Five Steps to Nailing an Interview after Returning to Civilian Life

By Sarah Landrum

The adjustment from military life isn’t always easy. For all the training received, there are some gaps in learning that need to be filled when re-entering the civilian world. Perhaps most important is the need to be a strong interviewee in order to land a dream job.

Behavioral-based interview questions are common as interviewers want to get a feel for how you will actually handle situations in the workplace. Hypotheticals are thrown out the window for these questions; employers only want to hear about real experiences. Some of these types of questions might go along the lines of: “Explain how you once worked under pressure” or “tell us about a mistake you made and how you handled it.”

A military background is an asset for questions like this, but in the midst of an interview it’s easy to omit key details or tell things out of order. It’s also often hard to relate certain experiences, like those gained in the military, to the job description. Most experts recommend using the STAR method to answer these behavioral-based questions. The steps of Situation, Task, Action and Result provide a detailed answer. However, I have found that there is something missing from this approach. Specifically, the STAR method does not give the interviewee a chance to explain the scenario, what they learned, and how it is relevant.

As such, I have added an extra step to my own STARR approach: Reflection. Reflecting on your experience ensures that a cohesive answer is given and shows the interviewer that you are capable of critical thinking. And, in many cases, it saves the interviewer from having to ask – which is something they love. (Or so I’ve been told in many interviews where I’ve used this approach.)

So, without further ado, here’s the STARR method outlined and put to use for the question: “Tell me about a time when you reacted under pressure.” To provide a real-life example the story of Stephen Sanford, an Iraq War veteran awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, is told.

This is the background of the story. Explain where you were and whom you were with. Set the scene so that the interviewer understands the context. Be specific when answering a behavioral-based question.

Sanford, a PFC in the Army, was on patrol in Iraq with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Unit when his company was attacked. Clearing the building the enemies were using was a dangerous task, and he was shot in the leg during the first assault.

With the background set up, explain what the objective was. Remember that the story you tell doesn’t have to be a large-scale mission but can instead be a small but important accomplishment. As long as it adequately explains your strengths, it’s worth telling.

During the firefight, several people were injured and pinned down in an insurgent safe house after Sanford was shot. In the heat of battle, Sanford decided to get his friends to safety despite his injury.

In this step, describe what was done to solve the task at hand. This is the time to shine after describing everything leading up to this moment.

Sanford went in and out of the building several times to evacuate the soldiers while laying down suppressing fire to fend off the enemies. An enemy sniper shot the final soldier leaving the house, and Sanford ran to his fallen friend to provide CPR. Sanford was shot several times during his rescue attempt. Sanford managed to kill the sniper before passing out due to blood loss.

The result is the opportunity to talk about the impact you made. Give specifics and use numbers whenever possible. If the result wasn’t entirely positive, state the negative outcome as well but try to illustrate how your actions mitigated the loss and improved the situation.

Sanford’s calmness under pressure saved several lives. His citation for the Distinguished Service Cross said that, “Private Sanford’s gallant deed was truly above and beyond the call of duty and is in keeping with the finest traditions of the military service.”

The final step is for reflection and to remark on what was learned, what worked or didn’t work well, and how this might relate to the job at hand.

Sanford humbly describes himself as one of the worst soldiers in the Army, as he made several bad calls before the battle. Despite all his gaffes beforehand, he was a great soldier when it truly mattered. He learned from his missteps and responded to unimaginable pressure to the best of his ability.

Sanford moved back to his family in Michigan and was hired as a reserve police officer. (Undoubtedly, he would have used this story if asked this question in his interview to become a police officer!) Sanford could reflect on the story during an interview to show his ability to think clearly under pressure and to make brave, smart decisions. In addition, he could add the more personal components of what he has learned and how it will help him in the police force.

The Interview
Interviews can be the cause of much stress, but take a step back and remember a couple of things. Many employers look for veterans to hire because they know that they’ll be able to handle just about anything. Do a little research and see which companies are looking for veterans; many companies proudly state their interest in those who have served in the military. If they share what they’re looking for from those with a military background, like in the example provided, be sure to think of examples ahead of time that would show how you’re a great fit.

Finally, don’t forget the STARR method. By remembering to describe the situation, task, action, result and reflection, the answer you give will likely be comprehensive and compelling. Employers are looking for concrete examples of your past work, and the STARR method ensures this is conveyed.

About the Author
Sarah Landrum is a freelance writer and the founder of Punched Clocks. Having grown up in a military family, Sarah is passionate about helping veterans reach their potential and realize their dreams. She shares advice on all aspects of the job search and career development on her career advice blog and on Twitter @SarahLandrum.

Find more tips and advice on how to Interview Like a Pro on Corporate Gray’s Online Transition Guide!


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