STAR interview method
Holly Watson, Senior Product Marketing Manager at Amazon Web ServicesUpdated: August 2, 2022
There are common interview techniques, or formulas, to help structure your responses during an interview. These techniques include the STAR interview technique, SCARL approach, or a mix of both.
What is the STAR method of interviewing? (Top)
The STAR method is a popular type of interview framework. It is an acronym for Situation, Task, Action, and Results. Let’s walk through each:
- Situation: This is your starting point and when you set the context of your story or your project. This portion of your story should be concise and quickly inform your interviewer of your role and the other departments or teammates involved. For example, the interview question might be, “Tell me about a time you led with influence”. To describe the situation, you might say “I led with influence when I identified a new target audience for Acme product, but had no additional budget to spend on a campaign. I worked with the industry vertical team and the product team to have both departments contribute 50% of my requested budget.” Here you explain the situation while clearly stating how your response addresses the question asked
- Task: At this point, you would move to the second step, Task. Here it is best to articulate the job requirement you were either given or independently identified. At this stage in your story, you are informing your audience about what expectations you were set to deliver. To continue the example, you could say, “My task was to deliver 1,000 new marketing attributed leads so that I would reach my quarterly goal.” With the context set, you now easily move to action.
- Action: This section of your answer can often be the most elaborate and detailed. Be sure that as you’re preparing your stories, you spend time practicing how you will guide your audience through the steps you took to accomplish a project. When you’re done, do not forget to emphasize the results of your actions. This is a common part of the story that is often missed, forgotten about, or simply ignored as interviewees respond to questions. The results are your time to summarize your project into why the interviewer should care and what business results you delivered.
- Results: The ending of your answer can be a challenging area for some, and not every project brings in a game changing metric. If you have a story like that, be sure to tell it but, if you don’t, then try to think beyond delivering revenue. Did the impact you made help accelerate the project’s timeline, or reduce the amount of redundant, time consuming work? Did you foster a new relationship with a department? Did you remove risk from a project and avoid a potential public relations (PR) crisis? Metrics are not always hard numbers like revenue generated, leads created, or impressions made.
STAR method interview example (Top)
Below, are answers to popular interview questions the STAR method sourced from a top candidate – Ana Sousa, an ex-McKinsey Business Analyst currently pursuing her MBA at OSU.
Example interview question #1: Tell me about a time you led with influence.
Situation: “I led with influence when I identified a new target audience for Acme product but had no additional budget to spend on a campaign. I worked with the industry vertical team and the product team to have each department contribute 50% of my requested budget.
Task: My task was to deliver 1,000 new marketing attributed leads so that I would reach my quarterly goal.
Action: To accomplish my goal, I first drafted a campaign where the vertical marketing team and the product team could see where their respective budget contributions would be allocated, what evidence I had to support why I wanted to target this new audience, and the benefits each department would experience with their financing. Once securing the budget, I then worked with an approved content agency to develop material for web, social, blogs, and video. While the content was created, I simultaneously worked with my digital marketing team to develop a content publishing strategy.
Result: I led the execution of this campaign for 10 weeks and generated over 2,500 leads. A record for the company when compared to other campaigns ran previously. I ended that quarter 1,500 leads above my goal.
Example interview question #2: Tell me about a time you had to persuade your team or client to do something they were not on board with. How did you convince them?
Situation: I was assigned to a cost savings project in Manufacturing, and I was leading the initiative to save U$ 1.4 million at a Canadian dairy plant. This goal was top-down and the plant leadership was very resistant to the project. They believed that the goal was unachievable and did not see value in my support as a consultant at first.
Task: My objective was to create a savings action plan that was validated by the plant manager in 2 months.
Action: I engaged in listening to the client’s concerns and had my boots on the floor with the line leaders daily to better understand the plant scenario. I used both data analysis and knowledge acquired from spending time with the operational team to give credibility to my proposed actions and get the plant manager’s trust and support. The combination of numbers and specific insights from the daily operations helped convince the team of the feasibility of our target and made them move on to implement the action plan.
Result: The savings goal was then achieved by the end of the project, and I had a great connection with both the operational and the leadership teams, receiving positive feedback.
Example interview question #3: Describe a project or situation which best demonstrates your analytical abilities. What was your role?
Situation: My team and I were requested to help improve the profitability of a major food company. The client was aware of gaps in their sales operations but did not understand why the business profitability varied so much over time and was trending down in recent months.
Task: My role in the team was to identify improvement opportunities in the sales processes and find solutions to address them, while financially quantifying their impact.
Action: I planned on running analysis for all variable aspects of the profitability (e.g., variable costs, logistics costs, taxes) to understand the current problems and drive solutions from there, identifying which branches should shut down, which SKUs should be stored in which branches, which SKUs should be sold from the factory directly, etc. At the time, I was only skilled in Excel, but our client’s one-year database had 15 million data rows, so I had to learn the basics of Alteryx and Tableau to be able to process and communicate my analyses. After 3 weeks of online self-teaching, I was able to get up to speed and develop great analysis, including plotting a color chart of clients on a map to identify regional profitability patterns.
Result: We identified a large series of gaps in logistics, pricing, production planning, sales routines, among others, which were combined in an improvement action plan we helped implement. The outcome was the achievement of the goal – increase annual net profits in 10 million dollars.
Example interview question #4: Tell me about a time when you went out of your way and took initiative to solve a problem that needed addressing.
Situation: My undergraduate degree is in chemical engineering, so I volunteered for a year as a Strategy Advisor at a global non-profit that promotes social and environmental growth through engineering. The organization was fully volunteer-based, and they were struggling with high turnover rates at that time.
Task: I decided to step out of my main tasks to build a deeper understanding of the turnover issue and come up with short- and long-term solutions that addressed its root causes.
Action: In order to better understand the high turnover, I proceeded to interview 16 employees who had recently quit and analysed 6 months of volunteer data in terms of who we were recruiting, who was leaving us, and why they were leaving. I was able to identify several systemic issues, such as problems with our volunteer selection, lack of a well-structured onboarding process, and decentralized resources for leadership mentorship and coaching. Based on what I found, I was able to create a roadmap with the solutions to address each specific root cause, both in short and long term. One of the key actions involved creating a leadership program, which consisted in a comprehensive and self-paced leadership training for volunteers that were assigned to lead teams.
Result: We were able to see a decrease in monthly turnover from 32% to 11% in only 6 months.
Example interview question #5: Could you tell me about a big career goal that seemed difficult to achieve? How did you overcome any obstacles?
Situation: At this certain point in my career, I have decided I would like to pursue an MBA degree in order to fast pace my career goals. However, most desirable programs were completely out of my financial reach, even considering student loans.
Task: My best alternative would be to be accepted in a renowned school and hopefully get awarded a scholarship.
Action: I have done extensive research into renowned schools that offered full-tuition awards and what criteria had the most weight in merit-based scholarships. My number one choice school was a well-ranked program which offered one full-tuition award that came along with a monthly stipend that would be enough to support me through the whole program, making it zero cost. It was the perfect situation, but it was only one scholarship, so I decided I would try my best to be that one person. Through my research I have learned that, while my professional background was strong, I would significantly increase my chances by achieving a high score on the GMAT, due to my college transcripts not being so outstanding. I spent 4 months preparing for the GMAT with 3-hour daily practices, and when I thought I was ready, I took the test for the first time and got 650 as a first score. I knew that was not a score that could help me achieve my goal, so I took it again after one month, and filled this one month with intensive and smart practices. I was able to then achieve a 720 score, which was certainly a big factor in my applications. In addition, when I asked for my recommendation letters, I decided to ask them for people who worked directly with me in the past, rather than only look for impressive names and positions. I think that was the right way to go, because they were very impressive and detailed in telling the schools why I was an exceptional candidate – I cried reading every single one of them.
Result: After 9 months of hard work, I received acceptance letters from the two well-ranked programs I applied to – one with a 40% tuition award, and the other, my first choice, with that one full-tuition award that was my biggest goal. It was literally a dream coming true.
Example interview question #6: Can you share an example of a time you helped a co-worker or friend succeed?
Situation: During the pandemic, my friend and I were assigned to support an operational efficiency improvement project at a mining plant in Indonesia. Because travel was not allowed, we had to work on a 11-hour time zone difference for 3 months. My friend was not adapting well to the “night shift” routine, and wanted to change projects after 2 weeks in. However, I knew this was a relevant project that would give us a lot of visibility, …
Task: … so I decided to step in and try to help him adapt and succeed despite the non-ideal conditions of our project.
Action: We planned a weekly routine together and started meeting on Zoom for at-home exercising at 8 PM and “lunch” at 1 AM. I would help him find weekend plans that fit our new sleeping routine in his city, and I would often support him with his workstream, especially because operational efficiency was an expertise of mine.
Result: In the end, he received outstanding feedback from the Indonesia team, and was able to deliver $7M in annual savings through his workstream. In addition, we both were recognized during a company-wide event, and he was lined up for a promotion only 4 months after this project.
Example interview question #7: Describe a situation where you had to build something new. How did you go about it?
Situation: I was assigned to map, improve, and standardize all manufacturing processes with a major food industry client, and my company had a very standard way of running these projects. We had templates for how the process maps and standards should turn out to and were expected to always use them. Our current client, however, was very unsatisfied with the format and final deliveries, stating it did not meet their needs and it was not value adding to the operational team.
Task: They then asked us to build a whole new final product for the process maps and standards, addressing their needs.
Action: After spending time interviewing team members from all levels (operators to high level managers), we understood that our models were too bureaucratic and too long of a read for what they needed in terms of process standards. We also shadowed operators to identify when they would need to use a process standard, where he was when he needed it, in order to come up with a brand-new solution that was tailor-made to the customer’s needs.
Result: After 3 weeks of rerouting, we were able to map, improve, and standardize over 60 processes within two pilot plants within the initial timeline. The work was rolled out to 40 plants in North America, the client gave us outstanding feedback, and hired us a few months later to do the very same work for their supply chain processes as well.
STAR interview method variation: The SCARL technique (Top)
Another common interview approach is SCARL which stands for Stakes, Challenge, Action, Results, Lessons.
Similar to the STAR interview method, you can use this approach to structure your interview response. The only difference with SCARL is that the situation combines the “S” and the “T” of STAR into one where you quickly reveal your role and the critical need of the situation as related to the job environment. Challenge is an opportunity for you to describe what obstacles stood between your goal and delivering results. Actions and results remain the same between SCARL and STAR but, before you end your response, you add on what you learned. This can be a great opportunity to inform the interviewer of your takeaway from a project or how you might approach it differently next time. If we take the example from earlier and apply a learning statement, it might go as follows:
- Lessons: I learned that even though I didn’t own the budget to execute this campaign, I could ask my stakeholders for the funds so long as I could prove that there was value in it for them. I am glad I approached them, earned their trust, and learned how to work beyond my direct resources.
The STAR method and SCARL approach are great methods for structuring your interview responses. Referring back to the previous section, “Story Selection”, as you build your Story Library, apply either method to your practice. Take each story you have listed, and work through each one using the STAR or SCARL method. Neither method is better or worse. The selection often comes down to your own preference, but be sure to practice. Your goal is to tell your stories naturally, with each part seamlessly woven throughout your response. The method you choose is your guide, so if ever you feel lost in your response, you can pause, think of what step you are on, and pick right back up in your story.
In the next section, Positioning, we walk through how your Story Library can be molded to fit any behavioral question, and how you’ll be ready with a response when you’ve applied STAR or SCARL to your process.