Applications / Interviews

Be a STAR! How to shine at applications and interviews

Whether you are completing an application form or preparing for an interview, the STAR approach can help you structure your answers and focus on the evidence. It’s a good way to optimise your responses and use the space or time available to persuade the employer you have what it takes.

What is STAR?

The STAR acronym stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result but you may have seen it expressed as CARE, which develops the process further by introducing an evaluation stage (Context, Action, Result and Evaluation). STAR has gained real currency as employers continue to use competency and criteria based approaches to both applications and interviews.

Most of you will be familiar with the STAR approach but if employer feedback is anything to go by many applicants are still failing to translate knowledge into action. There’s often too much emphasis on scene-setting which tells the employer very little about past achievements or future potential.  Recruiters are far too busy to spend their time joining the dots, so the onus is on you to tell them.

To avoid these application and interview pitfalls remind yourself what STAR means and how to apply it effectively:

  • Situation – explain (briefly) where you were, both physically and chronologically (i.e. during my work placement at X company)
  • Task – what you set out to achieve; what you were tasked to (think purpose and objective)
  • Action – the “meat” of your answer. Describe your specific actions. How did you achieve – or contribute to – the outcome. Think how/why/what but always related the answer to YOUR input.
  • Result – what was the outcome?

Most application forms will have a strict word count, so aim for economy of language. If you have to evidence your team working capabilities or problem solving skills in 150 words or less, you can’t afford to waffle.

How to do it

Students often worry that they don’t have sufficient evidence to impress, or feel their examples lack the clout of more experienced, better networked peers but there’s little point dwelling on the “ifs, buts and maybes”. And you can make a little go a long way. This is purely anecdotal, but I remember a recruiter from Goldman Sachs stating that the best response to their ‘team work’ questions came from a student who’d worked as a barista at Starbucks. It’s not where you’ve worked that wins the day, but what you did.

  • Make sure you use relevant and recent examples. You may be really proud of that Young Enterprise project in Year 12 but if this is your only example of team work, you could be in trouble.
  • Emphasise your role and input, but don’t amplify your contribution beyond reason. Don’t be tempted to stretch the truth.
  • Try to exemplify desirable behaviours, attributes and attitude in your answers. If you use an example that demonstrates strong problem-solving but poor interpersonal skills, you won’t hit the right notes.
  • If you can end on a positive note with a tangible or quantifiable results, so much the better. I “increased turnover by 15%” or “negotiated a change to the society’s terms and conditions” has greater impact than,”we reached our goal“.

During an interview, you will have more scope to expand on your experiences, so don’t panic if you have to use an example with a negative – or ambiguous – outcome. You can use this as a vehicle to showcase your ‘reflective learning and critical faculties’ by specifying what you would change (and why) next time around. Remember: recruiters are looking for candidates with good self-awareness and potential for growth, not the finished article.

A ‘STAR’ example

I have included the example below to highlight the various stages of the STAR approach – it’s also helpful to note the allocation of space to each stage. This answer has real versatility and STAR power, as it can be used to demonstrate a range of competencies from initiative, to problem solving and communication.

I worked in the HR department at Y (situation) during summer 2013 and was asked to complete a performance review project (task). I was keen to use my research skills, but knew that I needed to define the scope of the project before proceeding. I approached the auditors and arranged individual meetings with them to secure the relevant information and history.I analysed the data and used SPSS to help me collate and chart the information. At one stage, I noticed a discrepancy in the data so referred back to auditors who helped me identify the source of the error. I successfully delivered the report within timescale and also presented my findings to a group of senior colleagues (action). The senior manager was impressed with my initiative, efficiency and delivery. My recommendations have since been implemented and the performance review manual guidelines updated accordingly (result).                                                                                                  

By keeping to the STAR format in both applications and interviews, you’re less likely to veer off track and it’s wonderfully self limiting for those with a more verbose style!

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