How to Prepare and Use STAR Stories in a Job Interview, with Donna McCullough

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Congratulations on getting an interview! Now, what is your plan for standing out from the other candidates who are interviewing for your dream job? Using the STAR method to share your professional experience is a great way to connect with a hiring manager, says Find Your Dream Job guest Donna McCullough. Employers want to know who you are, not just what you can do. Donna suggests preparing “Eight Greats,” eight stories that showcase your previous wins in your career. These stories will engage the interviewer and make you unforgettable. 

About Our Guest:

Donna McCullough is the founder of Claravia Consulting.

Resources in This Episode:


Find Your Dream Job, Episode 434:

How to Prepare and Use STAR Stories in a Job Interview, with Donna McCullough

Airdate: January 24, 2024

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.

I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.

Every Wednesday, I talk to a different expert about the tools you need to get the work you want.

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Stories not only engage others, they also stick in a listener’s mind.

If you want to stand out when you meet a hiring manager, you need to tell stories about your career.

And one of the best ways to do this is to use the STAR method.

Donna McCullough is here to talk about how to prepare and use STAR stories in a job interview.

She’s the founder of Claravia Consulting.

Donna’s company offers career coaching to individuals, teams, and organizations.

She joins us from Corvallis, Oregon.

Well, let’s start with definitions, Donna. What is a STAR story?

Donna McCullough:

To talk about STAR stories, this is one of my favorite parts of helping coach clients and students through having amazing interviews. So STAR stories, they’re really just stories about excerpts from your professional experiences, and they’re told in a way that is easy to follow for the listener, which is important, and also in a way that really ends with a main point. We use them very often in interviewing, and more specifically, they’re one of the best responses you can have to behavioral interview questions.

Mac Prichard:

How does using the STAR method help you in a job interview, Donna? What difference does it make when you follow this method?

Donna McCullough:

Yeah, absolutely. So, in behavioral interviews, specifically, employers are really trying to get to know their candidates. They want to know how their candidates act and think and maybe interact with a team. They’re asking questions to try to elicit little excerpts from the interviewer’s past to see how they may have acted in the past because we know that how you might act in the future is going to be based on what you did in the past. So a lot of this is going to be showing how you acted, how you thought, how you communicated, how you did your job in your past experiences.

To have a really great STAR answer really helps you showcase your past work in many different jobs and in many different examples of what you can do professionally. So these STAR answers are really vital to help an employer kind of get a sense of, okay, I’m really enjoying what this person is telling me about. Some of these past experiences, projects that they’ve worked on, ways they’ve communicated, I can start seeing this person be part of my team and how this person might be able to integrate, and what it’s going to be like to work with them. So, that’s why it’s so important to have really great STAR answers in your interview when you’re interviewing for your job.

Mac Prichard:

You mentioned behavioral interview questions, Donna. How can you tell when you’re a candidate that an employer’s asking you a behavioral interview question?

Donna McCullough:

Oh, that is such a good question, and let me clarify that for everybody. So, behavioral interview questions, you’re gonna probably hear a question that says something like, tell me about a time when you did something. Or what would you do if? So, it’s not necessarily asking if you can do the technical pieces of the job, although a great STAR story will be able to highlight some of that for the employer.

But they’re really trying to understand the behavioral side of what you do. We’re talking about honing in on some of your soft skills, your transferable skills, how you problem solve, what type of analytical mind you have, the ways that you communicate, and how you deal with conflict or with finding solutions.

And so, a lot of those keys for you as a candidate being interviewed is it’s going to basically be a question that’s asking you to tell a story. So, tell us about a time when you managed multiple competing priorities, or tell us about when you led a team, and that will help you click in your mind and go, oh, they want a story from me. That’s the type of way you can know you can tell a STAR story.

Mac Prichard:

You’ve touched on this, Donna, but tell us more about why employers want to hear these STAR stories when they ask you those questions. What is the hiring manager looking for?

Donna McCullough:

Absolutely. So, something I like to remind all of my clients is you got this interview. You showed through your resume, your cover letter, your outreach that you can probably do this job. If just looking through your resume, they think, oh, this person could probably do the job we need them to do, then you get the interview.

So, I want my clients to go into the interview thinking, okay, they know I can do it. This interview is really to see if I am a fit for them and if they’re a fit for me.

So from the employer’s point of view, looking for a fit is going to basically be, they’re looking for a couple different types of puzzle pieces to be able to join their team. They probably already have a full or almost full team. They want to know how the team would work with you. How you would work with the team? What it might be like to manage you. What it might be like to communicate with you. What you need as a communicator or what you need from a boss. How you might work with clients.

And so, they ask these behavioral interview questions to really start getting a sense of who you are as a professional. Not can you do the job? But how will you do the job?

Mac Prichard:

Tell us, Donna, how when you’re a candidate, you can use STAR stories to show that you’re a good fit. Because often, when applicants hear questions about fit, they wonder, how do I do that? But can STAR stories help you show that, indeed you are a good fit for an organization?

Donna McCullough:

Absolutely. So, one of the main points I want to make, in terms of showing if you’re a good fit and understanding if this company might be a fit for you, is first, you have to research it, and most of this is done probably as you’re finding the job, you’re looking at the job description, getting your resume ready, your cover letter, probably reaching out to some people. But you can’t show that you’re a fit if you don’t know what that means for that specific company.

So, one of the first things is to understand the company culture, their values, how they work, and a lot of that you can do either through online research or talking to people, which is probably the number one suggested way that we all in the career coaching arena would say to do it.

So, once you kind of learn what type of values, what type of fit might work, your STAR stories can really help highlight some of those qualities about you. So, a really great STAR story will enable you to describe the type of person you are without actually having to come out to say it.

So, if you’re, I think I just used an example like tell us about a time when you managed multiple competing priorities. You might be able to showcase through your answer your STAR story that you’re a person who can manage different things, who can communicate really well. Maybe it’s different types of ways that you communicate. Maybe some of those core values that you have that might align with the company, like open communication or open door policy, or putting the customer first.

So, if you already know that about a company, you’re gonna be able to tailor your STAR story to the things that are important to them. And it’s very much like a resume. Everything on your resume should be accurate. It should always be honest. But you don’t always have to put absolutely everything you did, and you can kinda figure out the ways you want to word things so that you know that an employer reading your resume is going to really pick up on some of the key things that are important to them. A STAR story is no different.

Mac Prichard:

You’ve got three tips for how to prepare and use STAR stories in a job interview. I want to walk through each of them one by one. Let’s start with number one which is you recommend that candidates pick stories that you’re excited to share. Why does this matter, Donna?

Donna McCullough:

Absolutely, and I think this is probably number one for everything because if you’re not excited to talk about these stories, if you’re not proud of what you’ve done, that takes out a lot of the passion that you want to show your employer, this future employer. It takes the excitement away, and one of the most important things about a STAR story and picking a story that you’re really proud of is that, ultimately, you want to shine in your interview. You want to show this potential employer that you’re passionate about this role, that you’re passionate about this career path. That you loved the things that you got to do in your past jobs, and that can seep over into the things that you might be really excited about in this job, this future job.

So, by picking a story that you’re really proud of, you’re able to show some really great things. First of all, if you feel like you did it well, you’re going to exude a lot more confidence. The other thing is, as you get your confidence up and as you’re feeling really great about this story that you’re telling, you’re going to start to shine.

And I kind of laugh because, as I would tell my students and I tell my clients, as they’re practicing these STAR stories, or as we’re just even talking about their past experiences, trying to kind of even just figure out where their career passions are, I honestly can see them either across the room or on a video chat, it looks like they’re shining. Their eyes get wider. They get more animated. They’re smiling. Isn’t this what you want to show to a future employer?

And so the more you can show your drive, your pride in what you do, you’re able to really show how excited you would actually be to do it in the future with this company.

Mac Prichard:

Well, this is terrific, Donna. We’re gonna take a break, and when we come back, I want to walk through your other two tips for how to prepare and use STAR stories, and in the second segment, I also want to walk through the STAR method letter by letter.

So stay with us; when we return. Donna McCullough will continue to share her advice on how to prepare and use STAR stories in a job interview.

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Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Donna McCullough.

She’s the founder of Claravia Consulting.

Donna’s company offers career coaching to individuals, teams, and organizations.

She joins us from Corvallis, Oregon.

Now, in the first segment, Donna, we talked about what STAR stories are, how they can help you in a job interview, and you’ve got three tips for how to prepare and use STAR stories. We went through tip number one.

Let’s talk about tip number two, which is that as you get your stories ready, you want to make sure that you draw on your experiences in all your employers, not just at one company. How does this help you, Donna?

Donna McCullough:

Absolutely. So the second tip is to draw from all of your different professional experiences, and when I say professional experiences, yes, that’s absolutely your paid career work. But it can be a volunteer service that you’ve done. It could be, if you’re a little bit more of a recent graduate, it could even be a capstone project, or a very important school project that you did. So think a little broadly when you think of professional.

So the reason why you want to think of this whole group of your professional experiences and draw little bits from each of them is you are a whole person with a long list of these really wonderful experiences in your career. You’re bringing all of those things to your future employer. They’re getting all of that experience. So what you don’t want to do is go into an interview –

A lot of the times when we go into interviews, we’re so nervous because we don’t know what we’re going to be asked, and then all of our effort goes to trying to keep us there mentally and all of this anxiety of, oh my goodness. What are they gonna ask me next? How am I gonna answer the question? How am I gonna sift through all of these things I have in my brain to pull it out?

Well, what happens when we’re nervous like that is we tend to get into a grip mind frame. We might start off with a really great answer to a first question. Let’s say you were a project manager at an XYZ company a few years ago, and you give an amazing answer about a time you led a project, right? But you’re kind of in the grip. A lot of your mental effort is going into what’s gonna be the next question. How am I gonna answer? And so, your brain isn’t able to be a little more lax and start thinking creatively.

And so, the next question they ask it might be about a teamwork, or communication, or how you solved a problem. All you can think about now is that project management position at XYZ company because your brain power is going to all of these other things that are distracting you. So one of the things I always suggest is when you’re preparing these questions, draw a couple different examples from your most prominent professional experiences.

And what this allows you to do is have a little basket of examples of all of the different ways that you bring all of your professional ability to the job. You might have a great project management experience, but maybe you worked at Starbucks, and you would have forgotten that if you hadn’t pre-prepared a couple of really great examples of how you worked in a fast-paced environment or how you exhibited amazing customer service.

So, to be able to put together a package of who you are professionally, you really do need to showcase a good ten to fifteen years’ worth of relevant experience coming into the job interview.

Mac Prichard:

Your third tip for both preparing and using STAR stories in a job interview is to put together what you call, Donna, your eight great stories. What do you mean here by the eight great stories, and how is this gonna help you?

Donna McCullough:

Absolutely. So the eight greats is something that I came up with a while ago as I was trying to help people prepare for interviews and it was feeling to them and then to me as their coach, very overwhelming. How do I even choose stories? How many do I choose? How am I going to remember twenty different examples of my past professional experience?

And we don’t want the preparation part to be so overwhelming. We want it to be invigorating. We want you to be in that mindset where your passion comes out and where that pride can come out. We want you to be in a place where you’re feeling confident and excited.

Not having either enough stories or having too many stories is not gonna solve the issue of being in that grip that I had mentioned. So part of that grip again is, oh my goodness, how am I going to answer that next question? I don’t know where to pull from. There’s either too much going on in my brain, or I really didn’t prepare enough. I really only have one or two good stories. I’m gonna have to keep going back to those. We don’t want you to be in that grip situation.

So eight, I’ve found, is a really great number. And so, hence, the eight greats. If you have eight great STAR stories that you walk in and you’re ready for your interview because you have eight examples of amazing professional experience. Again, spanning the gamut of your resume.

So you should be able to put together, out of these eight, example stories from a couple of different employers or a couple of different job experiences; you will know that you already have the tools to showcase who you are. You have already done the work to think about these stories and prepare these eight great examples where you shine, where you’re proud, where you’re confident.

So a couple of tips I have about these eight greats as you’re thinking, okay, well, that’s awesome. I don’t have to think of twenty stories. I only have to think of eight. I’ll be able to remember eight. How do I even choose these stories?

Well, first of all, I would actually suggest to choose maybe two stories that show you overcoming something. It might be overcoming a conflict. It might be overcoming a major problem. You want to have a couple of stories in your eight greats where you can answer questions, such as tell me about a time when you had a conflict or tell me about a time when you resolved a very important problem for your client.

Now, the idea is not to use one of these eight great stories to tell a story that didn’t need a conflict or problem issue. But you want to have a couple of those in your back pocket. So I always suggest you have about two of those ready in your eight greats, just so, again, you don’t have to use that mental energy wondering.

For the other six or so stories, that’s where you want to keep the positive positive. So if you’ve been asked a question like, tell us about an amazing project that you’ve worked on, or tell us about a time where you led a team. That is a very positive question they’re asking about you. They want to know about all of these great qualities, the way you might fit with the organization, and what you bring to it.

You want your eight great stories, about six of them, to have a very positive impact. It started positive with a great question. You want to keep that a positive story. You want to end positively, as well.

So when you’re thinking about these eighth greats, you’re wanting to pull from different parts of your resume show those different qualities that you have. Remember we talked a little bit just briefly about how do you show you’re a fit? What types of qualities? It’s those soft skills. It’s those transferable skills that might come in.

So, think about those times when you’re most proud of what you did and why, and that all together is what you’re going to bring in the eights stories into your interview.

Mac Prichard:

Well, terrific. Now, let’s walk through STAR, each letter, one by one, and very quickly, how you recommend a listener approach each one of these steps in a STAR story, and I know you spell STAR with two Rs, so we’re gonna cover both Rs, and, again, this is rapid fire.

So, number one is S. It stands for situation. Quickly, Donna, what do you recommend someone do when preparing their STAR story and talking about situation?

Donna McCullough:

Absolutely. So, S is for situation. I like to call it setting the scene, setting the stage. Remember, your interviewer has never heard these stories, even though you’ve heard them over and over again in your head and you’ve practiced them. So you want to set them up so the interviewer knows what you’re talking about, what the context is. It could be when I was a project management intern at XYZ company, we had so and so project to coordinate, and so and so client was asking for this. That would be the situation.

Mac Prichard:

Great, and T stands for task. What does a good STAR story accomplish here?

Donna McCullough:

Yes, so with task, this is, what are you setting out to do? Or what is your team setting out to do? So, in that project management example, it might be that you had a very specific project that a client wanted for you. You’d explain a little bit about what that project is and then what your role is, what you needed to do, what you needed to get done to accomplish whatever task it was.

So this is the, if you’re thinking about, sometimes I relate it to like a fairy tale. The situation would be once upon a time and whatever. And the task is, “and the prince had to go save the princess.” That was the task. So, basically, what are you setting out to do?

Mac Prichard:

After situation and task comes A, which stands for action. What do you need to tell a listener here when you’re talking about the action you took in a STAR story?

Donna McCullough:

So, the most important parts of action is, first of all, it is amazing if you have stories that include teamwork and what you do in a team. You, however, need to pull out your actions, what you did, what you contributed. Because the employer’s looking at hiring you. They’re not looking at hiring your whole team.

So, exactly, what did you do to get the needed task done? In the fairy tale example, it would be jumping on a horse and riding to go find the princess. So what did you do? How did you do it?

This is where a lot of those qualities come through. Where we’re talking about those soft skills, your behavioral skills, how you work, how you communicate, and so a lot of the action shows how you would be, how you would work in this new environment. It’s also the place where you can adapt all of those eight greats to really hone in on very specific questions they may have asked.

Mac Prichard:

And after A comes R for result. What do you need to show when you’re talking about your results, Donna?

Donna McCullough:

So, no matter what, you want a positive result. If it was a question where you had to overcome an issue, that’s great. But choose eight great stories, or choose your STAR story based on, oh, this was a positive result. You do not want to be caught in a situation where you’re in an interview, and you think, oh my goodness, the result was I got fired, or we didn’t hand over the deliverable in time. Those aren’t great stories. You want to find a result that’s positive.

So, it might be we were able to submit the deliverable two days ahead of time. The client was very pleased. Those types of things.

Mac Prichard:

And you spell STAR with two Rs, and your second R stands for reflection. What do you need to do in your STAR story when talking about reflection?

Donna McCullough:

So I love that there’s two Rs in this STAR because reflections really you’re opportunity to showcase the type of employee that you’ll be. Remember, employers already know that you probably could do the job from your resume your application. They’re bringing you in to see what type of person you are and how you might fit.

When you’re able to reflect on an experience, maybe you’re able to say, I learned this type of communication really works in this sense. Or I learned how to do this. Or I realize now, looking back, you’re showing so much growth. You’re showing a growth mindset. You’re showing the fact that you want to learn and be better and contribute to a team in different ways.

And so, I think the reflection here is like the cherry on top. It’s a key to set you apart, possibly from other candidates. It also helps you as you’re preparing your STAR stories to really understand what did I get out of it. Why am I so proud of this story? Or how am I growing from this experience?

Mac Prichard:

Well, it’s been a terrific conversation, Donna. Now, tell us, what’s next for you?

Donna McCullough:

Well, Mac, I do love what I do. So, I love coaching my private practice clients. I love working with professional development and some other educational organizations. I’m able to support their participants with different aspects of career coaching. And I love hosting workshops. So, my hope is to continue the work that I do to find new tools, to continue to grow my own career so I can help others grow theirs.

Mac Prichard:

Well, I know that listeners can learn more about you and your work by visiting your website at claraviaconsulting, and you also invite audience members to connect with you on LinkedIn. When they do reach out to you there, I hope they’ll mention they heard you on Find Your Dream Job.

Now, Donna, given all of the great advice you’ve shared today, what’s the one thing you want a listener to remember about how to prepare and use STAR stories in a job interview?

Donna McCullough:

I think the most important takeaway from looking at STAR stories for interviewing is choose eight great stories that you are so proud to share, that you’re excited to share, that you know your personality and your passion is going to shine, and that’s how you’re going to be able to set yourself apart to your future employer through your interviewing.

Mac Prichard:

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Next week, our guest will be Tad Mayer.

He’s a career coach at Essex Partners. His company helps senior executives in transition.

Tad is also the co-author of Finding a Job That Loves You Back.

You’re doing a job search.

A coworker shares a contact at one of your target employers.

Why in the world would someone you don’t know make time to see you?

Join us next Wednesday when Tad Mayer and I talk about why people want your networking requests and will say yes to helping you.

Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.

This show is produced by Mac’s List.

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