You may be used to a general interview format, where previous experience and qualifications are discussed, as the interviewer goes through your resume. A competency-based interview is much different, focused on testing for specific skills and traits that might predict your ability to be successful within the position.
The areas we'll cover in this guide include:
What is a Competency-Based Interview?
“A competency-based interviews allow the interviewer to find out if you have the right experience, expertise and cultural fit, one that matches the DNA and culture of the organisation. Conversely, it provides the applicant with the opportunity to demonstrate their skill, intellect and zeal for the role.” explains Joshua Ratilal, Group GM for Meetig8.
How to Prepare for Competency-Based Interviews
If you’ve never participated in a competency-based interview, here are five ways to prepare yourself ahead of time.
1. Expect Common Competency-Based Interview Questions
First and foremost, competency-based interview questions are usually open-ended with the goal of having the interviewee describe a relevant situation or experience. Questions will typically start with prompts like, ‘Tell me about a time when…’
As an applicant, you’re expected to elaborate on a specific scenario and ultimately relate your answers to why you’re a valuable and relevant candidate for the position. Matt Reaney, the Founder and CEO of Big Cloud Recruitment gives a few examples of common questions:
- Tell me how you’ve taken on leading a project.
- Describe a difficult situation you’ve encountered and how you solved it.
- Can you give an example of a time when you led a team?
- Describe a time you’ve had to deal with conflict and how you resolved it.
Questions about hypothetical scenarios may also arise where you have to demonstrate creativity and the ability to solve problems on the fly.
2. Do Your Research
While it may go without saying, once you’ve scheduled the interview, make sure you read and understand the entire job posting. “Ideally, the recruiter will stipulate in the job advertisement or pre-interview pack exactly what competencies they are looking for and what they will be assessing you on,” explains Sue Harding, Client Services Director at WSA.
However, this might not always be the case. Harding suggests, “If you are unsure then read through the job specification, the advert and any information and highlight keywords which relate to skills.” These are the skills that you want to prepare specific interview responses for.
Finally, research the company itself to get a sense of their culture, and any skills or traits that their organisation values. You want to market yourself as someone who has (and can continue to) demonstrate a skill set and demeanour to match the role and the company.
3. Brainstorm Anecdotes
After you have a comprehensive understanding of the company, the role and the skills needed to succeed, it’s time for preparation. Reaney advises to come up with anecdotes that you can pull from during the interview. “Prepare 5 to 10 short stories on the key types of questions you expect to be asked. Make sure they really get across the positive impact you’ve had in all situations, with positive business outcomes.”
Don’t worry if you’re a university student applying to your first job, or have minimal professional roles to discuss. Work with what you have and don’t exaggerate your answers. “Always speak from your own experience,” says Mo Khan, recruitment manager at CTRL Recruitment Group. “Even if you give examples from college or university, it’s important that you’re truthful; as with all competency-based interviews, they will ask you to expand on your examples.”
4. Use the STAR Technique
If you want to practice, whether it be a mock interview with a friend or mentally running through potential answers yourself, Reaney suggests using the STAR Technique. He explains how to use the acronym to stage your responses:
- Situation: Set the scene and context for the interviewer.
- Task: What was your challenge?
- Action: What did you do to overcome said challenge?
- Result: Highlight a positive outcome, drawing on how your action impacted it.
“Think of your past experiences, and how they would benefit the company you’re interviewing for,” says Reaney. “Not only transferable skills, but transferable actions — what positives can you bring to the role that you’ve exhibited before?”
5. Ask Your Own Questions
Another tried-and-true interview technique is to flip the table and interview the company representative at the end. “The interviewer will ask if you have any questions for them,” explains Chris Delaney, career coach and author of The 73 Rules for Influencing the Interview. “The answer should always be a solid ‘Yes’—ask about the working day, the team, development opportunities, company progression, new industry technology, ask anything!”
Not only do you want to uncover as much information as possible about the company itself, but this is another opportunity to show that you’ve done your research and that you’d like to learn more.
Any interview can be nerve-wracking, no matter the style. If you know that an interview will be competency-based, preparation is crucial for success; you can’t merely re-iterate your resume. Instead, research the role and the company to understand their ideal candidate. Prepare stories about yourself that demonstrate your unique selling points. With a little preparation and practice, you’ll nail the interview and maybe even land the job.
Top Competency-Based Interview Questions
Here are a few likely competency-based questions and example answers. The questions you are asked might not be worded exactly the same, but it's very likely you will be asked questions that fall into similar areas as these.
Common competency-based interview questions include:
Give an example of a time when your communication skills changed the outcome of a situation.
"I was brought into a team halfway through a project. Communication was poor and they had reached an impasse. I acted as mediator to identify common challenges and bring the team together again. Work progressed on schedule and we completed the project within budget."
Give an example of when you were asked to take on a task you had never faced before.
"Due to company restructuring, I was allocated new duties, including ... which I had not been asked to do before. I spoke to colleagues with similar responsibilities and looked at the work done by my predecessor, and was able to quickly get to grips with the task and produce what was needed on time."
