How to answer competency-based interview questions

by Clare Bentall

As part of getting ready for your interview, it’s very important that you prepare thoroughly for answering competency-based questions, as well as general questions.

These questions are used extensively in public sector interviews, and it’s also very likely that some questions will be included as part of an interview for the private or third sector.

They require you to give an example of how you demonstrated the competency in the past, giving a specific example. The thinking behind these questions is that past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour i.e. if you have successfully demonstrated this competency in the past you are likely to do so again in your future role.

What is a competency?

Broadly speaking a competency is the behaviour that a person demonstrates when undertaking a job-relevant task effectively, describing the effective skills and behaviours required.

What competencies am I likely to be asked about?

An interviewer will draw up a list of the key competencies they are looking for in a candidate for that particular job, so it’s important to look at the job description and try to work out what they will be. Typical ones are:

• Problem solving

• Communication skills

• Team working

• Leadership skills

• Working under pressure

• Time management

• Organisational skills

• Flexibility

How will I recognise a competency-based question?

The question will normally be framed with one of these openers:

• Tell me about a time….

• Describe a situation….

• Give me an example of…

• When have you had to…

How to answer the question

The acronym ‘STAR’ is useful for preparation and as a structure for your answer:

Situation – Brief background to what was happening and why. Normally one or two sentences. Keep the answer clear and jargon-free. (7.5% of your answer)

Task – the work that had to be done/your objectives. (7.5% of your answer)

Action – What you actually did. This part will form the majority of your answer, and is where you will score your points. (70% of your answer)

Result – The outcome, what was achieved and how was it measured, adding figures wherever possible. (15% of your answer)

Follow up questions

There may be follow up questions to your answer such as:

‘’What did you learn from this experience?’’

‘’What would you do/have you done differently next time?’’

Competency-based questions can be tricky, and there’s no doubt that the best way you can prepare for them is to have examples ready that fit the competencies you are likely to be asked about. They should be work-based examples if possible, but if not, use an example from your hobbies or personal life. For some people, it works well to rehearse the answers out loud, so that they are completely fluent in the actual interview.

So if you want to succeed at answering competency-based questions in your interviews, here’s an apt quote to bear in mind:

‘You win not by chance, but by preparation.’ Roger Maris

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