When it comes to completing job applications and answering questions in interviews, there's no fool-proof formula for getting your responses right every time.
But there is a technique you can use to help structure your answers as effectively as possible: the S.T.A.R. technique.
What is S.T.A.R.?
S.T.A.R. stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result.
It's a really simple, but really smart way to construct your answers during an interview or within an application form in a way that helps you to explicitly demonstrate to the interviewer that you have the exact skills they are looking for.
The technique is especially useful when you're faced with a competency-based question, such as "Tell me about a time you overcame an obstacle" or "How do you maintain good working relationships with your colleagues?"
Following the four stages of S.T.A.R. when answering a question, you should be able to describe a situation that's relevant to the question you've been asked, pinpoint the task you were required to complete, explain the actions you took to complete the task, and finish by saying what the result was and what you learned from it.
How to use S.T.A.R.
As simple as the S.T.A.R. technique sounds, it's only as good as the answers you provide.
While we can't tell you what your answers should be to every question (because, of course, it will depend entirely on the question itself, the job you're applying for and the experiences you've had), we have provided an example question and answer format below, using the S.T.A.R. technique.
So, let's say an interviewer asks you "What's been your biggest achievement to date?"
Get your answer off to a strong, succinct start by selecting a specific and relevant-to-the-question situation to describe to the interviewer. Don't forget, even if you don't have any work experience just yet, you will have acquired desirable skills during your time at university.
While at university I was a committee member for the Business Society. One of our targets for the year was to work more closely with potential future employers and provide opportunities for engagement.
Next you should apply more context to the situation and highlight specifically what your role was in it and the task (or tasks) you needed to complete in order to achieve success. This is also a good point at which to stress how important or challenging the situation was, so that you can build up to that impressive end result.
As the Events Officer it was my responsibility to organise some events that both our society members and employers would want to get involved in. This was challenging not just because I had a very tight budget to work with, but also because I was juggling all of my final year university work at the same time.
This is the part where you need to outline the steps you actually took to complete your task(s). This is also a good place to throw in any other competencies the employer has mentioned within the job description, such as teamwork or decision-making.
To begin with I decided to conduct some research into which types of events our members would be most interested in and which employers they would most like to be able to speak to. I used the results from this survey to inform my decision-making when it came to planning the events, acknowledging that people wanted small-scale, more intimate events so that they would be able to hear from and engage with employers on a more personal level. I then invited individual employers to different events, based on the theme of the event and the expertise of the company in question to ensure everyone got the most out of them.
And now for the big finish. It's time to ensure your answer ends on a high and leaves a lasting impression on the interviewer, who should be able to go away and tick the box over whichever competency you were being tested for. For maximum impact, try to quantify the result if you can, as it really helps to make your answer stand out.
By the end of the academic year I had managed to organise five different events, both on campus and virtually, with a representative from a different company involved in each. 100% of our society members said they found the events beneficial, and one member even managed to secure an internship off the back of one of them, which makes me really proud.
Things to remember when using S.T.A.R.
S.T.A.R. is a great way to structure your answers, but don't let it overpower the natural flow of your conversation or narrative. If you follow it too rigidly you might end up sounding a bit robotic. Don't forget, interviewers also want to see some of your personality shine through your answers, regardless of whether it's an in-person interview or an application form, so make sure you're still being yourself.
Another thing to bear in mind is that, when providing examples of situations or tasks, there's no harm in acknowledging any adversity you may have faced or any failures you suffered - as long as you can turn them into a positive at the end. It will show that you are human and, crucially, that you are capable of overcoming challenges and learning from them.
Finally, make sure you always tailor your answers to the job you're applying to. It's all well and good having a neatly structured answer to a question, but if what you're saying isn't relevant then it's not going to help you succeed. Go through the job description with a fine-tooth comb and pull out all of the behaviours and skills the employer is seeking in their ideal candidate, and plan your answers accordingly.
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