Most times people get confused about how to start answering essay questions. The best and easiest approach in structuring your answers to essay questions is the STAR approach. With the STAR approach, you need to set the context. Make it concise and informative, concentrating solely on what is useful to the story.


The STAR (Situation, Task, Actions, and Result)

Situation: ( How/What, when, where, with whom?)

Ask yourself this question: what the situation was, when did it take place, where did it take place and with whom did it take place.

Explain the situation that you were in by providing some brief details about the situation you were in when you used your competencies so that the reader can understand the context of the example. This should be a short description, it could be: ‘during my degree in University of Jos’, ‘whilst working as a volunteer with a civil society in Abuja’, or whilst I was working in a school in Abuja, etc

Task(what task was it, and what was the objective?)

Describe the situation or the task you were faced with.

outline what your objective or purpose was during that situation, again, to put your answer into context. You need to briefly explain what you did and how you met the criteria for success. If you were working in a group, explain the overall group task but focus on your own role.

For Example, as a volunteer with civil society in Abuja, I was giving the role to lead a team of 10. My team was asked to come up with ways to solve a community problem. As a team lead, it is my responsibility to make sure we achieve the objective.


What action did YOU take?

This is the most substantial part (around 50-70%) of any example and you need to include:

  • What you did.
  • Why you did it.
  • How you did it.
  • Which skills you used.



What results did you achieve /

conclusions did you reach/ what did you

learn from the experience?


Example of a STAR Approach in answering essay questions

Situation:  whilst studying at University of Jos, Nigeria. I was selected by my Course supervisor to be a Course Representative.

Task: I was responsible for gathering feedback from students to pass on to course staff in a timely and appropriate manner.

Action: After a few months, I had emailed students on my course several times asking for feedback but had received no responses. I needed to find a way to effectively gather feedback from students. I set up a Facebook group for my course and invited everyone to join. To make sure that everyone knew about it, I asked one of my lecturers if I could have 5 minutes in a lecture to speak to students and I stood at the front and told them about the group. I posted questions about the course in the group and asked students to post their replies. I also left a suggestion box at the helpdesk in our building so that students could submit anonymous comments. I emptied the suggestion box each week and collated the feedback.

Results: Using the Facebook group and suggestion box, I received over 50 comments from students, which I was able to collate and feedback to staff. I learned that broadening my communication channels and actively seeking new ways of working was the best way to interact with my fellow peers. On reflection, this experience has changed how I approach tasks like this


Always remember this rule also

  • Be specific and concrete. Avoid abstractions and generalizations; use concrete details whenever possible. Rather than saying you are excited by policy issues, discuss a particular policy issue that interests you. Instead of saying that you are motivated, describe an instance that demonstrates your motivation.
  • Keep your audience in mind. Most fellowship selection committees are comprised of well-educated generalists. Do not make your project proposal so field-specific that readers from different disciplines will have difficulty understanding–and thus caring about– your work.  Avoid disciplinary jargon whenever possible.
  • Revise, revise, revise. Never be satisfied with the first version of any part of your essay. Reject a vague word for a more precise one; substitute a strong verb for the weak one you thought of first; choose one precise adjective rather than a list of three. Vary your sentence structure. Look at each of your sentences and explain why it begins and ends where it does. Excellent writers revise their work extensively; the fruit of their labor is clear, fluid prose that sends a compelling message.

Proofread. Even if you feel that you have your essay memorized, read it over carefully before turning in the final copy. Proofreading on a computer screen is less effective than reading a printed copy. Try different proofreading techniques such as reading the essay from the bottom up or reading it aloud. When you think it’s perfect, ask someone else who edits well to read your essay. You do not want to be the Rhodes candidate who is eliminated from consideration because of a typo in your essay’s first paragraph.


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