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How to perfect your competency interview

25 Aug 14:00 by Tony Allen

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Competency interviews, or behavioural interviews, as they are sometimes also known, can sound scary if you have never experienced one before. Tackling them successfully is a dark art that requires some practice, and this post aims to give you the ammunition that you need in order to nail it during an interview, no matter what questions get thrown at you.

What is a competency interview question?

By telling the interviewer about past experiences and behaviours, you allow them to predict how you might act in similar scenarios if employed by them.

‘Competency interviews’ and ‘behavioural interviews’ can be interpreted as the same thing, but we can look at these two definitions as meaning slightly different things. Competency questions could be interpreted as being questions which relate to specific tasks, skills or expertise – usually outlined in a job spec.

We can consider behavioural questions to be those relating to your personality and ‘softer skills’ and these questions will tend to be answered by talking about situations based around people skills. Companies will often base behavioural questions around their brand values and company culture, so if you can find these online or elsewhere, you can begin to picture the sorts of questions that may get asked.

The terminology and their definitions are not important. The point is, whilst preparing for a competency interview, you should prepare examples that cover off both of these styles of question.

How are you assessed in a competency interview?

You are judged on the “quality” of the examples you provide. Basically, your story need to convince the interviewer that you can do the job, and the way that you structure your answers will have a huge bearing on this. It’s widely accepted that the STAR method is a good way to deliver convincing answers.

Here’s an example of how it works:

A candidate for a marketing executive role might be asked: "Tell me about a time that you solved a problem within a tight timescale." You could structure your response in the following way:

Situation - set the scene for your story.

"My marketing director and I were due to present on a new product we were launching at an industry conference, but the marketing director was held up by public transport."

Task – what was required of you?

"It was my responsibility to find an alternative so it didn't reflect badly on the company and we didn't embarrass ourselves."

Activity – be specific about what you actually did and what your team-mates did.

"I called the event manager to see whether they could change the running order. It took some gentle persuasion but they kindly agreed so we had a bit more time. I wasn’t sure whether the marketing director would make it in time, so I called our product manager and persuaded her to step in to deliver the presentation."

Result – how well the situation played out.

"The marketing director didn't make the meeting on time but we explained the problem to the audience and the presentation went well. Although the marketing director was late, they did manage to get there in time to answer some of the questions asked by the audience. As a result, the presentation was a success and we had 4 companies bid to buy our product."

The structure of the answer helps you tell a clear and concise story, without tailing off or talking too much. Your answer should be engaging for the listener.

The result of your actions should always be a positive one. The key is to show that you made a real difference.

How do you give the right amount of detail?

How much detail you give can have a real bearing on the effectiveness of your answer. You should try to give plenty of substance whilst keeping the listener engaged. By practicing your answers in advance you can strike a good balance. Whilst you won’t know what questions you will be asked, you can hazard a guess by using the job spec – have an example prepared for each of the points mentioned in the job spec.

If during the interview you are unsure whether you’ve given enough detail, ask the person interviewing you. An interview is a two-way conversation after all! Likewise, if you think you’re giving too much info, check. 

What if you can’t think of an example?

It’s a tricky one as some interviewers will prefer straight up honesty whereas others might appreciate an answer that isn’t quite spot on, but demonstrates a similar competency. You should try to limit the number of questions that you pass on. If you can’t think of your best example, then think of your most recent – people often take for granted the skills they use every day. If you are being asked for these skills in an interview then they must be important!

Common competency based questions.

As well as using the job spec as a guide there are some common competencies that you will be asked about time and time again. Know how to answer these and you should breeze through the interview…

  • Teamwork
  • Responsibility
  • Communication skills
  • Decision making
  • Leadership
  • Problem-solving
  • Organisation
  • Goal orientation

Preparation complete? Now go and boss that interview!

You may also find our posts on CV writing and general interview prep useful. 


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