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Master the STAR method for answering interview questions

Last updated

19 September 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Lara Leganger

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When was the last time you left a job interview knowing you absolutely nailed it?

Imagine you’re in an interview with your mind moving a mile a minute trying to figure out how to best showcase your skills. Your interviewer asks you an open-ended question starting with, “Tell me a time when you…” You panic and start rambling.

But what if there’s a way to overcome the panic and give an answer that will impress, not confuse, your interviewer?

Using the simple yet effective STAR interview method is one such way. Use this method to crush your next job interview and present your skills, personality, and value articulately and confidently.

What is the STAR interview method?

How you answer an open-ended question typically depends on your communication style. You’ll likely fall into one of two camps: you over-explain and ramble through a long-winded, vague answer, or you give a short and sweet story that misses the essential points you want to bring up.

The STAR interview method is a systematic format designed to help you answer challenging interview questions directly and comprehensively. Each letter of STAR stands for an important aspect of the answer set-up:

  • Situation—the backstory needed to give your answer context. This is the story’s introduction. Make it short and to the point, limiting the details to those you need to paint a picture of the scene.

  • Task—what you were told or expected to do during this situation. This portion of your answer is still building context—not sharing what you did. It helps your employer understand what you were working toward.

  • Action—the exact steps you took to solve the problem. This is the section where you focus on the direct actions you took to tackle the task. It should be to the point and flow directly into the outcomes you achieved.

  • Result—finally, share the results your actions helped achieve. This is where you wrap up the story, driving home any final themes about yourself, the KPIs you achieved, and your work ethic.

The STAR method is a formula for approaching real-life behavioral questions. It’s most helpful when you reflect on previous work experiences to share your expertise and personality.

In most cases, the STAR interview method is best used for questions that start with guiding lines, such as:

  • Tell me about a time when…

  • At your previous job, how did you handle…

  • Have you ever…

  • Can you give me an example of a time when you…

Four examples of STAR method questions and answers

Using the STAR method, you can effectively avoid long, rambling stories and instantly get down to the meat and potatoes. 

Below are a few examples of questions and possible STAR method answers that will impress any interviewer.

Share an example of a time you had a conflict with a coworker and what you did to resolve it

This question is always tough, as you have to navigate explaining a “negative” situation and land on a positive outcome. People tend to dodge this question with half-hearted answers about being collaborative, or they hyper-focus on the situation, giving too much unnecessary backstory.

The STAR interview method can help you crush this often difficult question.

  • Situation: “At my previous digital marketing agency, a coworker often spoke over me during meetings. As a result, I struggled to feel like a contributing member of the team.”

  • Task: “I was tasked with sharing an updated pitch deck during an important client meeting. While I was sharing the updates, my coworker cut me off, talking over me and the client.”

  • Action: “I didn’t say anything during the meeting (which, in hindsight, is something I would likely be more open to doing now). But after the call, I spoke directly to the coworker to politely yet firmly tell them they had overstepped during my portion of the meeting. They apologized, and I accepted the apology.”

  • Result: “During the next client meeting, my coworker sat quietly while I presented, allowing me to be a more actively involved member of the team.”

Tell us about a time you were under a lot of pressure at work and what you did to handle it

This is another example of a “negative” question, but it gives you an opportunity to share important information about your working process and personality.

Every job has stressful and overwhelming aspects, so telling interviewers about a time when you rose above your initial fight-or-flight response is a great way to show you are a competent team player.

  • Situation: “In my last role as a product developer, we identified a serious bug less than 48 hours before the expected launch.”

  • Task: “As one of the lead developers, it was my job to allocate the available resources to solve the bug as quickly as possible while also completing the final tasks on my list before the deadline. It was a very stressful time for everyone on the team.”

  • Action: “I took the lead and called an emergency all-hands meeting to get everyone on the same page. I also assigned each team member specific tasks, ensuring everyone knew what they needed to do to resolve the problem as quickly as possible.”

  • Result: “After a few stressful hours and well before the deadline, my awesome team and I resolved the bug and had the most successful product launch to date.”

Share an example of a time you went above and beyond in your previous job

Talking about your achievements and successes is no easy task. Many people struggle to find ways to highlight their strengths clearly, resulting in a rambling and confusing answer that can make you sound less confident than you really are.

Using the STAR interview method to answer this style of question can help you give a clear answer.

  • Situation: “As an account manager, I was in charge of facilitating a company-wide integration of new software in addition to my daily tasks.”

  • Task: “The goal was for the entire company to have transitioned and be using the new software by the end of Q2. I was tasked with attending software training events, putting together an educational seminar for the team, and acting as the company expert on the software when people had questions.”

  • Action: “To achieve this goal, I had to be incredibly intentional with my time management skills. Through diligent scheduling (and the support of my team), I was able to put together a comprehensive training guide for the new software with sections dedicated to each team and their specific needs.” 

  • Result: “Because of my efforts, the company CEO said that my leadership had resulted in the smoothest transition to a new software she had ever witnessed. Additionally, multiple team members reported using my educational materials as an essential resource during the first few weeks of using the platform.”

Have you ever dealt with a difficult customer? If so, how did you handle it?

Finally, if you work in a client-facing industry or role, you’ll likely be asked a question about how you handle difficult client interactions. Use this opportunity to highlight your ability to think on your feet and provide a compassionate service.

  • Situation: “While working as a customer service representative, I received a call from a frustrated client who was upset with a recent charge to his account.”

  • Task: “He was angry and raised his voice to me during the call, clearly angry about the charge. It was my job to not only identify which charge he was referring to but also find a solution quickly that was fair to both my company and the client.”

  • Action: “I accessed the client’s account and discovered that the charge was for a premium-level subscription to our service. I could tell that the premium level was not a good fit for the customer’s needs, so I recommended reverting his account back to the lower tier option. Additionally, as per company policy, I offered a refund for the subscription fee he had paid, as he had not used any of the premium features.”

  • Result: “The client was incredibly grateful for my quick and calm response. He apologized for yelling (he mentioned he had been stressed due to a financial change within his company) and left a five-star review on our company’s Google page.”

How to prepare for the STAR method

The STAR method for interviews is most effective when you prepare, which includes spending time before the interview brainstorming and practicing your answers. This will help you achieve a good flow.

If you have an important interview coming up, we recommend following the tips below to ensure you get the most out of the STAR method and increase your chances of landing the job.

Do your research

Research and understand the expectations and culture of the interviewing organization’s workplace to get a better result. Whenever possible, research the company in advance (and, ideally, meet with someone within the company to hear about the day-to-day) to set yourself apart from other applicants. This also helps you match your STAR method answers to the company’s expectations.

Brainstorm some strong career stories

Before the interview, brainstorm a few strong examples of times you demonstrated high-quality work. We recommend listing these ideas in writing, perhaps even on a whiteboard. Then, as you practice for your interview, you can use the list as a resource.

Practice answering questions with a friend or family member

Practice makes perfect, and this is also true for strong interviewees. It might seem awkward at first, but one of the best ways to nail the flow of your story is practicing saying your STAR method answers out loud with a friend or family member. This will reduce the chance of you rambling or stumbling on your words.

Ace your next interview with the STAR method

Job interviews are a high-pressure environment. As your only chance to make a strong first impression, coming prepared and having a plan to tackle typically difficult questions is a must for anyone looking to land their dream job.

Using the STAR interview method, you can transform a passable answer into a strong, compelling narrative and demonstrate why you are the right candidate for the role.

With practice and a willingness to put in the work upfront, this technique will be the key to impressing your potential new boss and hopefully landing the job you have been looking for.

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