“The best way to predict what someone will do in the future is based on what they’ve done in the past.” When interviewing candidates for job openings, we are trained in large companies to ask them to tell stories: describe a Situation you were in in one of your jobs, where you had a Task to complete. What Action did you take in that particular situation, and what was the Result of your action? This is called Behavioral Based interviewing using the STAR method, also known at Targeted Selection, and it is the most common model used by interviewers (other than just winging it, of course). Sadly, most companies do a relatively poor job of training interviewers on how to conduct a productive interview, other than to ask the candidate to “walk me through your resume.” After that initial question, which is only intended to jumpstart a meaningful conversation, good interviewers will seek opportunities to probe more deeply about relevant situations.
As an interviewer with a job to fill we will get more valuable information by asking candidates to describe things they’ve actually done in the past, rather than to speculate about what they would do in the future if confronted with a particular situation. Good interviewers will guide a candidate to the kind of story they want to hear, and sometimes it requires re-directing them to focus on a particular event from their past. It’s tough to come up with relevant stories under the pressure of an interview, so candidates will naturally want to reply with something like, “well, what I normally would do in that situation is . . . ” No, we are looking for a real situation where you reacted in a particular way, and there was a particular outcome. The interviewer may have to prompt the candidate to help them identify the most appropriate situation to describe, and that’s fine. We’re looking for people who have produced positive results in tough situations, not people who can respond to an interview question with the most polish.
As a candidate, even if we aren’t formally asked a STAR question in that format, we should try to tell stories about things that happened in the past that provide evidence of our ability to perform a particular function. Even if interviewers aren’t consciously aware of it, we all want to hear stories with a common beginning, a logical middle, and a positive ending. So good candidates will listen closely to identify the skill set the interview is evaluating, and provide an example of their ability to perform that particular skill. In this way the candidate can optimize the limited amount of time they have in the interview by focusing on experiences that matter most to the interviewer.
I’ve compiled a list of the most common, and I believe the most valuable, STAR questions that come up in professional interviews. They are broken out by skill-set categories (problem solving, taking initiative, overcoming adversity, teamwork, conflict resolution, management challenges, and others). The list is a valuable tool for both interviewers and candidates. If you’d like a copy of it please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org