How to answer competency based interview questions

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You’ve got an interview coming up – eek! Don’t panic, you’ll feel a lot calmer when you’ve read our top interview tips and most common interview questions. But hang on a minute – what’s a competency-based interview question when it’s at home? And why is it something you must know about before you even think of attending that interview?

What is a competency-based interview question?

Competency-based questions ask you to draw on your real-life experience to prove that you have a skill needed to do the job you're applying for. They usually begin "Tell us about a time when…" or "Give an example of when you…"

Here are some examples of the kinds of questions you might be asked:

  • Describe a situation where you completed a high-quality piece of work to a tight deadline.
  • Tell us about the last time you lead a team.
  • When did you last stand up to a manager, why, and what was the result?

This contrasts with the more traditional sort of interview where the panel asks broad questions like "Why do you want this job?", "What can you bring to the business?" or "Do you work well as part of a team?"

Why do interviewers ask competency-based questions?

These more familiar questions are intended to get a general sense of you as a person. On the other hand, competency-based questions are more targeted, and allow interviewers to get a clear picture of whether you have the skills on the job description, and whether you have the attitude and approach they are looking for in a candidate.

Some employers like to conduct whole competency-based interviews, while others mix competency-based questions in with more general questions.

I’m applying for my first job. How on earth do I answer them?

Because they require you to demonstrate very specifically that you have a particular skill, answering competency-based questions can be quite stressful and demanding. This is never more true than when you’re new to interviews – and have very little work experience to draw on.

The first thing to say is that if you’ve been invited to interview, the employer has a good feeling for you – and don’t forget they’ve read your application and know you’re new to the game. So you can relax just a little bit!

At the same time, the reason they’ve invited you to interview is because they see that you have potential. Use your interview to demonstrate that potential by drawing on experiences from your home and school life, plus any clubs and societies you’re part of, to give good examples of why you have the skills needed to do the job.

If you can do this, you could well earn extra brownie points for being resourceful and creative, even if your answers aren’t quite as relevant as more experienced candidates.

Common skills you’ll be asked about include your ability to communicate, solve problems, work as part of a team, and think outside the box – all things you have to do at school and in other areas of your life. The best way to perform well is to think about these skills and how you have demonstrated them – and come prepared.

How can I prepare?

Start by listing these transferable skills that are required in any job – as well as the ones we listed above, this includes things like numeracy, literacy and IT. Take a look at this list to see other skills and get an idea of how you have demonstrated them at school.

Next, look at the skills and experience required in the job description to your list, as you may well be asked about these in your interview. These could be things like:

  • The ability to work with spreadsheets and analyse data.
  • A flair for writing engaging social media posts.
  • Experience of delivering presentations to management.

Although you might not be familiar with these skills from your Saturday Job at the Spar, they are all things you may have experience of from your home or school life. For example, if you’ve given frequent presentations to your teacher in A-level history, then you can use that as a basis for your answer to the third example.

Come up with two examples for each skill or experience – two, because the interviewer may like to hear more evidence if they’re not convinced the first time round, or you’ve already used an example in your application.

Next, use the STAR method to come up with a knock-out answer:

  • Situation
  • Task
  • Action
  • Results

Watch this video to find out how to put the STAR method into action:

Anything else I need to know?

Yes. You might be asked to give examples of when something’s not gone according to plan:

  • Tell us about when you upset a colleague.
  • Give an example of when you missed a deadline.

The best way to deal with these questions is not to make excuses (“I slapped my friend because she deserved it”) but to turn a negative into a positive. What did you learn from your experience? Did the supposed failure allow you to do better in the end?

You may not have much work experience, but being well prepared for those pesky competency-based questions can really pay off. It will show that you are smart and creative enough to apply lessons across different areas of your life, and care enough about the job to prepare thoroughly.

More interview help

Your complete guide to succeeding in interviews

Top 10 most common interviews questions and answers

Using job interview techniques to succeed

Job interview dos and don'ts

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