Stand Out in an Architecture Job Interview with The STAR Portfolio

Sara Mandeed
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Looking for an architecture job?

Landscape architecture is another career to consider.

Both fields require education, experience, and creativity … but aren’t architecture interviews notoriously difficult?

Yes, they can be.

Nonetheless, they’re important.

Why?

Because, in architecture, you can’t achieve your vision if you don’t have a job.

To have a job, you have to get an interview.

To get an architecture interview, you need a portfolio and/or resume that stands out among the competition.

This is where the Stage Portfolio can help.

While the STAR Portfolio is a traditional design portfolio format, it develops an entirely different mindset in the interviewee.

The format takes a bit longer than a standard portfolio because each candidate gives the interviewer a 10-slide context lead, followed by a page for each slide, followed by the 5-slide solution leads.

But in addition to creating the kind of presentation that most folks are unaccustomed to, this format is an exercise in self-awareness, communication mastery, and confident fluid storytelling.

In other words, it’s a powerful tool for getting an architecture job interview.

Applying to architecture graduate school?

While many architecture schools take one portfolio containing all of the information about your design work, there is a portfolio option for those schools that request a specific format from applicants. This format is the Candidate Statement and Attributes of Record (C-SAR) Star format.

That’s where the STAR Portfolio comes in. The acronym STAR was created by Richard Boler, author of A Guide to Portfolio Preparation for Graduate Study in Architecture. The guide presents the best practices for preparing a portfolio to apply to architecture graduate school.

The acronym STAR stands for:

  • S = strategies – design solutions that specifically respond to a problem
  • T = techniques – the use of materials and elements to solve a problem
  • A = analysis – an evaluation of information to develop the design solution
  • R = references – people or organizations you worked with as part of a team

You need to include at least one project in your portfolio that fits each category.

What is a STAR Portfolio?

When it comes to your resume, skills and experience will always be the first priorities for reviewers, but the details go far beyond that. “STAR” is an acronym for Situation, Task, Action, Results: a mnemonic device to remember the key points to make the most out of your interview.

STAR portfolio examples are so popular that they have their own dedicated templates. Because each type of job has different factors, there are numerous STAR portfolio sample resume templates. Find one that best corresponds to your demands and you’ve got your foot in the door.

The STAR portfolio focuses on relevant details of your skillset that could be tied to your workplace performance and your past experiences. Even if you’re having difficulty with certain STAR portfolio examples, it’s important to practice your elevator pitch to be armed for any possible interview questions.

What do I talk about?

Imagine you are sitting in front of an interviewer. You have been given an hour to talk about your career history, your choice of school, your passion for architecture and why you want to get into the field. Now, you are expected to explain your interests and accomplishments with clarity, precision, and emphasis on the parts you believe to be most important.

An hour is a lot of time. But it really does not seem like enough time. There is so much you want to say. As you start talking, you realize that you are talking too quickly. You keep talking and talking, but have not covered everything that you wanted to say. But you have run out of time. The interviewer has to leave. You wonder if you said anything important.

Have you figured it out yet?

You are expected to talk about your passions. You are expected to talk about your career decisions. You are expected to talk about your commitment to the field of architecture. In order to prepare for this kind of interview, you need something to guide you. You need a framework to help you think through your responses. You need a tool to help you condense all of your answers into a story. You need a way to measure your progress and organize your thoughts.

So why go through all of this extra effort on top of the portfolio you have already spent hours developing?

The STAR portfolio is about applying a successful framework or structure to your work. The four steps serve as a framework to structure your work and exhibit your best design work while demonstrating your job-winning competencies and skills.

The STAR portfolio has helped countless students to land the job they want, and it will help you too.

So, let’s look at the four steps of the STAR portfolio. The first step is a brief description of the project. This is a great place to reiterate any successful outcomes in a few sentences. Briefly describe what the project was about, who the clients are, who the stakeholders (the people with an interest in the completed project) are, and where the project is located.

The next step of the portfolio is an analysis that explains why the project was taken on in the first place. This is your analysis section, so here is where you discuss the business problem, the goals, and the business drivers. The decision-maker is on a time budget, so explain why this project was taken on and why you were chosen to execute it.

The third step is your analysis section, and it is based on the project’s outcome. Did you accomplish the goals set when the project was started? If so, how? If not, what happened? You need to provide hard evidence of successful results to prove that you did what was asked of you.

Helps you stand out from the crowd

It’s no secret that good architecture firms are looking for practicing architects to join them. This means that the pool of applicants for an architecture job is the same as the pool of current practicing architects. So how do you stand out from the crowd and land that job?

Well, a good portfolio helps you create your own unique brand. It’s fundamental to your success in architecture as a job interview tool.‚

In an interview, people want to see that you’re not just similar to other architects with similar portfolios; you’re special. You’re different.

That’s where the STAR architecture portfolio comes in.

The STAR architecture portfolio gives you a way to stand out and show off what makes you truly distinct as an architect.

The STAR portfolio encompasses your work stories and your purpose for building architecture.

