“Tell me about a time when…”
Do you initially panic when you hear this simple phrase during an interview? Even if you’re well prepared, a simple situational question could throw you a curveball in an otherwise flawless interview experience. But there’s no reason to stress. The STAR Method is one you can master in order to nail your interview answers without hesitation.
Why Hiring Managers Use Situational Questions
One of the best ways to predict a candidate’s future behavior and work style is by analyzing past experiences and decisions. Your responses give hiring managers a glimpse into how you might handle similar situations in a new workplace.
Situational questions also reveal your sense of self-awareness—how you maintain a calm demeanor in challenging situations or how well you work collaboratively through the issue. Low self-awareness may lead to outbursts, poor work quality, and finger-pointing. Show your accountability by recognizing your weaknesses and having examples of how you’re working to improve them. For example, if your soft skills in public speaking are subpar, tell them about a course or networking group you’re taking to refine them.
If you’re applying for a senior position, situational questions can show how well you take initiative, delegate tasks, take ownership, and demonstrate leadership qualities overall. The flow and quality of your story will reveal a lot to your interviewers, so it’s crucial to be well prepared.
What is the STAR Method?
Situational questions, also known as problem-solving questions, are a common tactic used by interviewers. As a candidate, you can use the STAR Method in order to keep your answers organized, clear, and confident.
The STAR Method provides a framework for responding to these tough, open-ended questions so that you answer the question fully and avoid rambling.
Remembering an easy checklist such as the STAR Method ensures you can provide a complete, concise answer to any situational question. STAR stands for situation, task, action, and result.
During the interview, use this technique when responding to the question, “Tell me about a time when you encountered a challenge and solved it”:
S - Once you’ve thought of an appropriate situation, take the time to briefly give enough background to the story. Make sure to include who was involved, the nature of the conflict, where it took place, and when.
T - Explain the task at hand. Who assigned you the task? What was your expected role? What was the expected result?
A - Describe the action you took to resolve the conflict and how you executed the solution. How did you develop the right course of action? If the action was carried out by a team, describe your role and your personal contributions. Include the steps you took and your decision making process in your answer.
R - Talk about the results of your actions, and what the ultimate outcome. Did the actual outcome mirror the expected outcome? Describe what happened and why, and how your decisions contributed to the overall result.
You can add another “R” to this technique for an added bonus to your answer. The extra “R” stands for reflection. A moment of reflection shows an interviewer that you can explain how the actions you took directly impacted the result of a situation, and what you learned in the process. If the outcome wasn’t perfect, explain what you would do differently today if you were posed with the same conflict. This shows the strength of your accountability and self-awareness.
Prepare for the Interview
Some examples of the types of questions you may be asked and should be prepared for are:
- Tell me about a time when a project you were managing had to be delayed. How did you handle that?
- Describe a time when you came up with a new approach to an inefficient process.
- Describe a time when you anticipated potential obstacles in an upcoming project.
- Tell me about a time where you had to change course in an instant mid-project.
- Describe a scenario where you made a critical mistake.
- Can you recall a time where you had conflicting pieces of feedback on a project? How did you handle that?
Review the job description and consider what sorts of conflicts may arise in that position, and what questions the interviewer might ask based on that. Anticipate the questions you’ll be asked by making a long list of potential questions and brainstorming your responses ahead of time. The best way to prepare for these questions is to practice with another person. Reach out to your consultant advisor to rehearse with you. Grab a friend and ask them to rehearse with you.
You can ensure smooth sailing on the interview day by working through any blunders before the interview. Working through the blunders prior to the interview will ensure smooth sailing on the big day.
Do’s and Don'ts of the STAR Method
Resist the urge to make your story sound more impressive by exaggerating or twisting the truth. You may confuse yourself and get lost in the story, or even worse, someone in the room may be familiar enough with the situation to call your bluff.
Avoid talking about a time when you went above management or acted independently of your team, as this may be a red flag to employers. Instead, demonstrate creative collaboration, and independent initiative backed by your team.
Alluding that others are to blame for your past shortcomings reveals to interviewers that they can expect this out of you in the future. Be sure to avoid ridicule and blame, and instead, take these questions as opportunities to showcase your positive qualities and to show ownership of mistakes. Respond with a truthful, human, and descriptive story by using the STAR Method to provide organized, linear answers.
Use The STAR Method for Success
With these tips you’ll be well on your way to scoring the next role of your dreams. Preparing for tough situational questions and using the STAR Method to organize your responses will guarantee you answer the interviewer’s most difficult questions with confidence.
Originally published April 2019; updated August 2022.