This blog post is part of a series about the STAR Interview Method. Check out all the posts below:
- Part 1: Use The STAR Interview Method to Nail Any Tech Interview
- Part 2: The STAR Interview Brain Dump
- Part 3: How to Nail the "Situation" using the STAR Method
- Part 4: How to Nail the "Task" using the STAR Method
- Part 5: How to Nail the "Action" using the STAR Method
- Part 6: How to Nail the "Result" using the STAR Method
What is The Brain Dump?
The first step in selecting which stories from your career history you’d like to prepare in the STAR format is to have a brainstorming session. You’ll want to get all the examples that highlight important skills and traits down in writing. You can then focus on refining the stories that align with what the company you’ve applied at looks for.
A good rule of thumb for any interview is being ready to answer (at least) the following questions, as they will come up one way or another:
- What was your biggest accomplishment?
- What was your biggest failure? (what did you learn?)
- What was a time you had to meet a project on a tight deadline?
- When did you show leadership ability?
- How do you use data in your day-to-day work?
These are just a handful of commonly asked behavioral interview questions. You’ll need to think about what stories to prepare in the context of the company/role you’re applying for. For example, if you’re going for your first interview at Amazon for a marketing position, you’ll want to have the above stories ready in the context of your marketing accomplishments. Besides aligning your examples to the context of the role, you’ll also want to make sure you’ve picked some stories that reflect the key traits that the company values. For example, if your interview is with Amazon, make sure you understand the Leadership Principles in-depth and can convey personal stories that show both an understanding and personal alignment with the LPs. On the other hand, if you’re interviewing at Google, your examples should aim to demonstrate the 4 key attributes that they look for.
How many STAR examples/stories do I need?
For an initial interview or recruiter screening, a handful of 4-5 stories is sufficient. Once you’ve made it to the final interview stages, you should have several stories ready to go off the top of your head so that you have a variety of answers. Unless you have a savant-level memory, there’s no way you’ll be able to memorize 100 stories in any amount of meaningful detail for an interview. Usually, 10-15 stories is plenty, and you can use the same stories interchangeably to answer different types of questions.
The story detailing the triumph of your marketing campaign, project launch, process improvement, or sales success will likely showcase a variety of different skills.
You had a big vision, had to convince stakeholders, met a deadline, hired a new person, came up with a plan, dove deep into the data, analyzed multiple options, took a risk, made a big/tangible impact, learned from your mistakes. All from that one story.
When asked about your biggest achievement, how you met a deadline under pressure, a time that you took a risk, when you dove into the data, and so forth, you can use the same story with slight tweaks adjusted to meet the theme of the question. Of course, using the same example every single time isn't going to get you very far, so striking a balance between dozens of stories and having a few impactful narratives to share is key. If you’re not sure which behavioral interview questions to focus on, I’d recommend having a free chat with a career coach to get their insights on company/role-specific questions.
Okay, let’s get started
Get out a sheet of paper or open a fresh google doc.
We want to get all of your ideas down to start the thinking process. Here’s how we’re going to do it with a story that you should definitely invest in preparing:
- Think of the “greatest achievement” that you’ve had in your career or life up to this point. This is a great starting point because you’ll always be asked this question in some format. If you’ve just started your career and don’t yet have a great workplace achievement, think back to internships, sports/volunteer work, or something you did in school. If you have many examples, pick the most recent one.
It doesn't need to get complicated. You can pick something simple to talk about. For example, a time when you came up with a suggestion or idea which was implemented. A successful product launch. A process improvement that saved people time. Anything you’ve done that you’re excited about and proud of will work well here.
- Now that you’ve thought of an example, write down everything you can remember about the achievement. I mean everything. Don’t worry about putting it into a STAR format or making it pretty or structured. Just jot down the story, explaining the chain of events.
- Don’t be afraid to include minute details, as well as the bigger picture. People involved, numbers, tools you used, the company you were at, the role you were in, macro/micro context.
- This should be at least a few paragraphs long, and take up a page or more. Go wild with it.
This is your starting point. Save this. You can use it to dig down and refine the situation, task, action, and result in the next sections.
Here are some prompts that you can use to stir your memory:
- Where was I? What was the problem? What was I doing? What was going on in my life at the time, and in the company?
- Who was involved? Where was I working? How did I feel? Happy, sad, surprised? Who was my boss? Who was in the team? Did I have to convince someone? What was at stake?
- What did I do? What was my thinking process? What actions did I take? Why did I take those actions?
- What happened in the end? Why am I proud of this? Perhaps, and just as importantly, why am I not proud of this? What did I learn from this?
Why Details Matter
You’re probably wondering ‘why in the heck do I need to recall all of this information when I’m only gonna have a 2-5 minute example for this story?’
Of course, some things may not ultimately matter — for example, you don’t need to know the weather on the day your story takes place. You want to put in all of the details that contribute to the story in a meaningful way, but not more than that. “Meaningful” details relate directly to the job and are important in painting the picture of why this is a good example of the quality you’re looking to portray. This also doesn’t mean that your story will always end up being super detailed. On the contrary, it’s the simple and concise stories that will stick.
In fact, your entire STAR story should only be 2-5 minutes long at most. I know, that’s a wide range. There’s a lot of variance, simply because one example could be simple (how you decided to test a new color on your website) vs. a much longer explanation of how you prepared for a new product launch.
You won’t use every detail in answer to one question but you’ll have enough elements to construct many stories from that one situation in response to different questions. You’ll also be able to get into the nitty-gritty if the interviewer asks you “Why” five times.
Equally important is the logical flow.
In his book Principles, billionaire hedge-fund manager Ray Dalio describes his approach to synthesizing ideas that have different levels. This can be used for decision-making, telling a story, and making a point.
Letters A through G represent your main points, and “synthesis” is your conclusion of those points. The numbers 1-5 represent details for each main point.
This would be a logical way to get to your point from A to G:
‘Very clear, isn’t it.’
You’ve also probably had the experience of telling a story or trying to explain something but then getting side-tracked, or bogged down in the details.
When you get too deep into the details from the get-go, you can lose track of your initial point and then end on an irrelevant fact without explaining the full picture.
That rambling story would look something like this:
…‘Ergh, where was I?’
Now, you want your story to successfully progress from point A to B and onwards. In the context of STAR, the “A” would be Situation, “B” would be Task, “C” would be Action, “D” would be Result, and perhaps “E” would be lessons learned.
Sometimes you’ll need to dive deep, other times you won’t.
When you know A through G and 1 through 5, you can do a great job of painting the bigger picture as well as providing the deepest level of detail when necessary.
This is why details matter.
Now that you’ve jotted down everything you can remember about your greatest accomplishment (or whatever example you chose to work through), you can start structuring it and refining it from the ‘Situation’.