The how-to's for competency-based interview questions

Work out how to put your best foot forward with competency-based interview questions. Employers identify the competencies (skills and abilities) that are key for working within their organisation and use them as selection criteria to choose new employees. Hence why competency interviews and competency-based questions are commonplace in any recruitment process, especially graduate recruitment.

Recruiters ask questions that typically require you to draw on past experience and examples from your life to demonstrate when you may have used the skill. Essentially they are trying to assess your past ability to use a skill, as it is an indicator of your potential to be successful in the future.


What do they want?

They vary between employers or sectors, some may have stricter criteria than others, but the common skills include:

  • Adaptability- ability to adjust or fit in to the company and to situations

  • Communication- how effectively you can get your point across

  • Commercial awareness- up-to-date on the happenings in the business world

  • Creativity- use of imagination, innovation or imaginative ideas

  • Customer facing skills- ability to interact/ communicate directly with customers

  • Decision making- ability to make important decisions

  • Delegation- ability to distribute work to yourself and others

  • Influencing- ability to affect decisions

  • Leadership- ability to lead/ control a group

  • Motivation- inspire or excite yourself and others to do the job, even when it may get boring or exhausting

  • Planning and organisation- ability to achieve a desired goal through forethought

  • Problem solving- ability to find solutions to issues

  • Teamwork- ability to work with others

  • Time management- ability to use your time effectively

Most job descriptions will have the required key skills listed and have the core competencies on their webpage.


The questions and how to answer them

As you are just starting out on your career path you may not have as many work-related examples, but do try to use a different one for each example. You can also use extracurricular activities, sports or study related examples to help you get a different example for each competency.

The simplest way to tackle any question and stay on track of your answer is to use the STAR method. Try to format every answer with this to help you keep track of your examples and to highlight your use of the skill in the best way.

  • Situation: context for the interviewer, describe the situation.

  • Task: what did you aim to achieve?

  • Action: explain what you did in order to complete what you set out to achieve.

  • Result: make sure it’s a specific and clear event.

Proportionally you should spend a little more time on Action, as it is the main chunk of how you used the skill, and what they are looking for.

In terms of questions, you should expect competency-focused interview questions to begin with something like; ‘Tell me about a time when…’, ‘Can you talk me through an example of when you…’, ‘Describe a time when you…’ or ‘How would you go about…’ so when you hear this be prepared to use your STAR example.

While many questions are based on past experiences in competency-based interviews, there is the odd occasion when you might come face to face with a hypothetical question too. They will expect you to explain how you would deal with a particular situation. Remember that in this circumstance you should not only explain how you would tackle it, but also always try to reinforce your skills by comparing the hypothetical with a previously experience and give specific evidence where you can.

Here are some of the 9 tricky questions that recruiters love to ask, make sure you are prepared for them. Also have a look at strength-based interview questions.