Preparing for Competency Interview Questions

How to Succeed in Your Interview


How should I answer the kind of interview questions that start “Give us an example of a time when you … (showed initiative/handled a crisis)”?


As recruiters, part of our role is to help our candidates prepare thoroughly for an interview situation, and increasingly as part of the interview process managers are using competency-based interviews. These can feel rather different from ‘conventional’ interviews and if you haven’t experienced them before, can potentially prove difficult to answer. To understand how to answer competency-based interview questions, it first helps to understand why managers ask these sorts of questions.


What and why?


A competency-based interview is designed to assess your capability against the competency profile of the specific role you are applying for. This means that managers can assess skills and experience, and really find out whether you have the approach and culture fit necessary for longevity within their company. Company values have never been more important and ensuring not only that a candidate can do the job but fit with your team and add value is increasingly critical.


For example; if results, focus, and tenacity were important to the job, you might be asked to ‘describe a situation when you had an ambitious deadline to meet, and where people or events kept getting in your way’. You may then be asked follow-up questions about how you actually tackled the task, what you did or what you said and with what result. 


If you are unused to competency based interviews, they can feel tougher than ‘traditional’ interviews, because you are constantly being asked what your specific contribution to the situation was. Often, when describing situations, we talk about what ‘we’ did – and this fails to differentiate between our own contribution and that of other peoples. You also have to dig into memory banks of what actually happened!




There are several things you can do to prepare for a competency based interview:


Study the job profile and other information you have gathered about the job. What are the key competencies? These will naturally differ from one job role to another, typically focussing on key job functions and company values.


Think back over the last 12/18/24 months. Think about 2 or 3 situations that have demonstrated a high level of achievement against some (or all) of the key competencies. Occasionally, the best

examples you can think of may relate to your activities outside of work. If, therefore, your present job does not give you much opportunity to display some of the competencies sought, think about which, if any, of your other activities do. 


Analyse each situation:

  • How did it arise?
  • What were the key stages?
  • What was your specific contribution?
  • What was the result?
  • What did you learn from it?


Execution during interview


A great tip here is to use the STAR system.


S – Situation


This is about setting the scene, giving the interviewers some context to the situation. You should be providing here specifics of the project or situation you were involved in, the team set up, the goal or objective, and who was responsible for what.


T – Task


This is your opportunity to highlight your specific tasks and objectives – make sure the interviewer knows exactly what you held responsibility for.


A – Action


This is the most important part of the STAR technique, as it shows exactly what you implemented/led/created and what the outcome was. Remember, as specified earlier, it is hugely important that you talk about what you explicitly did, so using ‘I’ rather than talking about team

actions . Be sure to share a lot of detail, the interviewer may not be familiar with your history, and if you are speaking to HR you may need to avoid any acronyms and institutional language. What you’re trying to get across here is how you assessed and decided what was the appropriate response to the situation, and how you got the other team members involved – which in turn is a great way to demonstrate your communication skills.


R - Result


This tends to be where everyone goes wrong! 


The result ideally needs to be a positive one, and particularly something that can be quantified. Examples include increased performance, achievement of goals, cost savings, process improvement, achieving targets, deadlines hit, increased revenue etc.


The interviewer will also want to know what you learnt from that situation, and if there was anything you’d do differently the next time you were faced with something similar.


Final thoughts


The most important thing to remember with competency interviews is to be flexible. Having examples prepared is always wise but you can’t predict the exact question you will be asked. You need to be able to adapt your examples to the specific questions asked and show the company that what is important to them is also important to you. Be succinct!


Although it seems that there is a lot of information to include, less is more. Give one key point for everything on the STAR system, but be prepared to expand through follow up questions from the interviewer. There is nothing worse than a long rambling answer!


Remember – the best way to finish an interview is to have clear and considered questions ready for the interviewer. This not only demonstrates that you have researched the company and its values, but that you have also considered how you may fit into their team and add value as a professional.


Good luck!


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