Behavioral interview questions—the ones that usually start with “Tell me about a time when…”—can often be the hardest to answer. You have to recall a relevant experience and explain what happened in a way that shows you're well-suited for the job, without taking up too much time.
Fortunately, there’s a trick to answering behavioral interview questions: the STAR technique. With the STAR technique, your answer gives the interviewer all the information they need to evaluate your past behavior and examine what it means for how you would perform on the job.
The STAR acronym stands for:
- Situation: The context for a past experience, often a problem or challenge that you faced.
- Task: Your responsibility in the situation and what was required of you.
- Activity: The action(s) you took in the situation.
- Result: The outcome of your action(s).
Why the STAR technique works
When an interviewer asks you a behavioral question, it’s because they know that how you responded to a challenge in the past can be the best indicator of future actions. They don’t just want to know how you would act in a hypothetical situation you may encounter; they want to know how you have acted in the past when confronted with a comparable situation.
In order to fully understand what past experience means for your future performance, an interviewer needs the information contained in a STAR response: an understanding of the situation, your role in it, the actions you took, and the result of your actions.
That’s a lot of information to pack into a brief interview response. The STAR technique helps you to concisely answer behavioral interview questions and keeps you focused on the important parts of the story while minimizing the chances that you’ll give a rambling answer.
What the STAR technique looks like in action
Reflect on the behavioral interview questions you’ve been asked in past interviews. What would it have looked like to answer those questions with the STAR technique?
Below, we model the STAR response for some common behavioral interview questions.
Tell me about a time when you had to lead a diverse group of people.
- Situation: When I ran volunteer trainings at Organization X, our volunteer base was incredibly diverse. Our volunteers included high-school students, mid-career professionals, and retirees; people who had used our services in the past and people who had the privilege of not needing those services; and people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds.
- Task: My task was to create an environment in which every volunteer’s differences and identities were appreciated while simultaneously creating a sense of community.
- Action: To do this, I started each training by asking people to reflect on what personal experiences or values drew them to volunteer. Then each person would share their reflections with a partner, and finally, we’d all share our collective experiences and values with the group.
- Result: Our surveys of volunteers after the training consistently showed that people felt personally connected to the mission and to their fellow volunteers. Additionally, our volunteer retention rate increased by 15% after I started using this method, which suggests that people stayed connected.
Tell me about a time when you missed a goal.
- Situation: When I was the organizing chair for the student chapter of Organization Y on my college campus, I fell short of the required goal that every chapter had to turn out 25 students for the annual rally at the state capitol; only 10 students from our campus attended.
- Task: As the organizing chair, it was my responsibility to recruit students to attend the rally, so I had to explain to the organization’s statewide staff why we fell short of our goal.
- Action: Before the call with Organization Y to explain what had happened, I debriefed the recruitment strategy with my fellow chapter leaders so we could identify what worked, what didn’t work, and what we could have done better. On the call, I shared our assessment and was honest about what I could have done better as the organizing chair, as well as what I would do differently going forward.
- Result: The following year, we implemented those recommendations and ended up with 40 students attending the rally: the highest number of any student chapter across the state.
How to prepare your STAR responses
If you’ve got an interview coming up, try these steps to organize and rehearse your STAR responses. Even if you’re not currently looking for a job, honing the STAR technique now can improve your interview skills so you can draw on them when you need to.
Anticipate the behavioral interview questions you may get asked
Anticipating the questions you may get asked is one of the top ways to prepare for an interview. In order to prepare for the behavioral interview questions that may be on the docket, look at the types of situations in the job description and think about how an interviewer could ask you about a similar situation you’ve faced in the past.
For example, if the job description says this position coordinates logistics for the organization’s annual conference, then your interviewer may ask:
- Tell me about a time when you had to coordinate a large-scale event and something went wrong with the logistics. How did you handle the situation?
If the description says this position serves as the first point of contact for members who have questions or complaints, then your interviewer may ask:
- Tell me about a time when you were confronted by a disgruntled or otherwise difficult person that your organization was serving (e.g., a volunteer, a member, or a constituent).
If the description says this position manages the organization’s editorial calendar, then your interviewer may ask:
- Tell me about a time when you had to manage several multi-layered projects with overlapping deadlines. How did you stay on top of everything without letting things fall through the cracks?
If the description says the person in this position needs to be able to adjust priorities on the fly, then your interviewer may ask:
- Tell me about a time when you had to re-prioritize to take on an unexpected and time-sensitive project.
Brainstorm relevant situations and map out your STAR responses
The next step is to recall relevant situations from the past and outline your STAR responses. You can pull from situations you’ve encountered in previous jobs, volunteering, or even your student leadership experience.
As you map out your STAR responses, try to keep each part to one or two sentences. The point is not to tell your interviewer every single thing about that situation, but rather, to focus on the information they need to know in order to understand what happened and to evaluate what it means for your performance on the job.
Pro Tip: After you outline a STAR response, look at the Task (T) and Action (A) parts of the answer. Are you being specific about the task that was required of you in that situation and the action you took? Even though you may not have been the only one involved, those parts of the STAR response should focus on the role you played, without exaggeration.
Practice and get feedback
Practice your STAR responses with a friend or mentor and ask for feedback. It’s best to practice with someone who isn’t familiar with the situations you’re talking about, since your interviewer will be similarly unfamiliar.
Ask the person who's helping you practice and prepare these questions:
- Was anything unclear or missing in my STAR response?
- Did you understand the situation and my role in it, the actions I took, and the result?
- What did you learn about me from hearing this story? What were your main takeaways?
To that last point: If their takeaways aren’t the ones that you want your interviewers to have, then rework your STAR response and try again.
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As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.