Some job interview questions are easy: Where did you go to school? How long did you work in your previous job? But hiring managers may also ask hypothetical and behavioural questions.
Hypothetical questions are ones that ask how you would handle a stressful situation. Behavioural questions are ones that ask about how you handled a difficult situation at work in the past.
By preparing for interviews using the STARS (Situation, Task, Action, Result, Skills) method, you will be able to provide concrete examples for these questions that will help you ace your job interview.
Interviewers often ask hypothetical and behavioural questions because they believe your ideas and past behavior can predict your future actions. For example, how you responded to a particular situation—or how you might respond to a situation you’ve never seen—helps to show your analytical skills, creativity, how you solve problems, and how you use your skills under similar circumstances.
How you use the STARS method
- Situation—Describe the situation and the problem you faced.
- Task—Explain what you needed to do, why you needed to do it, and the challenges involved.
- Action—Describe the actions you took.
- Results—Explain what happened as a result of your efforts.
- Skills—Highlight the skills you used in this example.
The STARS method is ideal for hypothetical and behavioural interview questions that start with:
- What if…
- E.g. What if a customer started yelling at you?
- What would you do if/when…
- E.g. What would you do if you saw a co-worker doing something unsafe?
- Describe a…
- E.g. Describe a time when a teacher or manager did something you didn’t like.
- Tell us about a time when…
- E.g. Tell us about a time when someone criticized your work or your ideas.
- Have you ever…
- E.g. Have you ever had a problem working with someone?
- Outline how you would handle…
- E.g. Outline how you would handle a scheduling problem.
- Give us an example of how…
- E.g. Give us an example of how you dealt with a challenging problem.
Prepare your answers to hypothetical and behavioural questions
You likely won’t know what hypothetical and behavioural questions you’ll be asked so it’s best to consider some challenging circumstances you have experienced and develop STARS responses to demonstrate your skills in dealing with the situations.
Here are some ways to think about the strengths and skills you will need to include in your response to these questions.
- The job advertisement likely identified the skills this job needs, but you may also want to check out occupational profiles and research the employer to learn more about the skills needed for the job.
- Before the interview, write down several situations in which you used those same skills. Beside each situation, list the skills you used. Examples of job skills include leadership, problem-solving, teamwork, flexibility, and communication.
- The situations you choose don’t have to relate to work. They can include leisure activities, volunteer work, or school projects. Come up with several examples that you can adapt or fine-tune for different questions.
For hypothetical questions, if you’re caught off guard in an interview, think through your answer before you say anything. To be fair to all candidates, effective interviewers won’t give you any clues as to what they think the right answer is. All you can do is answer honestly.
For behavioural questions, use real examples. Interviewers may ask follow-up questions and the details must make sense. If the examples you prepared don’t fit the question, ask for a few moments to think of an answer.
Choose examples with positive outcomes
Everyone likes a story with a happy ending and interviewers are no different. Pick examples that highlight your successes.
Interviewers may ask you about a time you made a mistake or failed at a project. When sharing these stories, finish on a positive note by outlining what you learned or how you improved.
Follow the STARS method
Once you have your examples, you’ll want to present your details in a clear and meaningful way. That’s where the STARS framework comes in:
Here’s a sample question showing how the STARS method works:
Can you tell us about a time where you’ve handled a problem with a customer?
Set the scene by describing the situation you faced. Make sure your listeners understand the problem, so that your results impress them. Keep your answers short—2 to 4 sentences at the most for each letter of STARS. For example:
An unhappy customer claimed the shipping department sent her shop the wrong parts.
Show what your duties were and any goals that were set for you before you started. Remember to save your actions for the next section. For example:
As parts supervisor, I had to find out how this problem happened and how to solve it. My goal was to keep this important customer happy.
Describe the steps you took to solve your problem and reach your goal. Be specific. You can mention plans you made, special software you used, or teams you formed. For example:
I assured the customer that I would look into the situation myself. I checked all the details, comparing our database with our supplier’s digital catalogues. Sure enough, we’d made the mistake—a typo. The problem was our system for numbering parts, which assigned similar numbers to parts that were too much alike.
Explain how your actions led to positive results. If you can, use numbers to quantify your success. Use this section to show how you can shine. For example:
I couriered the correct parts to the customer overnight and told her she would be reimbursed for the full cost of the order because of the inconvenience. I assured her that we would make changes so that the problem wouldn’t happen again. I then worked with my team to develop a new numbering system that has reduced errors from an average of 11 to 3 per month and cut response time by 15%. Because of these improvements, the customer has increased her orders by 30%.
Remember the skills you listed beside each situation? For example:
I used my communication, analytical, and teamwork skills that day. I solved a specific problem for a customer and an overall problem for my organization.
Practice your answers out loud so that you sound professional and prepared.
Remember, the interview is your time to shine. Using the STARS method to answer behavioural questions will clearly show interviewers what a good fit you’ll be for their organization.