Ace your next behavioral interview by using the STAR method

Did you know that behavioral-based interview questions are extremely common these days? Hiring managers want to understand whether a job candidate can describe their skill set and experience concisely. Unfortunately, many job seekers may struggle to answer these types of questions. The good news is that you can learn how to better handle behavior-based questions, simply by learning how to use the STAR method for interviews.

In this post, we'll explain why it's so important to be able to answer behavioral interview questions and examine the STAR method in greater detail. We'll also offer some tips to help you practice and master the STAR response technique and provide some great STAR method interview examples that you can study to improve your ability to successfully use this great interview tactic.

Why it's important to know how to answer behavioral questions

Almost every job seeker has encountered behavioral questions at some point in their career. These questions are typically asked by employers who want to learn more about a candidate's work habits, thought process, and previous experience with both success and failure. Chances are, you've been asked questions using these types of prompts during an interview:

  • Tell me about a time...

  • Describe how you handle…

  • What would you do if…

  • Give me an example of a time when…

If you're like many candidates, the thought of tackling some of these complex interview questions can be incredibly intimidating. You understand the importance of providing a thorough answer, but how much detail is too much? More importantly, how should you structure your interview response, and where should you begin?

Don't worry, there's a great solution: the STAR method. In a nutshell, the STAR response technique can help you to structure your answers clearly and effectively during the interview process.

The STAR method enables interviewees to eloquently explain a scenario they've experienced at work, describe how they reacted to it, and highlight how their actions resolved the scenario in a positive way. Let's take a closer look at how the STAR method works and how to master behavior-based interview questions like a pro.    

What is the STAR Method?

The STAR interview response method stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Result.


To use the STAR method in interviews, you first briefly outline the situation you were in or the event that took place. Try to limit this portion of your response to a few sentences and offer enough information to clearly convey what happened without taking up too much time.


The next step is to outline the task that you needed to complete. This can involve a problem that needed to be solved, a responsibility that you had to meet, or a description of the goal that you were trying to achieve in that specific situation.


Once you've painted that broad picture of the situation and task, it's time to explain the action you took to fix the problem or complete the assignment. This part of your response should go into more detail and should include mention of any specific skills or experience that you used to achieve your desired results. Be as detailed as possible during this part of your response.


End your response by talking about the results that your actions made possible. How did your efforts allow you to complete the task? Again, be as detailed as you need to be to create a compelling ending to your story. Whenever possible, try to include real numbers that can help the listener to understand the type of benefit that your actions provided for your employer.

In other words, quantify your results by using real numbers to describe:

  • Time saved

  • Efficiencies created

  • Increases in revenues

  • Decreases in costs

  • Enhanced productivity

The goal is to paint a verbal picture of a real, measurable achievement that demonstrates the type of value that you can provide to any prospective employer. Remember, you want the interviewer to immediately start thinking about how you might provide that same type of value for their company.

How to master the STAR Method

To master this technique and use it to your best advantage, you absolutely must take the time to prepare your answers using relevant scenarios from previous work roles. It's never a good idea to try answering off the top of your head when you're nervous. Be honest and don't embellish your story to make it sound better. Stand on your own accomplishments.

As a first step, review your past jobs for examples of when you successfully managed a project, handled a challenge, exceeded your goals, provided strong leadership, or anything else that highlights your skills and abilities. Next, work through how to present these successes using the STAR interview method, as outlined below. 

Practice setting the scene

Every story starts with an opening scene, and that's true when it comes to using the STAR method in an interview. When it comes to this technique, however, you need to be as concise as possible when you're setting that scene for your listener. Quickly describe the scene by focusing on the situation that forms the foundation of your story. Be brief, clear, and include only the relevant details the listener needs to know to understand the rest of the story.

One good rule of thumb is to get in the habit of using no more than two sentences for each part of the STAR process. For example, if the interviewer asked you to describe a time when you struggled to meet a tight deadline, the situation part of your STAR method interview response might be something like:

“A few years ago, one of our clients suddenly asked us to complete a network installation project a week earlier than originally scheduled. The problem was that we were also scheduled to complete a separate project during that same period.”

With just those two brief sentences, the candidate sets the scene and outlines the challenge that they faced. That description helps to build tension in the story right away and can inspire the interviewer to pay attention to the rest of the story - if only to learn how that problem was successfully navigated.

