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A job interview is one of the most nerve-wracking situations a person can be in. The stakes are high, you’re in the hot seat, and you want to perform your best. Even the most seasoned professionals deal with sweaty palms and a racing pulse when in a job interview.

Part of what makes interviews so daunting is the uncertainty that comes with them. What questions will the interviewer ask? Will you remember the answers you carefully thought through?

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a formula that could help you deliver a thoughtful, impressive answer no matter what question was thrown your way? You’re in luck, because such a thing exists. It’s called the STAR method.

What is the STAR Method?

The STAR method is a systematic approach for formulating effective answers to behavioral interview questions. STAR is an acronym that stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Result. By breaking your response into these four components, you’ll answer the question asked of you while demonstrating your technical skills and problem-solving abilities as they pertain to the job you’re applying for.

If you rely on coming up with an interview answer on the fly and talking your way through it, you risk rambling or veering so far off course you lose sight of the question you were trying to answer in the first place. Even if you rehearse a few solid answers ahead of time, you can get sidetracked and deliver your response less effectively than you would have hoped.

By using STAR interview preparation, you give yourself a roadmap to not only answer the questions, but to keep your responses concise while staying on course; sticking to exactly what’s relevant for the job at hand.

What is a Behavioral Interview Question?

To better understand the STAR interview format, it helps to understand behavioral questions first.

A behavioral question seeks to identify how a candidate behaved in a past scenario. With these types of questions, you’ll be asked to describe how you acted when placed in a certain situation or how you responded in the face of a particular challenge. Behavioral questions often start with a phrase like “Tell me about a time when…” or “Describe a situation where…”

Interviewers rely on behavioral interview questions for a number of reasons. First and foremost, they give a glimpse into the candidate’s past behavior, which is often an accurate predictor of future actions. If the interviewer wants to assess how you’d react when faced with one of the daily challenges of the role, a behavioral question will give them the insight they’re looking for.

Secondly, behavioral interview questions allow the interviewer to gain a better understanding of your reasoning skills. By asking you to talk through a situation, they’re essentially giving you the chance to share how you reasoned through a problem from start to finish. This is an important marker of your critical thinking skills.

Finally, behavioral interview questions test your poise under pressure. It’s not merely about the content of your answer, but how confidently and seamlessly you deliver it. For positions that require you to keep your cool in stressful situations, this bears weight.

The last thing to understand about behavioral interview questions is that they differ from situational interview questions. While behavioral questions address actual scenarios that happened in the past, situational questions deal with hypothetical situations that might occur in the future. Situational questions often begin with phrases like “what would you do if…” or “imagine a situation where…”

How to Answer Questions Using the STAR Interview Format

Begin your STAR interview preparation by analyzing the role you’re applying for. Identify the core job responsibilities and the main skills required. You can do this by using the job listing itself and by researching people who have previously held the role on LinkedIn.

Then, match your own skills to those required by the position to determine which ones you’ll want to talk about in your STAR stories. Zero in on skills where you have the experience to back them up, like technical skills you use daily in your current job or soft skills you’ve honed throughout your career.

The next step is to build a set of STAR stories that showcase the skills you identified above. You’ll use these stories in response to behavioral questions in your interview. This is where the STAR acronym comes in.

Step 1: Define the situation

The situation might be an event you encountered, a project you were tasked with, or an unexpected dilemma you found yourself in. Think of this as ‘setting the scene’ for your answer.

Be specific, but limit your description to a sentence or two to avoid rambling. Here’s an example of how to effectively define the situation:

A few months ago, an important client asked us to move up the delivery date on a project my team was working on. The work was underway, but the deadline was several weeks earlier than we’d planned to have it completed.   

Step 2: Identify the tasks

Here’s where you describe what needed to get done in the situation. Clearly articulating the tasks helps demonstrate your problem-solving skills. An example of identifying the tasks is:

To meet the new deadline, we needed to accelerate each piece of the workload. This meant shuffling some other projects in our calendar and reassigning some of the work within the department to get additional hands on deck. 

Step 3: Describe the action you took

This is the meat of your answer; the part where you’ll share the specific steps you took to ensure the tasks at hand were accomplished. Here is where the skills you outlined earlier come into play—the actions you describe should involve using these skills in some way.

Let’s say you determined that the role requires strengths in the following areas: project management, leadership, communication, and customer service. Here’s an example of how you might frame the action portion of your answer:

I broke down every step it would require to get the project done and built a new timeline using each of those steps (project management). I prioritized this project by adjusting the deadlines for less urgent items and communicated the new priorities to my team so everyone was on the same page (communication). I got clearance from my department head to approve extra overtime during the next two pay periods to accommodate for the added workload (leadership, managing a team). I worked closely with the client to ensure we were meeting their expectations, since there would be less time for changes during the approval phase (customer service).

Step 4: Present the result

If you’ve done your job up until this point, this step should be the easiest part: presenting how the actions you took culminated in a positive result. Ideally, you want to show a quantifiable outcome that ties up the loose ends of your story nicely.

Here’s how you might wrap up your answer with a strong results statement:

We completed the project successfully and were able to deliver it to the client even earlier than they’d asked, allowing two days of cushion for any necessary changes. The client went on to renew their contract with my company for another year. 

Your answer comes full circle, taking the interviewer from the start of the problem all the way to its resolution, demonstrating your prowess along the way. This is why STAR stories are such an effective interviewing tool.

Best Practices for STAR Interview Preparation

To nail the STAR stories you prepare for your next interview, follow these quick tips.

Diversify your stories

You obviously can’t prepare a story to fit every single possible question, so your responses must be somewhat versatile. In the example we outlined above, we pointed out four specific skills the response demonstrates, but it could be used to answer a wide range of questions, including:

Your STAR stories should be specific enough to demonstrate your skills, but not so narrow that they’re only relevant for one or two questions.

Include specific details

While you want to prepare responses that could be molded to fit a few different questions, you don’t want them to be so generic they sound made up. To ensure that your examples feel authentic, include plenty of specifics in your answer.

Don’t memorize

It can be tempting to memorize your stories as if you’re rehearsing a script, but if you try to do this and lose your train of thought on interview day, your whole answer could go out the window.

Instead of memorizing specific lines, focus on the highlights of each of the four main STAR method components: situation, tasks, action, and results. Just remember the STAR acronym and you’re all set!

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Pete Newsome is the founder of zengig, which he created after more than two decades in staffing and recruiting. He’s also President of 4 Corner Resources, the Forbes America's Best Staffing and Recruiting Firm he founded in 2005, and is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance. In addition to his passion for staffing, Pete is now committed to zengig becoming the most comprehensive source of expert advice, tools, and resources for career growth and happiness. When he’s not in the office or spending time with his family of six, you can find Pete sharing his career knowledge and expertise through public speaking, writing, and as the host of the Finding Career Zen & Hire Calling podcasts. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn