How to Wow Interviewers (Part 1)



By Kristin Sherry


In my 20 year career I’ve interviewed a lot of people and have observed two common interview mistakes candidates make when answering questions.

In the first part of this series I’ll be covering STAR Stories (introduced in my recent article, One “Must Do” for the Job Interview), I recommend reading the previous article to learn how to map your skills, strengths, and experience to a job description to ensure your stories tightly align to a job opportunity.

Before I review STAR Stories, let’s look at the two common mistakes.

Mistake # 1: Going down a rabbit hole

Going down a rabbit hole involves a candidate rambling, or stating too many extraneous details that add zero value to their answer.

Here’s what it looks like:

“Tell me about a situation where you had to solve a difficult problem.”

“I previously worked in a bank and one time one of our clients had an incorrect monthly statement and they were over-charged and they were really unhappy about it, and so it got escalated to different departments and it was a real mess because we didn’t know where the mistake had been made so it was getting passed around from department to department. All these different senior managers were getting involved and it just kept getting bounced around, and so then I was working with different senior managers of a bunch of different departments trying to figure out where the mistake on the invoice came from so that we could get it fixed for the customer.”

There are a few problems with this story (which, by the way, is an actual answer someone gave me). First, the answer contains unnecessary details. When candidates add extraneous detail, the “I’m bored” alarm starts to go off in the interviewer’s head.

When you’re practicing interview answers, I want you to think of a tree. Now, imagine you’re shimmying up the trunk of the tree when telling stories. As soon as you start going down a branch, catch yourself and return to the trunk of the story. It doesn’t come easily to most people to speak succinctly, so you’ll need to practice with someone and ask for feedback if you’re adding irrelevant detail.

The second issue with the answer is it’s not focused on results. The bulk of the story is focused on the problem. The greatest indicator of future performance is past performance. Make sure your stories emphasize outcomes.

After coaching the job seeker, here was her new response:

“In my previous role at the bank we had a client with a significant discrepancy on their monthly statement. Previous attempts to resolve the issue by other departments were unsuccessful. I was tasked with discovering and correcting the error and so I performed an analysis on the statement and within 24 hours I provided an accurate, updated statement to the client.”

As tempting as it is to explain the entire story to an interviewer; resist. If you take up valuable time on the back story, you limit the number of questions you can address. If they want to know more, they’ll ask.


Mistake #2: Speaking in generalities

“Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond to deliver value for a customer.”

“Going above and beyond is the day-to-day for me. I often stay late until the job gets done. Sometimes it means having to work overtime, or come in on weekends. I do what needs to be done so that the job is done right and the customer gets what they need.”

The interviewer wants a specific example, and the candidate has answered with a generality. It can be hard to think of examples on the fly, which is why you must prepare the stories you’d like to tell in advance of the interview. If you select your stories based on the requirements of the job, you’re far more likely to be prepared. Again, you’ll need to read my previous article One “Must Do” for the Job Interview for instructions on role mapping which will help you target your STAR stories based on a job description.


What are STAR Stories?

STAR is an acronym for Situation, Task, Action, and Result. STAR stories are a way to explain what you did, and what difference it made. Aim for 50-60 words, or fewer.

  1. What was the Situation you faced?
    “In my previous role at the bank we had a client with a significant discrepancy on their monthly statement. Previous attempts to resolve the issue by other departments were unsuccessful.”
  2. What was the Task to be accomplished?
    “I was tasked with discovering and correcting the error.”
  3. What Actions did you take?
    “I performed an analysis on the statement.”
  4. What Results did you achieve?
    “Within 24 hours I provided an accurate, updated statement to the client.”

Write down as many of your accomplishments as you can, and describe them with this 4-step process. (Tip: It helps to lay it out horizontally in a four column table). Wherever possible, relate your stories to the requirements of the job.

Each accomplishment you describe becomes a story about you as a STAR candidate, which helps you discover what you do best and interview successfully!

In part two of How to Wow Interviewers, I cover differentiation strategies



Kristin Sherry is the founder of Virtus Career Consulting.

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn