What is the S.T.A.R. technique - and why do banks like it?
The S.T.A.R. interview technique has nothing to do with abstract Hollywood stardom, and a lot to do with answering interview questions with as much precision (and relevant data) as possible.
Rather, it stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. The purpose of S.T.A.R. is to tell an anecdote with a structure that demonstrates your competencies in a way that hopefully appears like you’re a constantly evolving self-critical genius. This brutal, pre-prepared, synthetic naturalism is a great way to speak to investment bankers.
Nuno Reis – a former trader, physics PhD, and present careers coach – puts it in a milder way. “IB professionals tend to be analytical in understanding the world,” he says. “Coming up with too abstract hypothetical scenarios is seen as suboptimal compared to real case studies.”
In fact, this analytical and methodological approach is valued precisely because of how artificial it is. “The method highlights if the candidate has been doing their ‘personal development homework’ that most people neglect,” Nuno says.
He gives an example from his own background. “In trading,” he explains, “the process of articulating your methods helps to bring your knowledge from the unconscious to the conscious and have a framework to test against real data, as opposed to abstract ideas that mean little in real scenarios.”
So, how do you do it? Let’s break it down.
Frame your story in a location. "Years ago, when I was backpacking across western Europe…” is (unironically) a good example of this – set the scene, give a vivid picture, and move the story onto its purpose. You don’t need more than one good sentence to do this.
Now you introduce your problem. Obviously, you’re not going to lie, and there’s no need to overstate your importance. You did not have to suddenly take over the CEO’s desk and save the world from Dr. Evil, but maybe you did have to, e.g., complete 8 hours of work in 4 hours – and that’s something to be proud of if you did.
Now you explain what you did to succeed in your task. This is the meat of the sandwich – and you should go into detail. You can write on your CV that you’ve achieved something, but the purpose of telling a story in an interview is to explain how you did it.
Don’t make vague statements about work effort, but make clear (and ideally, quantifiable) statements (e.g., I negotiated an extension to our deadline with a client by promising XYZ).
Keep the focus on yourself, too. If your team accomplished something, explain your part of that accomplishment – that’s all the hiring manager is interested in.
The good part – and the purpose of you telling your story. Your deadline negotiation achieved a happy client and saved the bank from something embarrassing. Client happy, team happy, boss happy, Presidential Medal of Freedom pending.
Explain what you learned, too, and show that you can critically analyze both a situation and your reaction to it. Your results are impressive – but so is your ability to self-reflect and, hopefully, improve your work processes.
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