You Can’t Prepare for Every Interview Question!

I have been working with many doctoral candidates who are preparing for interviews in academia or other areas of higher education, and for roles within business, government, and non-profits. While the positions and employers are very different, the candidates almost always make the same decision, to rehearse and recite individual answers to a long list of individual questions, as in dozens and dozens of questions! While you definitely want to have a good idea about the broad categories of questions that you might be asked, that is different from rehearsing and reciting responses.

Why is rehearsing and reciting responses to individual questions less than optimal?

As the one being interviewed you have no control over the questions that you are asked, and the interviewer might not even ask half of the questions for which you prepared.  The interviewer isn’t looking to hear rehearsed responses and recitations, but seeks to learn about your skills, knowledge, experience, training, strengths, etc. through examples and narratives that you can share. You have lived the examples!

So what do you need to prepare?


Examples are memorable and relatable.

When a hiring committee is discussing candidates it is common to hear things like, “Do you remember candidate ‘X’, they had that great example of how they collaborated by doing A and C.” or “Candidate ‘A’ gave that really great example of how they developed a novel approach to determine…” This is memorable and relatable in action!

Preparing Examples

There are lots of different ways to prepare examples and the approach (or approaches) you take might depend a bit on how you like to map things out. Are you more of a make a list type of person or do you like to use diagrams? Does it come naturally to you to tell stories or do you value incorporating a few prompts to remember what you seek to share? I use a hybrid approach that incorporates diagrams and prompts. I’ll next share what that looks like.

Let’s say a job applicant knows they could be asked to respond to any of the following questions or prompts:

  1. Tell me about your strengths.
  2. What are your strengths?
  3. How would a past supervisor describe your strengths?
  4. Give me an example of one of your strengths.
  5. What are you good at?
  6. What is your greatest strength?
  7. What are your top three strengths?
  8. What strengths can you contribute to this role?

The prompts and questions noted above are each focused on learning about the candidate’s strengths. You can almost be certain that during some part of an interview you will be asked about your strengths. So instead of memorizing the various questions and your responses for each, recognize that you need to have some examples of your strengths to share. If you have examples then you will be prepared to answer any version of a “What are your strengths?” type of question.

Here’s what a map of examples might look like to prepare to answer questions related to strengths:

In the example, the individual is focusing on the strength of “collaboration”. After mapping out a few examples, and you can do this in as much detail as you desire, it is recommended to continue to prepare by talking about the examples out loud – not in one’s head – truly out loud.

During an actual interview you don’t get to answer questions in your head, but rather have to produce your answers out loud, so it makes a lot of sense to prepare in the same way that you need to convey your responses during the interview.

Your map (or list) of examples can be used as a reference when preparing for interviews. Think of it like a study tool. The goal is not to be able to recite the same example, word for word, every time, but rather to get comfortable talking about each of the various examples.


If you seek a framework to organize how you share your examples you might find that the STARR method is easily adapted to all sorts of questions.

Let’s say the candidate was asked one of the 8 strengths-related questions noted earlier in this post. Any of the examples from the map, with some slight modifications, framed in the STARR approach, could provide a solid response. The strength featured in the example is “collaboration”, but the examples could be expanded to discuss additional strengths and skills.

An Example In Action 

The STARR method has five components to include as you share your example. In the first component, you will want to give a brief explanation of the situation or scenario. In the second component identify the task. In the third component show the action(s) you have taken. In the fourth component, you can include any results or outcomes, and in the fifth and final component you can relate it all back, when possible, to the position for which you are being interviewed.

In my current role, I work as a …..with significant responsibility to …..
(This is the Situation being described)
I am relied upon to collaborate with a team from the so and so department to increase…. (This is the Task being described)

I have been the one to initiate “X” and “Y” because I have the greatest ability to bridge …and advocate for ….

I developed these two skills from my previous work as a mediator, and being part of a team focused on …..

(This is the Action being described with the additional mentioning of skills)

This collaboration has meant that we now have effective communication leading to….


(This is the Result being described)
I can see my ability to collaborate being useful to the part of this position where I would be engaging with others to… (This is Relating back to the position for which the candidate is interviewing.)


In reading through the STARR example you might experience the clarity that this framework can provide. It is only one approach of many, but a good one to consider as you shape the narratives and examples you seek to share. Focus on gathering your examples and developing your narratives around them, because it is through doing so that the interviewers will be able to visualize you doing the job. You will be both a memorable and relatable candidate.

By Kay Kimball Gruder
Kay Kimball Gruder Assistant Director of Graduate Student Career Programs and Services Kay Kimball Gruder