How To Be More Than Competent In Competency Based Interviews

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What is a competency-based interview?

Competency-based interviews use questions which aim to find out how you have used specific skills in your previous experience and how you approach problems, tasks and challenges. Also called behavioural or situational questions, they are often used in first interviews. These interviews are based on the premise that past behaviour is a good predictor of future behaviour. They are particularly useful for employers looking for ‘raw’ talent (e.g. graduates for training schemes where prior knowledge may be less important than having the right aptitude) and for selecting those seeking promotion within an organisation. 

Examples of competencies:

One competency might be achieving results and improving performance.

An interviewer could use a couple of approaches. 

  • The first might be a very specific question with no follow-up such as: describe an occasion when you achieved a goal; what steps did you take? After you have answered, they may just work through a list of similar questions covering the key competencies. For you as the interviewee, this can feel like a gentle interrogation rather than a conversation, but the structure can also help you to keep to the point.
  • Secondly, an interviewer may begin with a more open question such as: what has been your most significant achievement? They will then note examples of competencies in your answer and may ask follow-up questions. The challenge for you is to ensure you answer fully, but don’t waffle or spend too much time just describing the task.

A good way to structure your answer is to use the well-known STAR model:  

  • Briefly describe the Situation or background to your example
  • Explain the Task or activity
  • Outline the Action you took
  • Summarise the Result

A good interviewer will want to know what you learnt from your experience, particularly how you might have done things differently, so be prepared to reflect on your performance.

How do you know which competencies are important?

There are books and websites which list 100’s of terms such as: results orientation, impact, initiative, influence, customer orientation, interpersonal understanding, organisational awareness, analytical thinking and so on. To research your particular occupational area, employer and job: 

  • Investigate relevant professional bodies or associations and careers guides to get a general sense of what general qualities you need.
  • Study the organisation’s website for those competencies they deem important 

….and most important of all

  • Analyse the job and person specification using a magnifying glass, fine toothcomb, highlighter pen or whatever method will ensure you are really clear what the employer is looking for. 

How to prepare for a Competency-based interview

It’s really, really simple:

  • list the competencies for the specific job
  • trawl your CV (which of course you update at least twice a year!) for two examples for each competency (NB:  if this becomes really hard or impossible, the chances are that the job may not suit you)
  • for each example, write a bullet point for each of the STAR headings above
  • practice your answers with a critical friend
  • and…enjoy the interview because you have prepared


Good news: many people don’t do the above preferring instead to take a rushed, grape-shot approach applying for anything and everything that comes along and are surprised that (a) they don’t get an interview and (b) if they do, they perform like rabbits in headlights.

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