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This is the second part of a two-part article in which I discuss three key steps you can take to set yourself up for success at your next job interview. In Part 1, I cover the first two steps, Conduct Research and Create a Strategy. Here, in Part 2, I discuss the third step, which will provide you with a solid plan for structuring your interview responses.
Interviews can be anxiety-inducing even for the most seasoned professionals, but by preparing in a structured way, job candidates can build confidence. Conducting research and preparing a conceptual map (Steps 1 and 2) will certainly help you feel more confident and informed, but neither of these strategies addresses how to frame responses to individual interview questions. To do so, I recommend using a methodical approach called STAR. Although you can deviate from this approach as appropriate, it’s good to at least know about it and practice it in advance—it can be the ace you keep up your sleeve.
Step 3: Use the STAR Approach
STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Result, and helps you break down complex responses into components so you stay focused, composed, and on target. When answering behavioral interview questions—the questions that often start with “Tell me about a time…”—STAR is particularly handy.
Here is how I recommend you approach each component:
State the situation clearly and succinctly, and only use jargon if you can safely assume the interviewer(s) have the same frame of reference as you. Otherwise, using phrases and terms that the interviewer does not know will likely hurt your chances of progressing to the next round of interviews because it will create a language barrier that could decrease any feelings of rapport you might have been building. Remember this tip while answering all of your interview questions.
Briefly state the task you (or your team or department) had to fulfill. I recommend a rather superficial summary of the task because many people tend to go into much greater detail than necessary. For instance, it would suffice to say the program launched on time even though there were unexpected obstacles without detailing the 17 individual obstacles.
Here, state the action you (or your team or department) took. Be clear and precise about what you did to solve the problem or finish the task. Although a statement like “The team worked hard” is okay, something like the following would be stronger: “After recognizing the problem, I called the team together for a meeting. We identified potential solutions, debated those solutions, and then created an action item list, with specific deadlines, for each team member. After the initial meeting, we continued to meet on a weekly basis to monitor progress.”
Encapsulate the result clearly to the interviewer(s) by giving specific information. One way to do this is by quantifying: use numbers, percentages, or dollars to showcase your success. Rather than “In the end, my boss was pleased,” consider something much more specific: “In the end, my boss remarked that she was impressed my team’s actions led to us not only fixing the problem but also spending 3% less than expected on the project.” Ending with a strong result is a key opportunity to educate the interviewer on your capabilities.
Here’s a rule of thumb about how to distribute your time when providing a STAR response: state the situation and task as concisely as possible to get the point across, but focus on the action and result. Remember, employers want to hire achievers—people who will get the job done—and that is best illustrated by emphasizing actions and results versus spending time describing situations and tasks in great detail. Everyone has situations and tasks, but not everyone delivers on them in the same way, so that’s your chance to show how you stand out.
The STAR approach does not work for every interview question, but it does work for more than you might think. Always remember that a good strategy is to end on a positive note. Even responses to questions about challenges and failures can conclude with emphasis on what further action you took and how you improved results after a failure.
By following the three steps I’ve outlined here and in Part 1, you can prepare for your interview in a structured way to increase your confidence and make you feel more at ease. When you’re at ease, you’ll feel and act like your best self during your interview, and your confidence will be reflected in your performance.