Tag Archives: STAR formula

4 steps necessary to prepare for behavioral-based questions

During our career center orientation, I ask the participants if they’ve been asked behavioral-based questions. Then I say, “If you find this type of question difficult to answer, keep your hands up.” Almost all hands are still raised.

Future2

I’m not surprised when job seekers in my orientation admit that behavioral-based questions are difficult to answer, given the fact that this type of question is meant to get to the core of the applicant.

Surprisingly, not enough interviewers ask behavioral-based questions. Instead they fall back on traditional questions that lack creativity and can be answered with rehearsed replies. “What are your two greatest weaknesses?” or “Why should I hire you?” are two examples of predictable traditional questions that are easy to prepare for.

In addition, traditional questions  can be answered theoretically—in other words, the candidate hasn’t performed, or failed to perform, the desired competencies successfully. The candidate can essentially tell the interviewer whatever he/she wants to hear.

What is difficult about answering behavioral-based questions is that they demand the candidates to address specific times when they’ve performed certain skills and then tell stories about those times. To be successful, candidates need to do the following:

1. Understand the requirements of the job

In order to prepare for a behavioral interview, it requires acute knowledge of the position’s requirements. If you are able to identify eight or more competencies required for the position, you can predict, within reason, the types of questions that will be asked.

For example, if the job ad calls for someone who is organized, demonstrates excellent verbal and written communications, is a leader, etc., you can expect questions such as:

“Tell us about a time when your organization skills resulted in a smooth delivery of services.”

“Give me an example of when your verbal communications skills made it possible for you to solve a conflict between colleagues.”

“Tell me about a time when your leadership faltered and resulted in a conflict between a subordinate and you. What did you learn from your error?”

2. Write the stories for each question

Questions like these will require you to tell a compelling story for each of these skills. How you tell your stories is important. They will consist of a beginning, middle, and end. You should write your stories because you will remember what we’ve written better than by simply trying to remember them.

When you write the stories, use the S.T.A.R. formula. The beginning is the Situation and (your) Task, the middle consist the Actions taken to meet the situation, and the end is the positive, or negative, Result.

Following is an example of an answer for a behavioral-based question. The question is, “Tell me about a time when you collaborated on a successful project.”


Situation: As part of a three-member team, we were charged with writing a report necessary to continue operating an outside program funded by the Department of Labor.

Task: I was given the task writing a detailed report of our participants’ training experience and the jobs they secured with the assistance of a dedicated job placement specialist.

Actions: I started with noting how I recruited 80 participants for the training program, a number I’m happy to say exceeded previous expectations of 50 participants. This required outreach to junior colleges, vocational schools, and career centers.

Step two involved writing detailed descriptions of their training, which included Lean Six Sigma, Project Management, and Agile. Then explaining how this training would help the participants secure employment in their targeted careers.

Next, I interviewed each participant to determine their learning level and satisfaction with the program. All but one was extremely satisfied. The person who was not satisfied felt the training was too difficult but wanted to repeat the training.

As well, I tracked each participant over a period of four months to determine their job placement. Jobs were hard to come by, so at times I took it upon myself to approach various manufacturing companies in the area in order to place 40 of our participants.

Finally I took the lead on writing a five-page report on what the members of the team and I had accomplished in the course of  three months. Other members of the team were of great help in editing the report and making sure it was delivered on time to Boston.

The result: The result was that we delivered the report with time to spare and were able to keep funding for the project for three more years. In addition, the DoL told our director that our report was the best one they’ve received.


3. Rehearse your stories

The story above, as written, takes approximately two minutes to read. This is stretching it in terms of time, so you’ll want to rehearse your stories to the point where they’re more concise, yet maintain their value.

You can talk about them in front of a mirror or deliver them to a live audience, like your friend, neighbor, or family member. The latter is probably the best method to use, as you will not only speak them aloud; you’ll speak them aloud to someone who may make you a tad bit nervous.

Do not try to memorize every little detail of each story. You may fumble with your stories during an interview. Also, you will forget some of the smaller details, but don’t get down on yourself when this happens. Just make sure you hit the major points.

4. Be prepared for zingers

In the interview, you may face questions that take you off guard. Perhaps the stories for which you prepared and rehearsed only end with positive results.

Keep in mind that not all questions will call for a positive results; some interviewers will ask about a time when you failed. Obviously you don’t want to elaborate on these situations.

And don’t answer negative questions with stories that describe the downfall of your company. Therefore, it’s important to write brief stories that end with negative results. A popular question is: “Tell us about a mistake you made and how you rebounded from the mistake.

Interviewers who ask negative questions are smart. Would it make sense to you to learn only about the positive side of the candidates? No. Smart interviewers need to know the good, bad, and  ugly.


How many stories are necessary?

One wonderful thing about stories is that they often reveal more skills than the interviewer originally asked for. For example, the story I provided above reveals the following skills: coordination, outreach, interviewing, interpersonal, initiative, writing, and more.

Photo: Flickr, cthoma27

Leaving “I” out of your interview answers is NOT noble. Use a 4-step process to answer interview questions

interview with woman

When I ask my workshop attendees to answer an interview question, some of them refuse to talk about their role in a past assignment. An article on Recruiting Blogs details this problem job seekers have, the unwillingness, or inability to describe their role in a situation.

For example, I ask my workshop attendees a question like, “Tell me about a time when your diligence paid off in completing a project on time.” An incorrect answer sounds like this: “We were responsible for putting out the quarterly report that described the success of our training program. We worked diligently gathering the information, writing the report, and sending it to the Department of Labor. We met our deadline and were commended for our efforts.”

