The Big Meat in the STAR Sandwich

Students often come in to see me with feedback from employers who tell them they are not going into enough depth when answering competency based questions and it’s usually quite clear to me, after listening to one or two answers, why they were given this feedback. So let me share it with you…

First of all, let’s get clear what a competency based question is. It usually starts with ‘Tell me about a time when…’ or ‘Describe a situation where…’ or even ‘How do you…’. All of these questions will have a skill or competency attached so your first job is to try to work out which competency they’re testing.

Tell ms about a time when you’ve suggested a new way to do things.”

This is testing your ability to spot problems and come up with creative ideas to solve those problems so you need a story that suits. And you need just one story about just one time that you displayed this ability. Lots of people make the mistake of talking about what they ‘always do’ or ‘generally do’ but this would be the wrong approach.

So, if we take the one story, one time approach, the next thing is to tell your story in enough detail so that the interviewer can assess your ability in this area but also know when to stop talking. This is where the STAR technique comes in.

star small

S – Situation – where were you, who were you with, what were you doing?

T – Task – what were you trying to achieve?

These two parts are the context of your story, you’re briefly setting the scene. Not too much detail here but enough for the interview to understand the setting and the objective.

A – Action – this is the big meat in the star sandwich. It’s important to give enough detail here about the STEPS YOU TOOK to get the task done, all the time showing off how you are able to perform that competency. Obviously if there are other people in the story we need to mention them but make sure the story focuses on ‘you’ not ‘we’. The key here is to not only describe what you did but also give some insight into how and possibly even why you did it i.e. show your working out!

R – Result/reflection – this part lets you know when to stop talking as it gives a rounded conclusion to your story. Ideally you’ll have a positive result to your actions. However, for a less than perfect result or even as a general enhancement to your answer, you can add a reflection i.e. what you might have done differently if you had your time again.

Let’s look at an example:

“Tell me about a time when you’ve suggested a new way of doing things.”

Situation and Task

“When I was doing work experience at a small architecture firm, one of my tasks was to input financial data into an Excel spreadsheet and run reports for various different teams from it. I noticed that there were different versions of the same spreadsheet all with slightly different information on them, used by different team members. As such, it was really difficult to not only know where to input the information but also to retrieve it later so I came up with a suggestion about how to change this.”


“I first of all looked at what the most important information was across all the spreadsheets (what I did). I decided this by checking with various staff members what information they would like to have inputted (how I did it). It was important to make sure that I didn’t leave out anything crucial to the business in terms of data needed to run the reports (why I did it). I also looked at some past reports so I could make sure I had the requisite data on the sheets (how I did it). I then redesigned the spreadsheet (what I did) and created simple formulas so that inputting was much more straightforward and time efficient (how and why I did it). I made the data easily sortable (what I did) and created a crib sheet about how to run reports from the data (what I did) by working through the steps as if I was looking at it for the first time (how I did it). This streamlined the process and it also made sure I knew that it would work (why I did it). I then created reports with tables and charts (what and how I did it) so that the data was easily readable (why I did it). I then approached my manager and told him what I’d noticed about the issues with the multiple spreadsheets (what I did) as I didn’t want to implement the changes things without checking it was ok to do so (why I did it).  Luckily he was happy with my suggestions.”

Result and Reflection

“I got lots of great feedback from the teams I was producing reports for and my manager said he was really pleased with the outcome. I also know from the new intern that my system has been kept on in the company. If I were to do this again, I would most likely ask my manager at the start of the process before I’d done all the work, just in case there was a reason he didn’t want me to do this.”

If you’d like help practising the STAR technique or more information, book an appointment with a Careers Consultant on My Jobs Online.

Sarah Rourke, Careers Consultant, Henley Business School