Is the STAR model the only way to structure responses?

While many organisations suggest the STAR model as a useful way to structure responses to selection criteria, it is not the only model that could be used. It is also not appropriate for some criteria.

In deciding how to structure your responses to selection criteria, there are three questions to consider. Some of the examples illustrating these models are drawn from How to Write and Talk to Selection Criteria.

1. Is there a word limit?

This question may not seem like it is relevant to how you structure responses. It is worth considering however, because while a criterion might suggest a particular format, the word limit may be prohibitive. A more prudent choice may be needed in order to respond effectively and stay within the word limits.

For example, one of the longer formats mentioned below is the three-part format. Some word limits may not provide sufficient scope to use this format.

2. What instructions are provided about how to respond?

Often organisations will provide instructions to applicants about how to respond to criteria. Typically, applicants are invited to provide examples to back their claims. Even if such wording is not present, it is wise to apply this approach wherever possible.

Many organisations recommend using the STAR model for responding:

S = situation, details of the context of the experience

T = task, what was your role, what task were you assigned or trying to complete

A = actions, what did you do in response to this situation

R = result, what was the result that flowed from your actions.

This is not the only structure you can use. Being aware of your options gives you greater flexibility when responding.

3. What type of criterion is this?

Criteria come in a range of forms, each pointing to a way to format a response.

3.1 Application Questions

Some government agencies provide criteria with explicit instructions about what content to include in an example. For example the former Department of Health and Ageing provided these application questions for an APS 2, Departmental Officer role, with a 500 words limit:

Describe a situation that required you to deliver services to a customer or a similar situation. Describe what you did to ensure you met their needs and how you developed your skills in this area.

In this type of criterion the questions asked provide the structure to your response.

3.2 Job specific criteria – Demonstrated

Criteria may start with words like ‘demonstrated’ or ‘proven’. For example:

  • Demonstrated ability to manage a team.
  • Proven ability to build relationships with clients.

In order to demonstrate or prove that you have the skills you need to give examples drawn from your experience. The STAR model is one model to use. Other similar models could also be used, such as:

  • CAR: Circumstance, Action, Result
  •  SAR: Situation, Action, Result
  • SAO: Situation, Action, Outcome.

Let’s take the criterion Demonstrated problem-solving skills to illustrate what a SAR story structure looks like in practice. I have inserted in brackets where each part starts. You would not include these words in your actual response.

‘[situation] I demonstrated my problem-solving skills during a recent meeting. I attended a branch planning meeting to revise the corporate plan and identify goals for the coming year. After a heated debate about priorities staff became bogged down in implementation detail, section silos resurfaced, and blinkered thinking presented barriers to resolving the discussion. While I was not facilitating this discussion, as a manager I could see that we weren’t going to reach an outcome if the current state of play continued.

[actions] To break through this deadlock I suggested three lines of action. First, that we all take a refreshment break, leave the room, mix and mingle and have time out. Second, that we revisit our goals for the session to get us re-focused on the big picture. Third, we have a timed discussion about section concerns that were unresolved. The meeting agreed to these steps and to the facilitator leading the discussions under accepted ground rules.

[results] The break provided the opportunity to shift focus and renew energy levels. Revisiting the goals resulted in shifting the perspective back to the big picture with reassurances that implementation detail would receive structured attention. The discussion of concerns, while painful at times, resulted in a breakthrough in understanding between sections that contributed to improved cooperation. The outcomes of this meeting were fully met, with goals that had 100 per cent support. My manager later thanked me for my contribution, which she described as “critical to the success of the meeting”.’

Two other models for structuring a response are the three-part model and the list model.

Three-part model

Part 1: General statement about the criterion.

This is a short paragraph that makes a broad statement about meeting the criterion. Make sure you use the language of the criterion so that the reader knows you are talking about the right skill set.

Part 2: Specific example/s to support the criterion.

The examples are specific instances of applying research and analytical skills. They can be structured using the SAR or STAR model.

Part 3: Link to job in hand. (optional)

If there is a gap between the examples provided and the work to be done in the new job, you may wish to close with a short statement that signals the transferability of your skills to the new job.

Let’s take each of these parts and explore how they look in practice. I will use the criterion Well developed analytical and research skills to illustrate the parts. The context of the job is a strategic Human Resources unit. Note that you would not include the headings in an actual response.

Part 1: General statement about the criterion.

‘My well developed analytical and research skills have been demonstrated during five years working as an academic research assistant and in implementing a government grants program. In both roles I researched and analysed information about complex social issues including homelessness, obesity and literacy problems.’

Part 2: Specific example/s to support the criterion.

‘While Project Officer for the Community Grants Program, I researched and analysed options for a consultative process with community groups. My role was to prepare an executive briefing paper which identified options and recommended a course of action.

I reviewed eight consultative processes used by various government agencies, three recommended by private consultants, and completed a literature review covering the last 10 years. Using a set of criteria I established based on this material, I summarised the processes, selected four that best met the Community Grants Program needs, evaluated them based on the criteria and recommended one. My recommendation was accepted by the executive, with commendations on the quality of the briefing paper. I am now developing a strategy for introducing this option into the program.’

Part 3: Link to job context.

‘I anticipate that these research and analysis skills will readily transfer to researching and analysing strategic HR issues such as staff engagement, talent management and workplace planning.’

Dot point response

Suppose the selection criterion is: Extensive management experience working with information technology teams. One way to respond to this criterion is to use a list of concrete examples. Note that this list gives quantitative information about the scope of experience. It doesn’t say much about the quality of management provided nor the results delivered.

‘My extensive management experience is demonstrated by:

  • current position as Assistant Manager, Resource Management Branch, Department of Public Works, responsible for 85 staff across three sub-programs; reorganised branch to achieve 10 per cent increase in annual revenue and cost savings of five per cent; completed a major program review on time and within budget with 90 per cent of recommendations adopted by executive
  • three years as manager, IT Services, Department of Public Works, responsible for a team of 10 staff, including budgeting and business planning, with an annual turnover of $1.5m
  • four years as project officer, Specialised IT Services, Progress Inc., supervising five staff developing specialised IT services and products for small businesses. Budget of $0.75m.’

3.3 Job-specific criteria – Ability to

Some criteria start with words like ‘ability to’. Here the applicant needs to show that they have the ability to perform the skill even if they haven’t already done so. A stronger response will be one that ‘demonstrates’ your ability, so use the STAR model if you can for these criteria.

3.4 Job-specific criteria – knowledge

Some criteria focus on knowledge, understanding, or qualifications. For example:

  • Demonstrated knowledge of the parliamentary environment or the ability to quickly acquire a knowledge of the parliamentary environment.
  • Understanding of social media and its use in a government environment.
  • Qualifications in marketing, communications or journalism.

For these criteria the STAR model is less useful. If you need to demonstrate your understanding of a policy, then it may be appropriate to use an example to show how you have applied your understanding to achieve a result.

This can be the case with criteria related to workplace practices. Take the criterion: Capacity to implement workplace diversity principles and practices, and participative, safe and healthy work practices.

‘My knowledge of these principles and practices has been gained by attendance at an induction program and a one-day planning session to develop the department’s workplace diversity program.

This knowledge has been supplemented by training to support my role as a sexual harassment contact officer.

My capacity to implement these principles and practices is demonstrated by:

  • fulfilling the role as a sexual harassment contact officer. In this role I have handled five cases from initial inquiry to formal complaint resulting in procedural changes, mediated outcomes, and improved manager training
  • implementing a professional development program to build confidence and skills in participating in team decision-making
  • representing staff on an accommodation working party
  • establishing a team-based approach to accommodate different family responsibilities, ensuring that family-friendly practices are used by staff.’

Note that this response covers how the knowledge was gained and a dot-point list of examples demonstrating the application of the knowledge.

3.5 Capability-based criteria

Many government agencies use capability frameworks as the basis for recruiting staff. The Australian Public Service uses The Integrated Leadership System. Other jurisdictions at state and territory level have adapted this framework or developed their own.

The criteria will be of a generic nature and may come with sub-points. An example of the former is: Achieves results. An example of the latter is:

Achieves results:

  • Identifies and uses resources wisely
  • Applies and uses professional expertise
  • Responds positively to change
  • Takes responsibility for managing work projects to results

Often instructions to applicants will indicate that the dot points do not have to be addressed separately.

To demonstrate these skills you still need to use examples which can be structured using any of the above models: STAR, SAR, CAR.

By asking yourself these three questions and considering the structure options you can choose the best way to respond to each criterion.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.