Tell me about a time when you had to make a quick decision without all of the facts.
"I was an account manager in a customer-facing role. A high-value client complained about poor service [give specific example if appropriate]. Although I only had one side of the story, I was able to offer a small gesture of goodwill to retain their business, which was permitted as part of my role and prevented the situation from escalating to a bigger loss."
How do you ensure all members of a team make a fair, equal and positive contribution?
"As team leader, I operate an open-door policy for suggestions and constructive criticism, with no blame or shame for coming forward with concerns. As a team member, I listen carefully to my colleagues and try to build on their suggestions, as well as working with quieter co-workers to make sure their voice is heard too."
Tell us about a time when you had to delegate a large amount of work to a team under pressure.
"Due to sickness absence and staff shortages, my usual team of 10 was down to only 6 members. I called a meeting and asked my team to pitch in despite the extra workload. We allocated the additional work based on who was the best fit for each task, and I was able to take the whole team out to lunch once we completed the project on-deadline."
How to Answer Competency-Based Questions
You might find it easier to think of competency-based questions as skills-based questions. This is essentially what they are: a chance for the interviewer to ask you about your abilities and soft skills that can't be quantified or written on a certificate.
By planning ahead, you can prepare some example answers for competency-based interview questions, covering areas like communication, leadership, problem-solving and teamwork. A lot of competency-based questions are ultimately about how you perform under stress.
Remember the STAR Technique
Use the STAR technique mentioned above as a way to structure your answer. It will help you to include all the information you need, while also being as concise as possible. The interviewer may want to ask multiple questions, so give them the chance to do so, or ask if they would like more detail about your current answer.
Be Positive and Specific
Be positive and self-aware. Avoid minimising language like 'just' and 'only'. If possible, give examples of measurable impact your actions had, such as improving productivity, bringing a project in on time despite a challenging schedule, or reducing employee absence or financial loss.
Remember, the interviewer wants to know what you are good at. By preparing some common answers to skills-based questions, you can make sure you have a relevant answer to pull out of your mental library, or at least a good basis to come up with something specific on the spot.
How Long Should an Answer Be?
The perfect answer to a competency-based question should be just long enough to cover all of the relevant information, but no longer. Keep it concise and invite the interviewer to ask for more details, rather than going on for too long in your initial response.
Again, the STAR technique can help you with this. Try to give enough detail on each of the four points of STAR so that each element is concisely but comprehensively covered. As you work through all four, this will naturally build up to a good, reasonably detailed but still succinct answer, helping you to keep to the point.
Do invite questions at the end of your answer. A good interviewer will probe for any extra detail they want, but by inviting them to ask, you establish rapport and a more conversational tone for your interview, without it becoming too informal.
Remember also that a shorter answer with 1-2 follow-up questions is more likely to give the interviewer what they are looking for, compared with a long uninterrupted prepared monologue by yourself, so relatively brief answers can ultimately have more of a positive effect on your overall perception.
How do I Pass a Competency-Based Interview?
Despite the open-ended nature of skills-based interview questions, many interviewers will have a fairly rigid marking scheme already in place. Before the interview starts, they will list the positive and negative indicators they expect to hear, and will award you a score for each question based on your response.
Positive Attributes for Competency-Based Questions
Some examples of likely positive attributes the interviewer might be looking for include:
- A positive, proactive approach to problem-solving
- Ability to compromise to achieve the best result
- Ability to see a situation in a wider context
- Ability to recognise and work around your limitations
It might seem strange acknowledging your limitations in an interview response, but it's an important part of letting the hiring manager know that when you genuinely need help with a situation, you will look to your team members or manager, in order to get the best outcome.
Negative Attributes for Competency-Based Questions
The likely negative attributes for competency-based questions are often the direct opposite of the positive attributes, along with aspects of your personality:
- Attempts to solve a problem alone and fails
- Views a situation as a 'problem' and not as a 'challenge'
- Resorts to inappropriate methods under stress
You want to come across as a capable individual, but also as a team player. Employers are likely to see you as a risk if you sound like a loose cannon.
How is a Competency-Based Interview Scored?
It's common for competency-based questions to be scored on a range from 0 to 4, with 4 being the strongest answer (i.e. the response that ticks all the positive boxes without including any of the anticipated negative characteristics).
At the end of the interview, the higher your score, the better you have performed. If you see the interviewer making notes - and especially ticking boxes - as you give your answers, that's a good indication that they have a rigorous scoring rubric in place.
The open-ended nature of competency-based questions means you might touch on positives and negatives that the interviewer did not expect. If this is the case, a good interviewer will recognise this and award any additional points they feel appropriate, so it's still worth including any unusual or unique positive examples of your past performance.
Be Confident and Competent
Any interview can be nerve-racking, no matter the style. If you know that an interview will be competency-based, preparation is crucial for success; you can’t merely reiterate your CV. Instead, research the role and the company to understand their ideal candidate.
Prepare stories about yourself that demonstrate your unique selling points. With a little preparation and practice, you’ll nail the interview and maybe even land the job.