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Some job advertisements encourage applicants to use a "STAR" approach when writing an application. What is this method, and why do they encourage it?

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(I'm not in HR, but I occasionally help out with recruiting for tech positions in an organisation that encourages applicants to use STAR. Seems like a lot of applicants are unclear on how/why to use this model for answers, so I thought this self-answer might be useful to somebody out there.)

What is STAR?

Some employers use a "selection criteria" approach to hiring/promotion: a job ad will describe the capabilities required for a particular role, and candidates are expected to write a written response that demonstrates that they have these capabilities. The Australian Public Service Commission's "Cracking The Code" encourages a "STAR" approach to replying to such criteria, giving examples relevant to the criterion and structured in four parts:

  • Situation—Set the context by describing the circumstance where you used the skills or qualities and gained the experience.
  • Task—What was your role?
  • Actions—What did you do and how did you do it?
  • Results—What did you achieve? What was the end result and how does it relate to the job you are applying for?

Why is STAR encouraged?

This structure isn't mandatory, but there are a couple of reasons why it might be useful.

The minor one is that following a standard format makes it easier to get your message across to a recruiter. When somebody writes a STAR-structured answer, it's easy for me to see which part of the response is meant to be giving me what information. If you don't follow that format, I will still read through the response looking for anything that's relevant to the criterion, and give you credit for what I can find. But using STAR improves the chances that the recruiter will interpret your application the way you intended.

The major one is that STAR helps you write a persuasive answer by steering clear of some common pitfalls. Let's suppose one of the selection criteria is "good communication skills". Here are some common approaches to answering that question, ordered from weakest to strongest:

  1. No answer at all.

This happens surprisingly often: the ad might list five selection criteria, but a candidate only responds to one or two of them. To be fair, there are some employers who will include "requirements" that aren't really requirements, but it's not a good idea to count on that if you can help it.

  1. "I have strong communication skills".

Here, all you're telling me is that you've read this selection criterion and you're aware that we want communication skills. Perhaps you believe you're a great communicator, but asserting this without evidence isn't enough to convince a recruiter. After reading through dozens of applications that use "strong" liberally, it starts to feel like a filler word.

  1. "My job as a product promoter for ACME Chocolate Teapots required strong communication skills".

This tells me that some years back, you managed to convince somebody at ACME Chocolate Teapots that you have those skills. But should I depend on that unknown somebody's judgement? And what kind of communication skills did it involve? Are they relevant to the job you're applying to now?

In terms of the STAR model, this is an "S" response: you've given me a situation, but nothing more.

  1. "As a product promoter for Chocolate Teapots Inc., I was responsible for promoting our new teapot models via press releases and TV interviews."

This is an "ST" response: now you're telling me a bit about tasks, which is useful information, but I still don't know whether you were good at it.

  1. "As a product promoter for Chocolate Teapots Inc., I was responsible for promoting our new teapot models via press releases and TV interviews. During my time at CTI, sales increased 30%."

Now we have a "STR" response. Good things happened, and you were in the room when they happened. But as a recruiter, I still want to know: are you the reason those good things happened? Or did you just have the good luck to be assigned to a project that would have been successful anyway? Everybody has a story about a mediocre teammate who got carried to success by other people's efforts.

  1. "As a product promoter for Chocolate Teapots Inc., I was responsible for promoting our new teapot models via press releases and TV interviews. During my time at CTI, sales increased 30%, and I won an award for my promotional work."

This is a bit stronger, because it shows that somebody else believed your work contributed to that success. But it's still hard to know how much I should depend on the judgement of a stranger in a different organisation.

  1. "As a product promoter for Chocolate Teapots Inc., I was responsible for promoting our new teapot models via press releases and TV interviews. I recognised that the existing strategy wasn't reaching younger audiences, so I developed a social media campaign targeting YouTube and Twitter. During my time at CTI sales increased 30%, driven largely by growth in the 18-25 sector, and I won an award for my promotional work."

This is a full "STAR" response: it tells me that you weren't just lucky, that your good decisions contributed to your org's success. Even if I'm not looking for somebody to sell teapots, it shows me that you can think critically about your job and come up with ways to improve it, rather than just following the routine that your predecessor established.

The benefit of writing to a STAR format is that it nudges applicants to think about this last step that takes the application from "good things happened on my watch" to "I made good things happen, because I understand what's required to make them happen". From the recruiter's side, that's a much more persuasive argument.

Some footnotes:

  • Be clear about which parts you did, and which parts were your idea. Language like "A new social media campaign boosted sales" leaves me wondering whether the applicant had the idea for that campaign and carried it out, or if they just followed instructions from the person who did have the idea, or if they're just trying to imply credit for somebody else's work without outright lying.
  • Ask yourself "how many other candidates would be making the same claim"? Some candidates give very generic action examples: "I listened to my team and encouraged feedback", "I adjust the style of my communication to suit the audience". These aren't wrong answers, but they're well-known answers that can be applied to almost any scenario, and when a dozen other applicants are using much the same example, it's difficult to stand out.

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