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Congratulations, you’ve been invited to an interview! Problem is, you’ve been told it’s a competency-based one, and you’re not sure what to expect.

Don’t be nervous though, the good thing about competency-based interviews is they offer a wonderful opportunity to describe some of your finer moments to a captive audience.



What is a competency interview?

So what’s the difference between a competency interview and the more traditional methods?

Normal interviews, (sometimes called unstructured interviews) are free-flowing and more like a conversation. An interviewer won’t have a particular script but will ask questions relevant to the job and will be trying to get an overall impression of what you are like as a person, including what your strengths and weaknesses are.

By contrast, competency questions are very much scripted and often written by psychologists who know how to frame questions that will provide revealing answers and insights into your capabilities.


What competencies are sought after?

The list of skills and competencies that will be tested will change depending on the post you’re applying for.

A senior manager will be sussed their ability to influence and negotiate, while a personal assistant may be assessed for communication and organisational competency instead. Recruitment company Michael Page names these other competencies:

  • Analytical competencies

These assess your decision-making abilities and try to unearth innovation, analytical skills, problem solving, practical learning and attention to detail. A typical question would be:

“Tell me about a time when you identified a new approach to a problem”


  • Interpersonal competencies

These assess social competence. Many workplaces function on project teams, so the more collaborative a candidate is, the more likely they will thrive in the company. A typical question would be:

"Describe a situation where you got people to work together”


  • Motivational competencies

These assess the level of drive and examine your energy, motivation, result orientation, initiative and quality focus. A typical question might be:

“When did you work the hardest and feel the greatest sense of achievement?”


How do I prepare?

Now you know the format and know what sort of questions you’ll be asked, the preparation is straightforward.

Competency interviews require you to put in the effort up front. First, you need to research all the likely questions around the competencies related to the job you are applying for.

Second you’ll need to sift through your employment and personal history to find examples that show you’ve got the relevant skills and abilities.

And third, you need to practise the STAR technique for answering the questions, using your personal material. For those of you that don’t know about it, STAR (situation, time, action and result) is the technique recommended by recruiters. Use a sentence to describe each of those components and remember the result or outcome is the most important part.


Why is this method useful?

An answer structured in these four components shows how you demonstrated a skill in a particular context, so the potential employer can imagine how you might operate in their workplace.


How are they marked?

Before the interview, the employer will have determined which type of answers would score positive points and which types of answers would count against the candidates. Interview Skills Consulting, ISC provides the following examples for the question, "Describe a time when you had to deal with pressure":

  • Positive
  • Demonstrates a positive approach towards the problem
  • Considers the wider need of the situation
  • Negative
  • Perceives challenges as problems
  • Attempts unsuccessfully to deal with the situation alone


Example questions and responses


Q: “Describe a situation in which you led a team.”

Outline the situation, your role and the task of the group overall. Describe any problems which arose and how they were tackled. Say what the result was and what you learned from it.

Examples could include putting on a drama or music production; a group project at university, being a team leader in some form, or taking part in a Young Enterprise scheme.

While your example should indicate the nature of the team and the task, you need to focus on your own role as leader and on the personal qualities that led you to take on/be nominated for this role and which helped you to succeed in it.

University of Kent


Q: “What has been your greatest achievement?”

Reciting academic or obvious work achievements are not the best answers – they won’t distinguish you from the crowd. Instead, say something that will set you apart, that speaks about your aspirations and values.

Organising a sport or fund-raising event, taking part in a race, or learning and using a new language or musical instrument are good examples.

Claire Croft, HR, ASOS, University of Kent


Q: “How do you cope in adversity?”

The wording of this question cunningly opens up a whole raft of conversations. Whether you choose to talk about a disappointment, a disagreement, or a decision that didn’t go your way, employers will be looking at your coping mechanisms and at how robust you are. Did you learn from it, dust yourself down and go on to build on the experience?

Kathleen Saxton, founder, The Lighthouse Company


Even if you haven’t been told you’ve got a competency interview, make sure you clarify what kind of interview you’re being invited to. There’s a world of difference between competency and other kinds of interviews and you need to know what you’ve got to prepare for.

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