Interview Answers: Follow the STAR

Avoid crash-and-burn job interviews

This week, I’ve posted twice about being a job seeker over 50. Sunday’s post listed tips on rearranging your resume. Tuesday’s post was about navigating interview questions. Today is the day for job-interview essay questions.

Interviews have a mix of questions that give you an opportunity to show off your skills as well as your ability to work in teams, show planning and problem solving skills and eliminate you from getting the job. You will probably get questions that ask for short answers:

  • Tell me about yourself
  • Why do you want to work here?
  • Why did you leave your last job?
  • What would your boss say about you if I asked?

You will also get questions that require telling a story. “Tell me about a time you made a mistake and what you did.” “Tell me about a time you worked on a team.” “Tell me about an ethical dilemma you faced and how you solved it.” It’s asked deliberately to see if you can communicate a story concisely, evenly, and with a mix of facts and narrative. If you can’t tell a precise story, you may not be telling the truth or you may be a poor communicator. The pitfall that most people stumble into is delving into details, then getting lost. You start to illustrate a point, you give a detail, that detail is linked to a really clever fact, and all of a sudden, you forget what the point of the story is.

To answer a question that requires a story you have to have a good example first. Before you ever answer

Don't go there.

an ad, make a phone call, or start networking, you should plan a story. It can be general enough to show a strength, a weakness, and how you solve a problem. Two stories are better than one. Your story must be

  • True. No fabricating facts on a job interview.
  • A good example of your work ethic. Pick a story where you had a good idea, a solution, were brave.
  • Easy to follow: use  a story-telling pattern that doesn’t require a lot of background or details.
  • A good story; it must have a problem or a conflict that is resolved by the end of your telling it.

The best pattern is one called STAR. It stands for

Specific: where were you working, what was your responsibility

Task: What was the job you were doing in this story (not your job title), what was the specific task?

Action: What created a problem or conflict and what did you do to resolve it?

Result: How did it end? Did you contribute toward a solution? Did the company lose money? Did you get an award?

Telling a story in the STAR method keeps it short, to the point, and ends on a positive note. Here is an example. The question is “Tell me about a time you made a mistake.” The answer, section by section, is:

Specific: I was working at Acme Lumber, as a Team Leader in the Custom Home division.

Task: We generally created interior design plans for custom clients, but that day I was cutting lumber for a specific job.

Action: I was in a hurry and not familiar with the cutting machine. I measured the cut, but just once. After I made the cut, I measured it again and saw that I’d cut it too short for the job.

Result: I didn’t want to cost the company or the client money, so I asked around if anyone else could use that size, and found another team that could. I measured the next piece twice before I cut it.

This story, told slightly differently, could serve as the answer for several questions–if you were asked about an ethical dilemma, you could emphasize that you didn’t have to cut the profit on the job or add the amount to the client’s bill. If you were on a team, you could talk about the choices the team discussed and the one you decided on.

STAR stories need practice. You can’t tell them without thinking things through first, but once you get used to them, you can use them to your advantage.

Of all the tips you’ve read this week, the one that is most important is practicing for an interview. Use the questions in this post, or ones you’ve been asked before and rehearse often. You might feel awkward, but it will pay off –with a paycheck and benefits!