Interview Success Thanks to the STAR Approach

Updated on October 26, 2018

What is the STAR approach?

If you have been invited to an interview and are nervous, relax. Even though it is definitely easier said than done, try to bear in mind that somebody has already looked at your CV and decided you fit the description of the person they are looking for. So that's something already...

The only problem is, now it comes down to a popularity contest (of sorts). During the interview the person (or panel) you are talking to want to find out if your personality fits but also how you conduct yourself under pressure and how clearly you can answer questions. Chances are, if you give them a succinct and well-structured response in a stressful situation, you will conduct yourself in the same manner once you are a member of their team.

So how do you do that?

What's really important in an interview situation is to answer competency-based questions really well. That is the one thing you should get spot on if you want to land that job.

For example, your interviewer might say: "You will be dealing with our customers directly and a lot of the time they expect to get a solution faster than you'll be able to provide it. How would you deal with that?".

In the heat of the moment, of course you could say that you are a friendly, outgoing person who clicks with all sorts of people and that when you worked in a bar during your university years it was kind of the same because everybody wanted their drinks served at once but it was never a problem because you are so friendly and outgoing........

......and even though it might be true, it's not a very convincing answer. It's circular, bland and superficial. I think everybody has blurted out something incoherent along those lines at an interview at some point in time, and if it happens only once during an interview, it might not be a big deal (I've been offered jobs more than once even though one of my answers was sub-standard). But have a couple of blunders all in the same interview and you won't get that call back, it's as simple as that.

So, the STAR approach is what structures your answers thus making you sound level-headed and professional. It stands for:

  • Situation
  • Task
  • Action
  • Result

The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.

— Thomas Jefferson


Let's stick with the example above for now. Before you open your mouth and talk about your bartender years, analyse what the interviewer is actually asking you there. What they want to hear is an example of how good at customer service you are, even if you cannot give the customer what they want straightaway.

Now, all you need to do is provide an answer from your work experience that highlights your customer service skills.

Following the STAR approach, our bartending graduate would first explain the situation in which they have given customer service. Something along the lines of:

"Between 2016 and 2018 I worked as a bartender in a busy bar just off campus that got particularly busy during sporting events where we would regularly have more than 50 customers ordering drinks."

It is concise but it tells the interviewer that you have been in situations that are at least comparable to what their team are dealing with.

After setting the scene, you will go on to describing a specific task.

"We would normally work in teams of two, one of us focusing on pouring drinks that could be served quickly whereas the other one would mix cocktails in the background. During one particular event, one colleague was taken ill so that at my section of the bar I had to focus on both tasks so that it took me longer than usual to serve individual customers."

(If it is blatantly obvious that I don't know much about bar work, I apologise, but stay with me while I make this stuff up!)

This should be right up your interviewer's street because they know that you are now describing a situation where you really couldn't provide the service level customers are used to.

But to really make you sound like the dynamic go-getter that you are, you now move on to outline what action you took.

"Before the game started, a few of my customers were unhappy because the queue in my corner was so long, especially when people ordered the more complicated cocktails and many of them moved to the other end of the bar or complained to me."

"I apologised to each customer for the wait, regardless of whether they had complained or not, and explained that I would do what I could to see that their order was ready before the game. However, five customers remained by the time that the teams were already walking on to the pitch and three of them wanted cocktails. Although we didn't ordinarily do table service, I apologised again for the long wait and said I would take their orders to them so they could watch the game which bought me some time."

"During the first half of the match while it was quiet, I talked to my other two colleagues behind the bar to see how we could make half-time service smoother and I suggested to pre-mix our most popular cocktails so that all I would have to do was to shake them up. My colleagues really liked the idea and in order to make sure we had enough glasses, one of them collected empty ones a bit sooner than we usually would have and washed them up while me and my colleague prepared the cocktails."

The action part should definitely make up the bulk of your answer, so don't be afraid to include as much detail as you can here. What is so great about doing it this way is that it sets you up nicely for the result.

"During half-time and after the game had ended, we were able to serve customers much quicker than we had anticipated. Even the customers that had complained initially saw that we had picked up the pace. Many of them must have forgiven me for the delay earlier on because they tipped me just as much as they normally would."

Experience is not what happens to a man.

It is what a man does with what happens to him.

— Aldous Huxley

General advice

That might not have been an accurate description of how bartending works but I hope that you have seen that there was a world of difference in the quality of the replies given.

Of course, a detailed answer like this doesn't come naturally to most of us. So, how can you prepare a couple of examples to have up your sleeve? Go back to the advertisement or the job spec: the competencies required for a job are all there. Highlight them and then prepare two examples for each one.

Should there be a competency that you really cannot find an example for because it was never required in your professional or private life (unlikely, even if you are fresh out of school with no work experience), then you might be able to get around the issue by describing how you would approach this.

Since your answers are going to be longer, it is also ok (I think) to not religiously stick to the STAR approach for every single competency-based question given as long as you can still come up with some structure.

Interestingly, the STAR approach is also brilliant if all you can think of are negative situations relating to said competency. If your time-keeping, for example, has always been terrible but will be really important for your job, you can show what steps you have implemented in order to become a much more organised, punctual person.

Obviously, the general interview tips of "don't tell lies" and "do your homework" also apply and can make or break the interview. However, since transferable and soft skills are becoming so much more important in the workplace, the STAR approach really can set you on a path for interview success.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Sarah


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