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Competency Based Interview Questions

Competency-based interview questions target a particular skill or competency. They are used by employers to suss out whether or not you have the required skills for the job role. Usually, the questions will relate to your behaviour in special circumstances, and you will be invited to use ‘real life’ examples in your answers. Graduate recruiters love these questions as they are a way of looking for certain skills in candidates who have little or no previous work experience.

How can I identify a competency-based interview question?

Competency-based interview questions are usually prefixed by something like “describe a time when…” or “give us an example of when…” Typical questions might be:

- Give an example of when you’ve used an innovative way to solve a problem;

- Tell us about a time when you’ve acted as a team leader;

- Give us an example of a time when you’ve thrived under pressure.

The questions will usually be related to the kind of skills you’ll need to thrive in the job role, such as:

- Organisational skills;

- Planning;

- Creativity;

- Problem solving;

- Teamwork;

- Communication;

- Leadership;

- Attention to detail;

- Persuasiveness.

Answering a competency-based interview question…

When answering a competency-based interview question, it’ll be up to you to pick out an example of a time when you have used the relevant skills. So what examples can you use? If you’re a school leaver, you can draw upon experiences at school, extracurricular activities or work experience. If you’re a student or graduate then you might want use examples from university, your course, work experience, placements or internships.

However,  in all honesty, it’s not necessarily the situation that the interviewer is most interested in, but how you reacted in the situation. Most people advocate using the CAR or the STAR approach to answering an interview question. CAR stands for Context, Action, Result and STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. Don’t get bogged down in acronyms though! Essentially, STAR and CAR are all about structuring your answer. Think of it like writing a mini essay: you want a beginning, a middle and an end.

Imagine you’ve been asked the following question: “Describe a time when your organisational skills resulted in the successful completion of a task”.

Firstly, you’ll need to set the scene. Describe the situation and the task you were faced with: “Last summer, during my internship at Mankini Magazine, I was given the task of organising the fashion cupboard.”

Next is the action bit. Describe how you completed the task successfully and what steps you took: “I noticed that their current procedure for monitoring the incoming and outgoing fashion and PR samples was resulting in a lot of confusion. I set up a log book and designed my own tagging system to keep track of what contents were in the fashion cupboard and what needed to be sent back to the PR companies.”

Finally, tell them the results of your actions, e.g. “I presented this to my supervisor. They trialled my ideas and it resulted in a 20% decrease in the number of lost items and late fines from PR companies.”

The main thing is to emphasise your achievement and then back it up with concrete evidence. Alternatively, they might try to throw you by asking you a question about a time you didn’t succeed. In this case, you should tell them how you would have done the task differently. It’s not just about showing them that you have the skills, it’s about showing them how you can recognise and overcome difficult situations and recognise the importance of improving and developing your existing competencies.

How to prepare for competency-based interview questions…

You should get an idea of the kind of skills and competencies the company is looking for from the job advert and the company website. Compile a list of examples from your work experience, your time at school/university, or your personal life

They don’t have to be staggeringly impressive; they just need to be a good example of how you demonstrated that particular competency. They should be relevant to the role and relatively recent, i.e. within the last few years. Yattering on about how you arranged a great bake sale when you were nine probably won’t impress your interviewer.

With competency-based interview questions, practice makes perfect. Have a go at answering a variety of different competency based questions, using different examples each time. Get a friend to ask you some competency-based questions at random and see if you can cobble together an answer on the spot.

Even if the interviewer doesn’t fling a competency-based interview question at you, it’s always good to get into the habit of backing up your answers with concrete evidence. It’s about showing them, rather than telling them, that you are the best candidate for the job.