If I had £1 for every time I was asked about the perfect way to answer interview questions the HMRC would be tracking me down about now for an undeclared income!
I get asked it daily, weekly, monthly, randomly. At work, out with friends… So rather than answering it again to another eager candidate looking to get inside my head, I thought I’d type it out here.
The perfect interview answer formula
You may have heard of the STAR (Situation, Task, Action & Result) format for answering questions. You outline the situation you were in. Then you describe the task you needed or were asked to complete. The action is what you did and then you state the result(s) achieved, ideally something tangible and/or measurable. Sometimes you can add another R at the end for reflection; what you learned that will help you in future, similar situations.
However, the problem with this is the answer is often too long and disengages the interviewer. Or too short and doesn’t fully answer the question. Or it’s too generic and therefore unmemorable or indistinguishable from other candidates’ answers. Sometimes the answer may be good but not relevant to the role. I mean, why would selling your first piece of hand drawn art prove you’re the ideal candidate for an IT consultant role?
So how do you address this? Simple. If you want to give the perfect answer to every interview question you need get these three things right:
You need to get the length of your answer right. Too much detail and you lose the interviewer’s attention. Not enough and you’ve not fully answered the question.
If you’re going to talk about how you fixed your friend’s computer, analysed some data or rallied the team to meet a tight deadline, you don’t need to mention the weather or what colour shoes you were wearing that day. Stick to the required details only.
Equally, don’t launch into a familiar story forgetting to explain the context to the interview. Was it a regular meeting, your first one or an emergency one to fix a problem?
Remember to end it well, “That’s how I managed to increase sales by 11% that quarter!”
You need to give a personal answer, not just your version of a standard story. A unique answer will make you stand out and memorable as a candidate (ideally in a good way!)
Talk about why it was important to you to achieve or complete the task, how it aligned to your values or how it made you feel. For example, going from frustrated due to a setback, to how happy it made you feel to finally achieve a goal.
You want the interviewer to remember you as the candidate that made that massive sale, averted that disaster, or solved that problem in an ingenious way. Not the girl in the blue shirt who said something about a presentation.
(If completing a strengths-based interview, you will also appear more enthusiastic and passionate about your example, which will also help you.)
Make sure your answer/story is relevant to the employer. Everything you say should make the employer want to hire you even more. So pick examples that highlight the skills the employer is looking for.
You should know what the employer is looking for in an ideal candidate (from their website or any interview guidance they sent you) and use relevant examples. Ones that demonstrate skills you know they are looking for, or at least the more commonly used ones like communication, teamwork, leadership, analysis, (technical) innovation, customer service or client focus.
Leave the exciting examples of the new beer you just brewed at home or the baking competition you just won to conversations with your friends.
Yes, you need to build rapport but not make friends. You’re there to get the job!
Yes, you should still use the STAR model when structuring your answer. Yes, you should have 5-6 prepared examples of achievements in your life/career to date you are most proud of as these will help you answer most interview questions. Yes, you will still need to do your research on the company you are applying to.
And, no, you will not get every job you apply to. However, I do believe if you are right for the job you will get it and if not, you won’t. Simple.
Leave out the unnecessary details, don’t use stock/generic answers that allegedly fit ‘all’ interviews and leverage your relevant skills to increase your potential to pass the interview and get the job!
You still owe me £1.
Brian Sinclair is Recruitment Manager with over 15 years’ experience of designing and implementing recruitment processes across a range of industries.