Here’s the problem: there’s nothing about the job seeker’s role in the situation. I don’t want to hear about what the team accomplished, nor will employers. I want to hear about a candidate’s contribution to the overall effort.

Note: when appropriate, job candidates need to mention the contributions of those who helped in the process. It is not only about the candidate.

This answer, using the STAR formula, is more satisfying, as it describes the candidate’s specific contribution.

The Situation

As part of a five-member team, we were charged with writing a report necessary to continue funding for an outside program.

My task

I was given the task of gathering information pertaining to participant placement in jobs and then writing a synopsis of their training and jobs they secured.

My actions

I started with noting how I recruited 20 participants for the training program, a number I’m happy to say exceeded previous expectations of 10 participants. This required outreach to junior colleges, vocational schools, and career centers where people desiring training were engaged.

Step two involved writing detailed descriptions of their computer training, which included Lean Six Sigma and Project Management. Then explaining how this training would help them secure employment in their targeted careers. I collaborated with the trainers to get accurate descriptions of the two training programs.

Next, I interviewed each participant to determine their learning level and satisfaction with the program. All but one was extremely satisfied. The person who was not satisfied felt the training was too difficult but wanted to repeat the training. She noted she was very happy with the expertise of our trainer.

As well, I tracked each participant over a period of four months to determine their job placement. Jobs were hard to come by, so at times I approached hiring managers at various manufacturing companies in the area in order to speed up the process. I was responsible for directly finding jobs for four of the twelve people, even though it wasn’t my responsibility.

Finally I took the lead on writing a five-page report on what the members of the team and I had accomplished in the course of  three months. Other members of the team were of great help in making sure all the “is” were dotted and “ts” were crossed and that the report was delivered on time to Boston.

The result

The result was that we delivered the report with time to spare and were able to keep funding for the project for another year. I worked hard and was integral to proving to the DOL that the project was successful, but it took a lot of collaboration to bring project all together.

Certainly there are times when employees don’t work alone and require the assistance of others, but they always have a specific role in the situation.  Prospective employers want to hear about the candidates’ role in the situation, not the teams’ overall role. It is best to answer the question using the STAR formula, which demonstrates the situation, task (your), action, and result.

Allow me to quote directly from the article:  “…after an hour I still don’t quite understand what this person’s involvement was on any of their most recent projects even though they were all delivered successfully, on time and under budget.”   What I did understand involved a whole lot of we, us, and the team, which leaves me to wonder whether they’re a good team player or just a player on a good team.  I don’t have a spot on my team for the latter…”

Photo: Flickr, Renee Bertrand

The best way to answer an interview question; Prove It.

Woman Job CandidateYou’re asked the interview question, “what is your greatest strength?” To which you answer, “I would say customer service is my greatest strength.”  Paus…. Long silence between you and the interviewer…. Interviewer writes on her notepad…. She clears her throat…. Next question….

What did you do wrong?

If you say you did nothing wrong, that you answered the question by addressing the major skill the employer is seeking; you’re partly correct. What you failed to do is prove that customer service is your greatest strength. Here’s how to prove your greatest strength.

Take a breath before answering this question. “I would say customer service is my greatest strength. I listen to the customer’s needs, always asking how I can help him/her. When I understand the customer’s needs, I do my best to meet them. Can I give you an example?”

The interviewer nods and waits with anticipation for you to prove what you assert. To do this you’ll tell a story using the STAR formula, which may go like this:

Situation: One of our longstanding customers had left us prior to my arrival at Company X. I had heard the customer was unhappy to the point where he said he no longer needed our services.

Task: My vice president wanted me to persuade the customer to return. As the new manager of a group of five furnace technicians, it was my mission to win back this customer.

prove itActions:To begin with, I had to understand what made our customer unhappy, so I asked one of my subordinates who was close to the situation. He told me it was because the person who previously worked on his furnace did shoddy work and wasn’t responsive.

With this information in hand, I called out customer to introduce myself as a new manager of the company and ask him why he was unhappy with our service. At first he was justifiably angry, telling me he would never use us again. He revealed that his furnace was never cleaned, that it still smoked..

This was going to be a tough one, based on the tone in his voice. I listened to what he said and told him I really couldn’t blame him for being upset. I agreed with him that he wasn’t treated properly. I was going to make it right. Too late, he told me; he was going to go with a competitor of ours. He hung up before I had the chance to talk with him further.

I decided to go unannounced to his house to introduce myself from Company X, I was met with, “Boy, you’re persistent. I apologized for coming without warning and asked him if I could look at his furnace. He didn’t seem to mind and told me to go to the basement through the back.

“But I ain’t paying for nothing,” he told me. Fair enough, I told him. We want to regain your trust, and if I can’t fix what’s broken, I wish you the best. I am still sharp with my technical skills, so I was sure I could fix his furnace and win back his business.

I spent two hours fixing what was broken, namely the exhaust pipe was full of soot, which required vacuuming. In addition, the oil pump had to be replaced. This was not news our customer wanted to hear, but he was happy I was honest with him and for the work I had done. He also said the former technician didn’t catch these problems, or didn’t care.

When he asked me what he owed me, I told him there was no charge. I just wanted to be assured that he’d stay with our company.

Result: My customer told me that I had regained his trust. Further, he appreciated my honesty and concern that his furnace would be fixed right the first time. He returned to our company. For my efforts, he tried to give me forty dollars “to take the missus out for dinner.” Of course I refused his money.

From the above story, you see how the job candidate proves how he provided customer service in this instance. Of course the interviewer will ask more questions about customer service, both requiring positive and negative outcomes. Although this story exceeded two minutes, the job candidate was able to grab the interviewer’s attention.