Competent at competency interviews?

Another week, another Sue Hill credit crunch lunch. This one focussed on how to tackle competency interviews. I think it's worth sharing some of the things we covered as competency interviews are increasingly common, particularly in the public sector and academia. Most interviews now, even if they are not competency interviews as such, involve some competency-type questions so we are all likely to face them at some point. As with all things interview-related, it's essential to be prepared.

So firstly and most importantly, what are competencies and what is a competency interview? Competencies are the skills, knowledge and abilities that someone needs to do their job effectively. Competency-based interviews require you to provide real evidence and examples of how you have demonstrated the skills and abilities that are required to do the job you are interviewing for. The underlying principle is that what you’ve done in the past is the best predictor of what you’ll do in the future.

Typical wording of competency questions:

  • Tell me about a time when you have worked as part of a team
  • Give me an example of a time when you have communicated the same information in different ways to different audiences
  • Describe a time when you have dealt with a demanding customer
  • How do you deal with conflicting priorities?

Answering these types of questions is simple if you bear two things in mind:

  • Preparation – review the job description and person specification beforehand and come up with a list of the competencies required to do the job. You can then think of good examples of times you have used those competencies.
  • Answer questions using the STAR principle:-

Situation – outline the situation/set the context – one sentence is fine

Task – What was the task that was set?

Action – What did you (not the team in general) do – avoid the temptation to say “we did this” “we did that” – they want to know what YOU did.

Result – what were the outcomes? Do NOT miss this part out and remember outcomes can be positive or negative. It is fine to say “from this I learnt….or next time I would…..”


Describe the Situation and Task briefly – this is just setting the scene, most of your answer should focus on the Action and Results.

Some of the problems our lunchtime group highlighted in tackling this kind of interview were:

  • Lack of relevant experience – we discussed how it was fine to draw on examples from other non-information work experience, voluntary work, your studies or extra-curricular activities. Also if you have no experience of a competency it's better to say that and say what you might have done in that situation or what you've seen someone else do and what you've learnt from it. Do not make up a situation, you will be caught out when the interviewer probes you on it!
  • The same question might be phrased in a number of different ways and even if you've prepared a good example, it's easy to be thrown by a question that's not quite in the format you were expecting e.g. "Tell me about a situation where you have used your own initiative" could be answered with the same example as "Tell me about a time when you have challenged existing practices/procedures.". Take your time and feel free to clarify with the interviewer if you're not sure you understand the question.
  • Difficult to say "I did x" instead of "the team did x". It's good to show you understand the importance of team-working but you need to highlight what you yourself did and what the outcomes of your actions were. "I worked a part of a team doing x and I did y to help meet the objectives of the team" is more effective than "the team did x and y". The employer is looking to employ you after all, not your whole team!

As always, we hope the session provided some useful tips that will enable you face interviews with increased confidence and land that dream job!

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