Be a STAR: strategy for college interviews, job interviews, and more

College High School interview prep

Talking about ourselves can be hard, especially in a high-pressure situation, like a college interview. The STAR method is a strategy that will help you knock the interview out of the park!

The STAR method is a way to prepare for and respond to behavioral interview questions. While these questions are most common in an interview, such as a college interview or a job interview, you might find behavioral questions in written applications, too.

First, the good news: By the time you reach a behavior-based interview question, you’ve already cleared the initial hurdles. Your past experience, achievements, and attitude have been evaluated favorably, and you’ve reached the crucial next step in the process! Behavioral interview questions are a chance to highlight your strengths in action. And you have so many strengths!

In order to present your best self, it’s important to prepare ahead. Read on to learn how to identify a behavioral interview question and apply the STAR method in your interview.

Identifying behavioral questions

What is a behavioral interview, anyway? Behavioral interviewing is a structured interview technique that asks interviewees to share specific examples of their past behavior in order to demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and abilities. Behavioral interview questions typically start with one of the following phrases:

“Tell me about a time when…”

“Give me an example of…”

“What did you do when…” 

About the STAR Method

So, your interviewer has started off, “Tell me about a time when…” and you’re ready to answer your first behavioral question. The STAR method is a way of answering this type of question in a way that’s structured, responds to the question, and highlights your strengths.

STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. In order to explain these four steps, let’s use an example:

Let’s say the interviewer asks, “Tell me about a time when you showed initiative.” Make sure you listen to the question carefully. At this point, it’s okay to ask for time to think. Asking for time shows good judgment, and it gives you a moment to choose the best example, collect your thoughts, and even take a deep breath. Let’s say you already have a great example in mind. You want to talk about the time you wrote an article about reducing waste in your school newspaper!

Situation: Using STAR, you would start your answer by explaining the situation. “Last year, I took environmental science class, and I noticed how much waste our school produced every day,” you say.

Task: Next, you tell the interviewer about your task. This is the conflict in the story. What was the problem you needed to solve? What was your goal on the project? “I wanted to do something about it. I knew if I could persuade enough of my classmates, a lot less waste would end up in landfills.”

Action: What actions did you take to complete the task? For example, “First, I talked to some of my classmates about some strategies to reduce waste, but it was pretty slow to talk to people one by one. Then, I had an idea to reach more students. I decided to write an article for the school newspaper.”

Result: What was the result of your action? “My article was really popular and it persuaded students and teachers to reduce waste. For example, my history teacher said my article convinced her to accept papers turned in online instead of making us print our all of our assignments. I was happy my article had a real impact.”

It’s important to be as specific as possible about your actions and the results. Try to describe your actions, not just your team’s or group’s actions. Also, use numbers if possible. “My history teacher said the change reduced waste by 200 sheets of paper month.”

Preparing for interviews using the STAR Method

There’s no way to know what an interviewer will ask ahead of time, but with a little work in advance, you can be prepared for any behavioral question.

Having a few examples that highlight different skills or experiences is a great strategy. For example, you want to have some examples about a time you made a mistake, showed initiative, worked on a group project, or persuaded someone to take an action. It’s okay if the skills or experiences you want to highlight in each example overlap.

Next, write down the “STAR” for each of your examples. Try to create a few different “STAR” responses for each example.

Finally, practice interviewing with a friend! Have them ask you some behavioral questions, and try responding. Then, you can switch roles.

Behavioral interviews don’t have to be scary! Using the STAR method can help you ace those tricky “about you” questions. Good luck!

Paige is a research associate at Harvard Business School’s Project on Managing the Future of Work. She earned her MBA at MIT Sloan School of Management and her bachelor’s in Materials Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.


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