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You know what a STAR question is, right?

It’s those interview questions where you’re supposed to give a:

S/T — Situation/Task

A —  Action You Took

R — Result You Achieved

See, it spells out STAR.  That’s so you (and the interviewer) remember what you’re supposed to do.  Yeah, it’s a goofy little acronym.  But this interview technique (or a close variation of it) is used by most big companies, and quite a few small ones as well.  It’s part of behavior-based interviewing, which essentially works on the idea that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior…so interviewers want to know what you’ve done in the past, to understand whether you might be successful in the future.  You need to know how to work with this type of question.

Some people just can’t work within this framework, and they manage to blow the interview by not being able to get through the questions effectively.  Here are the four most common mistakes I’ve seen candidates make in this type of interview:

  1. Not listening to the question. Interviewing can be nerve-racking.  Everyone gets that.  But if I’m repeatedly asking you to tell me about a time when you had to deal with interpersonal conflict, and you keep telling me about how you studied for the CPA exam, you’re telling me you’re not a good listener.  That’s bad.  Employers choose these questions up front to focus on the skills and traits they think are most important for this job.  You need to give them what they want.  Incidentally, if you can remember what the questions were, you’ll have pretty good insight into what they’re looking for in a candidate.  That will help for subsequent interviews, and help you know what to reinforce when writing your thank-you notes.
  2. Giving hypothetical answers. These types of interview questions always start with “Tell me about a time…” or “Describe a time…” or something like that.  That means they’re looking for a specific example from your past.  Don’t try to cheat, because trust me when I tell you that you will annoy the crap out of them in doing so.  If I say, “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a personality clash at work,” you should never say, “Oh, I would talk it out with them; I would do this and that and the other thing.”  I don’t want to hear what you would do.  I want to know what you did do.  Everyone is perfect in hypothetical situations; I want to know about your real-life experience.  If you can’t tell me about that, you either don’t have that experience or you’re not really listening.  Now, there are times when you really don’t have the experience they’re asking about.  It’s fine to say, “I’ve never actually done X, but here’s how I think I’d handle that.”  That way, you’re letting them know that you heard and understood the question just fine, but you just don’t have an experience that matches what they’re asking about.  It’s much better to admit you’ve never done something up front than to pretend you’re not really understanding the question.
  3. Giving disorganized answers. The reason somebody invented that STAR acronym is so that interviewers and candidates could organize their answers in a succinct, meaningful way.  Make sure you do that.  Clearly describe the situation (I had a co-worker who was constantly playing her iPod on the stereo in the next cube, and she played ‘Poker Face’ over and over and over again).  Then clearly describe the action you took (I went to her and told her that I sometimes found the music distracting, and I wondered if we could work out a solution that would work for both of us).  Then describe the result (We agreed that since I’m in meetings most mornings, she’d play whatever she wanted then, and that in the afternoon she could only play “Poker Face” five times).  It’s okay to pause and organize your thoughts before you begin to answer the question…anything to avoid a rambling mess.
  4. Giving bad results. Sometimes people are so nervous in interviews that they don’t really think about their answers to questions.  They just start talking.  As a result, some candidates get to the “results” part of these questions, and either find that they have a lousy result (She played “Poker Face” 27 times between noon and 2:30 the next day, so I beat her to death with my stapler) or no result at all (My boss moved me to a new cube farm the next day, so I never saw her again, and as far as I know she is still playing “Poker Face” to an unsuspecting victim).  It seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how few people choose stories with outcomes that actually make them look good.  Again, it’s totally fine to pause and think before you begin answering a question.

Mastering the art of answering these types of questions will put you way ahead of the pack in terms of interviewing.  In fact, thinking of your career experience in terms of situations/actions/results is a good exercise for resume writing and networking too.  The better you are at clearly and concisely describing why you’re fabulous, the more likely you are to convince someone else to hire you.

As always, thanks to Anna at ABDPBT, who started the Fighting Listlessness on Mondays trend in blogging. Anna’s blog isn’t about job hunting; it’s about other, way more interesting things. I highly recommend it.


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