Congratulations! You’ve secured an interview and you’re one step closer to landing the job role you want. Now it’s time to think about what comes next…

The person who offered you the interview might have given you details about what to expect on the day. But even if they haven’t, it’s still worth practising some interview answers based on what you think could come up.

One approach that’s becoming increasingly popular among employers is the use of competency-based questions. Don’t panic if you don’t know much about these. You’re not alone – and like most things in life, when you know what you’re dealing with, they’re pretty straightforward.

With this in mind, we’ve come up with a helpful guide on how to answer a competency-based interview with confidence and assurance.

What are competency-based questions?

What are competency based questions?

Competency-based questions are those that are designed to find out whether you have the skills and competencies needed for the role, such as the ability to work independently or lead a team.

Employers who ask you competency-based questions will be trying to gain greater insight into your personality and behaviour to help them decide whether you’re the right person for the role. The questions are designed to give them a sense of what you’d be like to work with by finding out what you’ve done in real-life situations.

One of the most important distinctions with competency-based questions is that they almost always ask you what you have done – they look to past actions and behaviours. This is unlike other types of interview questions, that ask what you would do in a certain scenario.

Like any interview technique, competency-based questions have their flaws. But employers like them because they believe that past behaviours and actions are a better reflection of future performance than simply taking for granted what someone says they’ll do. It’s a bit like the difference between someone who keeps saying they are going to run a marathon, and someone who actually has run a marathon.

How can I tell if the interviewer is asking me a competency-based question?

The interviewer will usually ask you to come up with examples from your own experience to demonstrate a certain skill or competency. In this case, they’ll usually start with, “Can you describe a time when….” or “Can you give me an example of a situation where…”

Here are some examples of competency-based questions:

  • Testing problem-solving skills:

 “Can you describe a time you solved a problem?”

  • Testing leadership or teamwork skills:

“Can you give me an example of a time you led or worked well within a team?”

  • Testing time management skills:

“Can you tell me about a situation where you managed your time well?”

Examples of popular competencies that employers look for

Below are some of the key competencies that employers commonly look for in their candidates:

  • Effective Communication
  • Leadership
  • Adaptability
  • Resilience
  • Flexibility
  • Integrity
  • Organisational skills
  • Decisiveness
  • Creativity
  • Problem-solving

Interviewers will want to see that you can use these competencies to take a positive approach towards your work. They won’t expect you to be perfect, but they will be looking to see if you’re able to recognise your own limitations and learn from your past experiences; knowing when to seek help and when to compromise. They may also want to test how well you have coped with pressure and stress in the past.

You may be wondering how you can possibly prepare examples for every possible competency. Often, the best way to prepare is to think of really good examples of previous work and outside projects that you’re proud of to remind yourself of the details of what you achieved and more importantly, how you achieved it. The chances are that you demonstrated a number of positive working behaviours to achieve your goal.

The great thing about brushing up on examples from the past is that the same example can be tailored to demonstrate a number of different behavioural competencies from taking the initiative or influencing other people, to going above and beyond to meet a deadline.

5 tips for answering competency-based questions

1. Read the job specification carefully before attending the interview

When it comes to preparing to answer competency-based questions, the most helpful thing you can do is note down any skills or competencies that are relevant to the role, along with examples of times when you’ve successfully used these.

Your examples don’t usually all have to be related to work – they could also be related to a hobby you do in your spare time or a situation that’s occurred with friends or family.

If you’re someone over 50, then chances are you’ll have a wealth of transferable skills and life experience that you can call on. Try to choose examples that are linked to moments you’re proud of, as these will be the easiest to remember on the day.

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2. Get familiar with the STAR technique

Once you’ve come up with your scenarios, you should then think about how best to structure your answers. Try to give as much detail as you can, whilst making your answer as clear as possible.

One of the simplest ways to do this is to use the STAR technique, which involves the use of four simple steps:

  • Situation

Briefly explain the situation you found yourself in.

  • Task      

Explain to the interviewer what you were expected to achieve in this situation and what challenges you had to overcome.     

  • Action      

Explain what action you took and why in as much detail as possible. This is the most important part of the STAR process, as it shows the interviewer how you assessed the situation to reach the appropriate course of action.      

  • Results    

Tell the interviewer what the end result was, what you learnt from this situation, and whether you would have done anything differently. Try to make sure that the examples you have chosen end in positive results so that you’re demonstrating positive use of your skills and competencies.

3. Take your time

When the interviewer asks you a question, don’t rush to answer. You won’t be penalised for taking a minute or two to think your answer through – and if you’re at all nervous, it’ll prevent you from blurting things out without thinking.

If the interviewer asks you to give an example of something from your own background, then take a moment to whizz through the STAR technique in your head – it’ll keep you calm and help make your answer more complete.

With a competency-based interview, you won’t be judged by how quickly you come up with an answer, and if you’re unsure exactly which angle or competency the interviewer is getting at, then it’s fine to ask for clarification.

Even if you think you have the perfect example straight away, it’s still best to take your time, so you can give a more thoughtful answer and pick the most relevant example you have.

4. Focus on you

When you’re giving answers to competency-based questions, always make sure you focus on the actions you took rather than generically what happened. The interviewer may ask you to refer to the actions you took in terms of what ‘I’ did rather than what ‘we’ did.

For example –  where possible – you would say “I set up a meeting to discuss x, y, z”, rather than “We had a meeting to discuss x, y, z.”

This can feel awkward as we are so used to speaking in terms of we, rather than I  in everyday conversations. But, with a competency-based interview, the interviewer wants to learn about the positive actions you took, rather than learning about what the broader team did.

Try to highlight your achievements as much as possible and leave other people out of it unless you’re highlighting how you positively helped someone, or how you successfully worked as a team.

And finally...

Competency-based questions are all based on experience and are a great opportunity for you to relive some of your greatest achievements. As long as you can stay calm and think your answers through, you should have no problem showing your interviewer just how capable and qualified you are for the job.

For more help on how to answer interview questions, you might want to check out our article What to do if you can’t answer an interview question.

And if you’d like some more general advice when it comes to job interviews, then why not check out the job interview tips section of our site? Here, you can find articles such as 6 tips on preparing for a job interview in your 50s, 60s, or beyond, 9 common phone interview questions and how to answer them, and more.

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