’s common for candidates to start a story with the best intentions, but it soon unravels and they realise they haven't answered the question or have painted themselves in a poor light. 

What are the weaknesses of the STAR method?

Perhaps the biggest weakness of the STAR method is that it can result in highly prescriptive answers. Candidates can begin to sound robotic in their responses and might not fully consider the implications of what you are asking them.

If you suspect the candidate is going through the motions, follow up questions can help you to determine if they can think of their feet. A candidate can prepare STAR answers, but they can’t prepare for the follow-up.

Nolan Recruitment is a Specialist Engineering Recruitment Agency. One of the UK's best Engineering & Technical Recruiter

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