The STAR model is ubiquitous. Almost every application form and interview presentation contains the acronym: Situation, Task, Actions, Result. Some graduate recruiters even instruct candidates to follow this model in their application form answers.
It’s tried and tested…and I don’t like it.
Don’t get me wrong. I would rather that a candidate uses STAR than nothing. Any structure is better than no structure. But I’m not sure that STAR is the best possible structure.
Partly, I will admit, I am just being awkward and iconoclastic (I impressed myself with that word!). I have a default tendency to question and challenge anything that is well established and widely accepted without criticism.
However, I do have a couple of reasons, one pragmatic and one theoretical, why I think STAR isn’t the best possible model to be recommending.
Pragmatism — compounding a common error
I have lost count of the number of selection interviews I have conducted over the years, both practice and real. One of the most consistent flaws for many candidates is that they spend too much time waffling at the beginning of their answers, giving convoluted explanations of the situation and vast amounts of unnecessary detail in an attempt to avoid talking about themselves.
This places a large cognitive load on me as the interviewer. I have to keep all these facts in my head whilst waiting for the story to begin. It is only then that I can work out if these details are useful or relevant in helping me to evaluate the candidate. I have already talked about the magical number seven plus or minus two — the limit to the number of items we can store in our working memory. This applies to interviewers too.
The problem with STAR is that it dedicates two elements (Situation and Task) to this preamble section. Half of the model is devoted to something which should only take up a small part of your answer.
Theory — fundamental attribution error
On Twitter, I got involved in a discussion about the effectiveness of interviews between @TheFactoryPod and @AvidCareerist. One topic raised was the link between interviews and fundamental attribution error. This is a cognitive bias in which you are more likely to attribute a person’s observed behaviour to something intrinsic about them (personality, mood, values, etc.) and less likely to take into account external causes (recent history, circumstances, external constraints, etc.).
A classic demonstration of FAE involves making a student write an essay in favour of a particular position on a controversial or politically-charged topic (e.g. pro-abortion, anti-welfare spending). People who read the resulting essay are inclined to assume that the student’s personal views are in line with the arguments presented, even if they are told that the student didn’t have a choice in which side to present. When we lack information, rather than acknowledging the lack, we try to fill in the gaps with information we do have.
This is a danger for inexperienced interviewers when discussing the candidate’s positive achievements. If a candidate talks about a successful project they have worked on, FAE will often lead you to assume that the success was solely-dependent on the qualities of the candidate and you might ignore the influence of external factors, such as luck.
There is an equivalent danger for the candidate when forced to discuss failures, difficulties and setbacks. The interviewer is likely to give less weight to the influence of external circumstances.
This problem is less likely to occur if there is a more structured selection process in which the interviewers have to account for their recruitment decisions. Research by Tetlock (1985) has shown that if people know that they will have to account for their opinions of someone, they are more likely to consider the external as well as the internal causes of someone’s behaviour. In the example above, people who were told beforehand that they would have to justify their conclusions about the essay writer were much less likely to assume that the views expressed were those of the student when they were informed that the student had no choice in which side to take.
Training interviewers in counterfactual thinking can also reduce the danger of FAE. In particular, you would get them to look for different types of missing information when assessing a candidate’s achievements (see Lipe, 1991):
- Consensus information: How successful would other people be in a similar situation?
- Distinctiveness information: How successful would this candidate’s actions be in different situations?
- Consistency information: How successful has the candidate been in similar situations in the past or subsequently?
More than STAR
If you want to impress an experienced interviewer, just talking about your Actions and the Result will not be enough. If you just describe what you did, I don’t know whether your actions have arisen from conscious decision making or as an automatic response to external conditions. I don’t know whether the result came about because of your actions or just the prevailing circumstances.
One way to give the interviewer missing information is to talk about your thinking as well as your actions. This way you are demonstrating that your actions are a result of your reasoning rather than external factors.
The other thing you can do is to show that this isn’t a one-off by talking about how you have taken learning from this situation and applied it to other situations.
So… a replacement for STAR… how about BARER (your evidence is more exposed!)?
- Background — only the minimum I need to know to understand your actions
- Actions — what you did and how you did it
- Reasons — why you did those things rather than something else
- Explained result — what the outcome was and why it was the result of your actions
- Reflection and re-application — what you learnt from the experience and how it’s been useful
I don’t think it’s perfect, but I think it’s better. Any suggestions?
Here are some (tongue in cheek) alternatives from @TheFactoryPod (er…thanks Jim)
- STARKERS – Situation, task, Action Results, Kindly End Really Soon
- NAKED – No Achievements Kindly Exit Department
- NUDIST – Nearly Underachieving Despite Intense Support Throughout
- NATURIST – Not A True Underachiever Rather in Second Team
- FLASHER – Fret Less About Seriously Horrible Employment Record
Lipe, M.G. (1991). Counterfactual reasoning as a framework for attribution theories. Psychological Bulletin, 109(3), 456-471. DOI: 10.1037//0033-2909.109.3.456
Tetlock, P. (1985). Accountability: A Social Check on the Fundamental Attribution Error. Social Psychology Quarterly, 48 (3), 227-236. DOI: 10.2307/3033683