Competency-based Interview Questions: how to approach them

By: Darren Wrigley

Competency-based interview questions are carefully designed to test one or more specific skills, such as independence, decisiveness, risk taking and negotiating. These interviews tend to run according to a script and can even be written by psychologists so that your answers will be suitably revealing and give true insight into your capabilities.

Anyone can claim to have strong negotiating skills, but adding substance to such a statement can be more of a challenge and you’ll need to think about your behaviour and actions in specific situations. In a competency-based interview you have to quite literally prove what you say. Answers are then marked according to a pre-determined set of criteria to provide a very objective assessment of a candidate.

This is a very different set up to a more informal interview, where questions are very open and you can talk more conversationally. This type of interview gives a general impression of you as a person and allows the interviewer to form a subjective opinion of you i.e. they will or won’t like you, they may or may not think you’ll fit into the company culture.

Never go to the interview unprepared

The key is plenty of thinking and preparation beforehand, you really don’t want to leave too much to chance on the day itself. And always remember that simply knowing the theory of how to deal with certain situations will not be enough to get you through the interview – it won’t show that you have the appropriate skills and there will be little chance of scoring highly if you can’t provide strong, hard evidence.

Be aware of which skills and competencies are to be tested. Go through the job description and person specification you’ve been provided – and do it with a fine-tooth comb. Some competencies may be clearly indicated, others may require a little more analysis of the information.

Then think about all the experience you’ve gained to date and what specific examples you might be able to use to demonstrate those skills and competencies. You won’t be expected to regale the interviewing panel with lots of really impressive stories, so don’t feel that you have to ‘big up’ your experiences – what’s important is that you clearly demonstrate that the role you played was integral and significant to the outcome.

Use the STAR technique to really shine!

Using the STAR technique is a widely recognised approach to competency-based interview questions, so practice how you can apply it to any of your work experiences:

  • Situation

Put into context the situation you are going to discuss. Keep it clear and concise and don’t go off on tangents.

  • Task

Explain what you had to do as a result of the situation.

  • Action

Having explained the context, you need to give the details of what you did, ensuring that you keep the focus on your contribution to the situation. Make clear what you did, how you did it and why you did it – this is where you have the most opportunity to prove your skills. Try to include the reasons why you took a particular course of action, so that the interviewers get a good understanding of your thought process and your ability to be in control.

  • Result

Explain what happened as a result of your actions and make sure that the result is a specific objective not just something that happened by chance or good luck. It’s also useful to clarify what you learnt in that particular situation and what you achieved – this may even go some way to making the interviewers aware of other skills you possess.

The STAR approach provides a great structure to answer questions comprehensively. But always keep in mind that your answer must be crafted around the skill or competency the interviewers are looking for. You are selling yourself at all times.

Take a look at our job search Resources section for more tips on how to handle other types of interviewing techniques that you may encounter, including bizarre or difficult job interview questions.

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