Interviews: Tell them what they want to hear

It may sound like obvious advice but is surprising how many people at interview fail to focus on the key things an employer wants to hear when you answer a question. Our Employer Engagement Manager explains:

‘One of things I do here at the Careers & Enterprise Centre is recruit people to work in our team. When we advertise a role we always get a lot of great applicants, but one of the things I notice in both application forms and interviews is that people gloss over what they did when talking about their experiences. Most interviewers look for a very simple pattern we call STAR.

• Situation

• Task

• Activity

• Result

(You can read a bit more about this in the interviews section on our website here). What I often find is that people get hung up on the Situation and Task section of their answer, and then don’t really mention what THEY DID, and then go straight to the result. So, for example, I might be looking for a time when you’ve had to solve a complicated problem and the answer we often get as an interviewer tells lots about the problem and what the solution was, but not enough about the actual things the candidate did.

“The power to the network grid had gone down, and the back-up generator wasn’t working. This meant all the gates to the various sections of the park were not working. The situation became dangerous as it meant security was down and the animals had the free roam of the area. We needed to reset the generator and then reboot the computer network then yada yada we did this and the power was restored and we managed to escape the island in a helicopter”

A great example definitely but in this we don’t actually find out what the candidate did. For example there is nothing about how she had to make a plan with a colleague to traverse across an open and potentially dangerous area, establish a communication link so she could receive directions from a colleague in a remote location and methodically reset the system.

Anyway I think you get what I am talking about now, but just to make sure think about what you did and don’t skip to the end.’

James Weaver

Employer Engagement Manager, Careers and Enterprise Centre


Tell employers want they want to hear! How to answer questions at interview

Tell me about a time when you overcame a problem. Would you do anything differently if you had to do it again?

Describe a situation in which you demonstrated excellent communication skills.

Give me an example of a time when your teamwork skills made an important difference to a situation.

Describe a situation in which you persuaded someone.

Questions like this – known as competency-based questions – are often asked in interviews and sometimes in application forms too. They’re used to find out when in the past you have demonstrated the characteristics and abilities that will be required in the job.

They can be tricky to answer as it’s really easy to waffle and tell long stories without ever getting to the point, especially when you’re nervous and under pressure.

The STAR technique is a way of structuring your answers to competency questions. It enables you to focus your answer on the essential information the employer wants to hear about and eliminate everything else.

STAR stands for: Situation, Task, Action, Result.

SITUATION: what were the general circumstances leading up to your action? This should just be a brief outline of the context – don’t go into too much detail.

TASK: what was required of you?

ACTION: what did you do?

RESULT: how did it work out in the end? Results should be specific, tangible and, where possible, quantifiable (i.e. including numbers: what was the improvement in percentage terms? How many units were sold? How many people were in the team?).

So for the question ‘describe a situation in which you demonstrated excellent communication skills’, you might structure an answer like this:

SITUATION: ‘When I was a private tutor, I started to teach a very quiet student who hated maths.’

TASK: ‘I needed to make maths more enjoyable so that he would participate more in our lessons, put more effort in, and his grade would improve.’

ACTION: ‘I asked questions about what he didn’t like about maths and listened carefully to his answers. He said he was really confused by fractions. Therefore I developed a game which involved fractions, to make the topic seem less intimidating. I explained the topic to him using simple language and examples, and gave him many opportunities to ask questions. I gave him positive feedback and praise throughout’

RESULT: ‘After a few weeks, the student began to engage with our classes and talk more, asking more questions and becoming more confident at volunteering answers. His ability to deal with fractions improved. After 6 months of tutoring, his predicted GSCE grade had risen from a D to a B, and after one year of tutoring he achieved a grade B in the exam.’

You can prepare for competency questions which might be asked in an interview by:

– looking at the job description and person specification and highlighting the abilities and characteristics which will be required in the job;

– thinking of examples from your work, study or voluntary experience which prove that you have those abilities and characteristics;

– practising putting your examples into the STAR structure – maybe ask a friend or family to listen to your answers!