Your work stories are your experiences. The good, the bad, and the challenge. Your purpose for building architecture is what drives you and defines you as an architect.

My simple interview preparation process for becoming successful at landing your next architecture job starts with the STAR architecture portfolio. Here’s how I go about developing my own STAR portfolio and how you can do it too.

Shows you understand the role

Puts you on offense

A design portfolio is the most critical document for the modern architect. It is the only tool that can demonstrate your ability to design as an architect to a prospective employer. To put it bluntly, if you don’t have a good portfolio, you can’t get a great architecture job.

A poorly organized or sparsely populated design portfolio is a dead document. You have nothing to show, and that means you have nothing to design with. The result is that you will get passed over for jobs that are more promising or simply just more interesting to you.

Your portfolio needs to give you credibility and an edge at your architecture job interview. The design portfolio is a tool for you to stand out from the competition and demonstrate that you can perform at the job.

If you have strong design fundamentals but a weak portfolio, you can demonstrate depth in your design skills by investing heavily in your portfolio. Focus on collecting thorough documentation of your design and critical design decisions.

A design portfolio is a wonderful opportunity for an architect to demonstrate her design and analytical skills, creativity, passion for the field, and understanding of the profession. The stronger a personal design portfolio is, the greater the chance you have of getting a job in architecture. It’s that straightforward.

Shows your delegation and organization skills

Here is a hypothetical project with STAR principle applied:

The design problem you have been asked to solve is to create an office space on the 12th floor of your firm’s building. It’s typically an internal design and construction opportunity for aspiring architects to get some experience in the industry.

From the moment they agree to participate in the competitive interview, most candidates have to start looking for information and material to prepare a design.

That’s why they usually come to the interview with a lot of visual elements.

As you do your research to come up with a design for a 12th-floor space, you’re already thinking about communicating the concept of a 12th-floor office.

It’s not usually a space that most of them would have gone to in the past or in their own building. It’s a separation from everything else in the building … a separation between the 1st and 2nd floors, and a separation from their parent organization on the 8th floor.

You made the decision to bring people together instead of making it invisible.

You decided to make it a space where internal teams can meet and collaborate with external partners. In the middle, you have a video wall that would broadcast messages and encourage meeting.

Situation

The STAR method is the foundation of a successful project portfolio. This method is recommended by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). To help job seekers write a resume that really shines, NACE has come up with a powerful tool called the, “STAR Portfolio.” This one-page document should help you win interviews.

When you apply for a job, you’re trying to convince your potential employer to accept you, even though you don’t know the specifics of the job. Using the STAR method is a good way to help employers notice a few concrete accomplishments they can look for.

Situation: What Are Your Context and Challenge?

Describe the situation that presented itself to you.

What were you faced with? How did the situation make you feel?

Evaluate: What are Your Options?

What was the major issue that you faced? What possible solutions did you look at?

What factors did you find to be important in resolving the problem?

Relevance: What Did You Do That Led to a Great Result?

What did you do that helped resolve the problem?

Task

Or Task-Based Interview.

The easiest way to stand out in a job interview is to prepare ahead of time. It’s okay not to have all of the answers, but you must have a way to respond to the tough questions that are guaranteed to come your way.

Just like an athlete, you need to come into the interview prepared to deliver a well-rehearsed performance. This is where your portfolio comes into play.

The STAR method provides an effective structure in which you can organize your thoughts and ideas around your goals. It’s a portfolio tool that I use often with my clients, whether they are interviewing for an architecture job or one in any other industry.

The STAR method, created by behavioral consultant Paul Falcone, stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result. It is a four-section framework that you use to answer any question a hiring manager may pose.

The STAR method enables you to organize your answers by providing a natural structure and sequence when you respond to questions. It allows you to focus on your own strengths, while it enables you to state your accomplishments confidently and succinctly.

Action

A good portfolio is not just a collection of work that you have done. It is about your accomplishments.

Keep work from the last 20 years at a minimum. Avoid including everything you have done

Seize the Opportunity to Highlight Specific Pieces that Are Relevant to the Field You Are Targeting

If you have done work which matches a job target: great! Show off that work!

If you know of other examples, but you don’t have any examples, don’t let that stop you! Find an example that you can relate it to and write about it

Result

Have you ever been on vacation or to a party and people ask what you do? And as soon as you say you’re a designer, they immediately imagine you’re some sort of artist meticulously carving out a miniature sculpture by hand with your chisels.

Of course, some designers are more on the creative side, but as an architect, you will be more of a problem solver than a dreamer. Telling people that you’re a designer immediately makes them think you’re creating something, rather than using your brain to problem solve.

The STAR portfolio (or the Structured Thematic Approach Portfolio) is a structured process that shows how you solve problems. Create a portfolio of work that showcases how you took a problem, broke it into component pieces, and solved it using your design skills. You can add as many steps to this process as you’d like, but here’s what the STAR portfolio should look like:

S = Situation or Challenge

The problem, concern, or need that needed to be solved.

T = Task Description

A clear explanation of the goals, techniques, and concepts that were involved in the project.