Focus on describing your role

With your scene properly set, you can then focus on highlighting the role that you had to play in that story. If it helps, try to picture yourself as the hero of the tale - the dashing swashbuckler who swoops in to save the day! However, you need to separate the task before you from the actions you ultimately took to resolve the challenge.

In other words, don't get too far ahead of yourself. Focus on your role in resolving the challenge by providing details about your goals and responsibilities in that scenario. Again, use no more than two sentences to describe the task that lay before you. Let's continue with the same example we began in the prior section:

“Since I was the assigned project leader for both projects, I needed to create a strategy that would enable us to properly allocate our resources to complete both tasks on time and on budget.”

With just one sentence, we've described the challenge, the candidate's role, and the broader goal that they had in mind for resolving the situation.

Identify the steps you took to resolve the challenge

The next step is to describe the specific actions that you took to resolve the challenge. In this stage of the answer, though, you'll want to be more specific. Provide details about the skills you used, tools you used, and strategies that helped you to accomplish your goals. Again, we're going to continue with our example scenario:

“Working as a unit, we created a plan that enabled us to work on both projects simultaneously by splitting into two groups that focused on specific project tasks at each site. The two groups then alternated locations to complete their part of the project at the other site.”

Quantify and describe your results

To close your story, you need to describe the results you achieved using quantifiable data (percent increases, dollars saved, and so on) whenever possible. Help the interviewer to understand the impact this had on you and your company and why it made you a better employee going forward. 

If any of your stories describe a mistake or failure, talk about what you learned and / or what you did to ensure a better result in the future. This can give a good example of how well you deal with and recover from adversity. Never use a story that will only show you in a negative light.

To complete our example narrative, let's consider how that candidate might describe the types of results their actions provided for their employer:

“Though our approach to the two competing projects was novel for our company, our talented team was able to complete both endeavors a day earlier than our clients anticipated. That enabled us to not only reduce costs by 15%, but also helped the company to earn a 10% revenue bonus based on the expedited deadline.”

Practicing for the STAR method interview

Although you can't predict the specific STAR method interview questions you'll be asked when you meet with a hiring manager, you can be as prepared as possible to help yourself nail the interview. Here are a few ways to ensure you won't be caught off guard by a tricky question:

  1. Create a list of three to five challenging scenarios that you encountered (and conquered) during your previous employment. Consider times when you've been under super tight deadlines for a project, or you've been short staffed but still managed to do an excellent job of the task at hand. By considering specific situations you've overcome before your interview, you won't be caught off guard when they ask about a time when you've gone above and beyond at work.

  2. Outline five of your strongest skills on paper and review them before your interview. Consider both soft skills and hard skills, so you have a comprehensive answer to the question, “What would you say your strengths are?”

  3. Consider a situation where you've had to juggle several tasks at once, and how you were able to successfully handle the scenario. Employers often want to hear a job candidate's outlook on multitasking and their ability to prioritize several responsibilities when necessary.

  4. Be prepared to answer questions about conflict within a team setting or among your co-workers. Again, hiring managers often want to understand how you dealt with difficult situations, specifically those relating to personnel issues.

  5. Remember, practice makes perfect! Although you don't want your answers to sound rehearsed, it's a smart idea to review the details of specific achievements throughout your career. Consider reviewing any important dates you may reference, as well as the names of the clients or partners you've worked with previously.

  6. Speaking of practice, don't be afraid to sit down with a friend or family member who's willing to help you prepare for an interview. Provide them with a list of sample questions and then rehearse your prepared STAR method interview answers. It's always a good idea to make sure that you tell these stories at least once before you get to your interview.

  7. Make sure that you've studied the job description as part of your interview preparation. By examining the job requirements, you can get a better understanding of the types of things the employer is looking for in their job candidates. Focus on identifying the key skills and employee traits that the job description cites, so that you can highlight those talents and qualities in your answers.

Finally, make sure that you craft at least a few STAR method interview responses that you can customize to fit different types of unexpected questions. For example, if you have a couple of great achievement stories that highlight your use of critical hard or soft skills, don't be afraid to slightly modify them so that they can be used to answer a variety of behavioral questions.

