Main image of article How to Optimize Your Answers to Tech Job Interview Questions

If you’re currently interviewing for a new job, it always pays to rehearse your potential answers ahead of time. You want to answer any question in a clear, concise way—if you ramble, your interviewer might think you have problems with organizing your thoughts.

But how should you actually structure your answers, especially complicated ones? Fortunately, there are a number of established formats. Let’s dig into your options for structuring your answers to interview questions.

Interview Answer Formats

Here are some examples of popular frameworks for structuring responses to various types of questions during an interview:

STAR: STAR (Situation, Task, Action, and Result) asks users to frame the situation and then talk about their actions to handle it (along with the result).

STARL: Basically identical to STAR, with one additional, final step: Learning/Retrospective. What lessons did you take from the situation and your role in it?

SOAR: SOAR (Situation, Obstacle, Action, Results) is another way to structure your responses; like STAR, it has you break down the situation and context before describing how you solved it.

PAR: PAR (Project, Action, Results) is a more stripped-down version of STAR, eliminating ‘Task’ and focusing more on your action and results.  

DIGS: This one breaks down as follows: Dramatize the situation, Indicate the alternatives, Go through what you did, Summarize your impact. This answering methodology is an opportunity to tell exciting stories of how you overcame previous challenges and handled big projects.

UMPIRE interview strategy: This is a lengthier, more involved strategy: Understand, Match, Plan, Implement, Review, and Evaluate. You can use it to describe how you understood a problem, matched it to previous (solved) problems, planned and implemented a solution, and then reviewed and evaluated the results. If you’re applying for a job solving complicated problems or building nuanced products, UMPIRE can help you describe your previous experiences in a way that will resonate with an interviewer.

To help you evaluate your options, let’s dig into how you’d utilize these popular formats in the context of a tech job interview, along with some tips and suggested modifications for effective use.

Answering Common Interview Questions

Many interviewers begin by asking general, open-ended questions that are designed to assess your level of interest and knowledge about the company and role. Your answers also help the interviewer understand your personality, work style and cultural fit.

The rule of three is a powerful communication tool that can help you to organize and structure your thoughts to these types of questions, according to expert interview coach Barry Drexler.

Responses bundled in threes create a pattern that is concise, thoughtful and easy to remember. Therefore, it’s the best way to respond to questions that ask you to explain “why” or to justify a position or choice (such as the qualities you look for in a manager), noted Lewis Lin, CEO of Impact Interview.

Here are some sample responses to common interview questions using the rule of three:

Question: “Tell me about yourself.”
Talk about your experience first, technical skills second, and personality third, because it mirrors the priority of the requirements in most competency-based job descriptions. Plus, since personality is paramount, you want that to be your closing thought, Drexler noted.

Question: “Why do you want to work here?”
Describe three things you know about the company, followed by why they are important to you.

Question: “Describe the environment in which you work best.”
You could say something like: “My ideal work environment is one that supports creativity, a fail fast mentality and a collaborative team environment. Based on what I’ve learned, I can look forward to those cultural elements here and here’s the three reasons why they’re important to me.” Follow that up with more detail.

How to Handle Behavioral/Situational Questions

Situational questions explore hypothetical situations and how you would react, while behavioral questions explore specific situations you’ve actually encountered and how you’ve approached or resolved them.

Although the STAR methodology (which, again, stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result) is a popular way to organize an answer to these types of questions, it also has some shortcomings, suggests Ben Tobin, certified tech industry career coach.

First, the STAR encourages people to people spend too much time on the situation and not enough on the solution. Plus, the idea of being “tasked” with something may not be appropriate for professionals pursing senior and/or leadership positions.

“It implies that you need direction,” Tobin warned.

For that reason, he prefers the SOAR format (which stands for Situation, Obstacle, Action, Result) or the more succinct PAR (which stands for Problem, Action, Results) or CAR (which stands for Circumstances, Action, Results), augmented by an “L” for lessons learned.

You can set yourself apart by explaining what you learned and showing that you’re not someone who is prone to repeating the same mistakes.

Another option for tackling behavioral interview questions is the DIGS method, a framework created by Lin. He says DIGS (which stands for Dramatize the situation, Indicate the alternatives, Go through what you did and Summarize your impact) helps you create a compelling story and seem likeable, a critical differentiator.

Entertaining stories usually have a dramatic dilemma, details and impact. Adding these story-telling elements to your answer will put the listener on the edge of their seat.

“Start from the message,” advised Gayle Laakmann McDowell, hiring consultant and author of  “Cracking the * Interview/Career” series. “Figure out what you want the interviewer to know about you and come up with stories or problems that illustrate those points.”

Also, describing the alternative solutions you considered, along with the pros and cons, makes you seem like an adept problem-solver who is thoughtful and creative. Again, consider posing three other alternatives to make the listener feel informed but not overwhelmed.

Tackling the Technical Questions

While the UMPIRE methodology is a popular method for solving technical problems in an interview, Laakmann McDowell recommends making some modifications to demonstrate superior problem-solving skills, which is more important than the solution you come up with.

Step 1: Understand and analyze the problem

Ask clarifying questions to make sure you’re solving the right problem. Resist the urge to start coding right away.

Step 2: Iterate

Keep offering solutions and making improvements until you find a solution that works.

Step 3: State the run time

Talk about your solution’s run time and cycle time with the evaluator. Making improvements at this stage will help you avoid rework and demonstrate the ability to anticipate and consider critical outcomes when working on a coding task.

Step 4: Validate your solution

Confirm that the interviewer actually wants you to code the solution you’ve proposed.

Step 5: Write the code

Create well-structured, modular code using a top-down approach.

Step 6: Test and improve the code

Finally, remember to ask questions and collaborate with the evaluator as you work through the steps. Employing this approach will showcase your communication and teamwork skills and help turn the interview into more of a discussion. By structuring your answers, you can show that you’re an analytical tech pro who considers all the angles—which will help you stand out from other candidates.