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What’s Your Story: A guide to Competency-based interviews

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Competency-based interviews use questions which aim to find out how you approach problems, tasks and challenges. They are relatively easy to prepare for, but you’ll have to link your skills and experience to the job: this type of interview gives you the chance to show the interviewer how you have used these skills in your previous experience.

Core competencies

Core competencies are a group of skills or attributes that employers use to determine whether you are suitable for a particular role. Competencies may vary between different roles, and of course the type of business or sector you are applying to, however some of the most common are:

  • Communication – the ability to communicate clearly with a wide range of people
  • Teamwork – being able to get on with other people and work well and efficiently with them
  • Organisation – planning your work and managing your tasks efficiently
  • Problem solving – using your initiative to identify problems and find solutions
  • Resultsorientation – knowing what results are important and focusing on how to achieve them
  • Customer service – being able to provide good customer service
  • People management – being able to manage people performance and development

During your job search take time to identify the competencies in the job description and/or the person specification. As part of your application, you will need to demonstrate how you meet each of the core competencies associated with the role.

Know your strengths.

Talk about the ones that are relevant to the job you’re being interviewed for. It’s important to have examples of when you used the skills. You should be ready to describe a problem or situation, the actions you took to resolve the problem, and the results, clearly showing how you used a particular competency. What the interviewer really wants to know is, can you do the job?

Be prepared

Example Job Description: “The right candidate will have excellent communication skills, good time management skills, and be a good team player”.

  • Before your interview, read the job description and look for the key words that describe the skills and strengths needed to do the job
  • Make a list and for each one prepare at least one example of how you’ve displayed that skill
  • You can use examples from your previous employment, work experience, school or further education, and even your personal life
  • The interviewer will ask you questions about the subject so stick to the facts – don’t be tempted to exaggerate!
  • Beat the competition – be prepared!

How to structure your competency answers

There are two popular methods to answering competency based interview questions: CAR (context, action, result) and STAR (situation, task, action, result). The STAR method is similar but you will have to provide slightly more information in your response as it includes a “task” stage. Either of these methods will help you to prepare a clear and concise answer.


  • Context – Briefly describe the situation and the challenges you faced
  • Action – Talk about what you did to solve or change this situation: explain what you did, why you did it, and how you did it. Remember to demonstrate the skills (competencies) you identified for the interview
  • Result – Describe the outcome of your actions: explain what happened, what you did well, what you might do differently or improve, and what was the overall impact


  • Situation – (Context) Explain the situation you faced (keep it brief)
  • Task – What was your task or responsibility in the situation you’ve described?
  • Action – What did you do? (what, why, how)
  • Result – Describe the outcome/result (same as CAR method)

Common competency-based interview questions

The type of questions you are asked will depend upon the role you are applying for, however competency-based questions typically follow the same format. Listen out for questions which begin:

  • Tell me about a time when…
  • Can you think of an example of when/how…
  • Describe a situation in which you…

Remember to keep your examples specific, recent, and relevant: the interviewer wants to hear how you have used skills and behaviours in a positive way, so they can see how you would apply them in the role you are interviewing for.

Think about situations where you had to:

  • Work as a member of a team
  • Show leadership
  • Make a difficult decision
  • Show initiative
  • Change your plans at the last minute
  • Manage a confrontational situation
  • Work with others to solve a problem
  • Deal with an unhappy customer

If you’re really stuck, talk about how you would handle a similar situation if you were faced with it in the future.

Examples of common competency-based interview questions

  • Describe a time when you had to explain a difficult task to a colleague
  • Describe a time you demonstrated good leadership skills
  • Give an example of when you worked successfully as part of a team
  • Tell me about a time when you used your initiative to resolve a difficult problem
  • Tell me about a time you had to manage conflicting priorities
  • Describe a situation where you had to perform a task you had never done before
  • Tell me about the biggest change you have had to deal with and how you did this
  • Describe how you dealt with a difficult or sensitive situation

How do I prepare?

Now you know the format and what sort of questions you might be asked, you can start your preparation:

  1. Identify the competencies for the role you are applying for
  2. Research all the likely questions around the competencies related to this role
  3. Review your employment and personal history to find examples which demonstrate the relevant skills and abilities
  4. Finally, practise using the CAR or STAR method for answering the questions, based on your own experiences

Practice, practice, practice

Prepare at least two different responses for each competency, and practise answering different competency-based questions. Get a friend to test you, and see if you can prepare an answer on the spot.

Even if the interviewer doesn’t ask a competency-based interview question, it’s always good to be able to back up your answers with real-life evidence.

Good luck – show the interviewer you are the best candidate for the job!

Sarah Gilmour

Smart Works Volunteer



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