STAR method interview examples

Here are some examples of how to answer behavioral questions using the STAR method for interviews. Study each of these STAR method interview questions and answers to get a better understanding of how to use this response technique in your next interview.

Give me a specific example of a time when you had to conform to a policy with which you did not agree

“After being hired as a Phone Customer Support Representative for a major bank, a new policy was implemented requiring support people to present and hopefully sell any of our various products once we'd solved the person's issue. Since this was not part of the original job description, I was taken aback. I felt this new process was unprofessional and would ultimately drive customers away. I was also not very good at it.

Since the requirement wasn't going away and I otherwise enjoyed the job, I met with my manager to voice my concerns. She helped me to understand the reason for upselling and assured me that there was no penalty for not making a sale - but there was if I didn't make at least 20 offers per month.

So, my manager had me sit with a Service Rep who was great at upselling to learn some effective techniques. After a few weeks, I was very comfortable with the process and even went 2% over the required offer quota in the next month.”

Describe a time when you had to persuade a coworker or manager

“Part of my role as a Marketing Strategist involved regular communication with clients and my manager to approve various aspects of their marketing campaigns. On one occasion, the client would not approve the artwork we created and wanted it redone (at no charge), while my manager thought it met all the requirements and wouldn't budge.

After many meetings with the client, I could finally see that we missed a crucial aspect that should have been included. No one in marketing caught it, but the client did. I went to my manager and pointed out all the details of what we had missed--meaning we truly didn't meet the client's expectations.

My manager finally agreed. We reworked the client's art at no charge, and they've continued to use us for all their on-going marketing campaigns.”

Have you ever faced conflict when working with a team?

“I worked as part of a team of Coders to create GUI interfaces for our company's software games division. While we each had our specific job, we all had to agree on the final look so we would know what code to use. 

For one project, we couldn't agree on the final look and the project deadline was approaching. We agreed to sequester ourselves in a conference room to openly listen to everyone's ideas and provide honest feedback. We ultimately took each team member's best ideas and found a way to work them into the final look, meeting the deadline.

From then on, we tried hard to make group decisions and compromises where needed. As a result, we completed most of our projects at or before the deadline, and we became friends as well as team members.”

Tell me about a time when you had too many things to do, and you were required to prioritize your tasks

“In my previous job as a Senior Sales Executive, one of my co-workers quit immediately after we were told our assigned territories would be doubling in the next month.

Although I was already managing a full load of accounts in my own territories, I was assigned the territories of my departed co-worker to handle as well.

After some deep breaths, I sat down and mapped out all of my territories and how much time they required both to maintain current clients and approach new ones - and I knew my performance would suffer. It was too much for one person.

I then went to my boss with this data along with a well-laid-out plan of how to divide the old Salesperson's territory among several of our current reps (including me) until we could hire someone new. That way we all got a piece of the pie, and one person didn't have to be overwhelmed. 

My boss took this to the VP of Sales who was impressed with my plan and approved it. About three months later, we hired two new Sales Executives, and I was promoted to Assistant VP of Sales in my division.”

Give me an example of when you showed initiative and took the lead

“In my role as a Senior Accountant, it was my job to ensure we closed the general ledger on time each month. At one point, I noticed that several departments were increasingly late when it came to providing their data and we missed the GL deadline several months in a row. 

I decided to visit these departments to remind them about timeliness. What I found was many new employees working with a very outdated training and procedure manual, which was the source of the delays.

Once I understood the issue, I held a quick training session for them on current procedures. Then I spent the next several weeks creating a new procedures manual that everyone would use going forward and that would help train new employees.

Since then, the general ledger has closed on time and the accounting department has a clear understanding of their roles and duties.”

Become a pro at the STAR method today

The STAR response technique helps you to master behavioral-based interview questions thoroughly and professionally. If crafting answers to interview questions is something you struggle with, the STAR method for interviews can ensure you're delivering succinct and compelling answers. By taking adequate time to prepare for your next interview, reviewing some of your professional strengths, and implementing the STAR method, you'll be well on your way to success in your next interview.  

Landing the interviews, but not the job? You might want to consider getting professional help from one of our expert interview coaches

This article was originally written by Ellen Bickford and has been updated by Ken Chase.

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