How to answer competency-based interview questions

Find out what a competency-based interview is and prepare with our example competency-based interview questions and answers.

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Competency-based questions, or interviews entirely focused on competencies, regularly crop up in graduate recruitment processes, so you'll need to know how to answer these interview questions.

In this article: What are competencies? | What is a competency interview? | List of common questions | How to answer | Three example answers | Hypothetical questions | More interview types

What are competencies?

Essentially, competencies are skills, abilities and behaviours that will help you to be successful in a job. Employers will identify competencies that are particularly important to their organisation and the specific job role you're applying for. Job descriptions and adverts often list the key skills required for a role and many graduate employers highlight the core competencies they look for on their recruitment websites.

Different employers and careers might require a slightly different set of competencies but the most common are:

Head to our skills and competencies section or click on the links in the list above for dedicated articles explaining how to develop each skill and, crucially, how to show them off to recruiters.

What is a competency-based interview?

Once employers have identified the competencies that are vital for working in their organisation, they use these as selection criteria for choosing new recruits. A competency interview is one way to do this.

To measure your suitability, recruiters will ask questions where you will need to draw on examples from your life so far to demonstrate times when you have employed particular competencies. The logic is simple: your past ability to use a skill is often a good indicator of your potential to be successful in the future.

Competency-based questions usually start along the lines of:

  • ‘Can you talk me through an example of when you…’
  • ‘Describe a time when you…’
  • ‘How would you go about…’
  • 'Have you ever...'

Interviewers may then probe deeper to draw out more information. For example, if you were asked about a time when you worked in a team, potential follow-up questions include:

  • What was your individual contribution?
  • What did you learn from the experience and what would you do differently in future?
  • Tell me about another team you have been involved in.
  • What factors do you think contribute to the success of a team?

What are the most common competency-based interview questions?

Employers don't make a habit out of disclosing the exact questions they ask at interviews (for very good reasons) so there's never a guarantee that you will be asked a certain question. However, it's a safe bet to prepare for questions around the most popular competencies we mentioned earlier in this article. Here is a list of competency-based interview questions that could come up:

  1. Can you give me an example of when you worked in a team?
  2. Give an example of a time when you showed initiative.
  3. Have you ever had to deal with conflict?
  4. Tell me about a time when you took on a leadership role.
  5. Give an example of a time when you handled a major crisis.
  6. Give an example of your lateral thinking.
  7. Describe a time when you had to be an effective decision maker.
  8. Have you ever had to bring others around to your way of thinking?
  9. Give an example of when you had to change plans last minute.
  10. When have you previously delivered excellent customer service?
  11. Have you ever had to explain a topic to somebody with limited understanding of it?
  12. Give an example of a situation when you worked on a tight deadline.
  13. Give an example of a time when you faced an ethical dilemma.
  14. What has been your biggest failure?
  15. Tell me about a time when you were innovative.

How do you answer competency-based interview questions?

As a student or graduate, you will have a more limited bag of work-related examples to draw upon, but aim to use a different example for each competency you are asked to discuss. Use examples from your studies, work experience and extracurricular activities.

With competency-based questions it is very easy to go off topic or meander around providing too much detail about the situation when the interviewer really wants to know how you acted. You may find it helpful to use the STAR technique to structure your response:

  • S ituation: give the interviewer a context by describing the situation.
  • T ask: what did you need to do?
  • A ction: tell the interviewer what your specific actions were.
  • R esult: the end result – make sure it shows you in a good light, even if the overall project was not a success.

Proportionally, you should dedicate most of your response to the Action part. Keep reading for sample answers to three common competency questions, using the STAR approach.

Example competency-based interview questions and answers

You will need to come up with your own answers based on your own life and experiences, but here are three sample answers to give you a better idea of how to use the STAR technique to answer competency questions.

1. Give an example of a time when you worked in a team

Situation: I completed a group work project with four other students from my marketing course. Our task was to plan the relaunch of a brand.

Task: We had to use a range of research methods, provide a written report and present our joint findings to the rest of our year group and an expert panel drawn from local media agencies.

Action: I had to devise, market and analyse the results of an online brand awareness survey, but I also took responsibility for co-ordinating the activities of the rest of the group who were focusing on different activities. I facilitated initial discussions so that we were all clear on what we needed to do and I encouraged us all to work to interim deadlines so that it wasn’t all last minute. I also proposed that we met regularly to discuss progress and so that we could all support each other in achieving our aims. The regular meetings helped us to identify each others' strengths, which really helped when planning our joint presentation. We were also in a better position to support each other and work out how to complete the task amid competing priorities of our other academic work.

Results: We submitted a full report on time and won the prize for best presentation. We were commended by the expert panel for our ability to bring together our findings in a coherent form and present professionally. While I like to take a lead and organise, I also learned through our regular catch-ups that it is possible to accommodate different working styles happily if you keep communicating.

2. Give an example of a time when you solved a problem

Situation: In my part-time job as a supervisor at a soft play centre, I noticed that we were receiving a lot of complaints about long waits for food.

Task: I needed to find a way to reduce the number of complaints in order to improve customer experience and prevent a negative effect on the business' bottom line through compensating customers.

Action: I investigated when complaints were most common and found it was when the kitchen was preparing buffets for birthday parties, which we ran three times a day at set times. I suggested a new process for staff to give customers forewarning if they were ordering food less than 15 minutes before the birthday parties began. I also found that there wasn’t a system in place to track when orders were placed, so if a complaint was made, I had no concrete way of knowing the customer’s wait time and therefore what remedial action would be most appropriate. To combat this, I asked staff members to make a note of the time at the top of order slip.

Result: By communicating with customers beforehand, I was able to manage expectations. I saw a noticeable reduction in logged complaints from several complaints a day to often no complaints. Feedback from other supervisors was positive – they found that noting the times of orders gave them more confidence in handling complaints proportionately.

3. Have you ever had to explain a topic to somebody with limited understanding of it?

Situation: As a member of my university’s coding society, I have visited several schools to deliver coding workshops to students between the ages of 11 and 16 years old.

Task: For the first workshop, I had to start from scratch and develop a lesson plan that would be engaging and age appropriate.

Action: Firstly, I spoke to the school to find out what, if any, prior knowledge the students attending the workshop would have. Once I knew that most would be beginners, I was careful to plan a lesson that would be at the right level and I wasn’t assuming any knowledge. For example, I completed some self-taught online courses for young people to compare content. I also made sure to include a mixture of activities in the session such as a presentation, a quiz, a group coding exercise and some exercises to take home to cater to different learning styles. Once I had a plan, I persuaded my younger siblings to run a mock workshop with me and asked them to interrupt me if I said anything that confused them so I could avoid any potential issues on the day. During the workshop, I made sure to stop for questions regularly so that the students weren’t afraid to ask if they didn’t know something.

Result: I was really pleased with how the workshop went and several students were engaged, staying behind afterwards to ask me more about coding, university and careers. The school has since asked me to come back three times and I’ve also visited two other schools in the area.

What if you are faced with a hypothetical situation?

Questions in competency-based interviews are not exclusively based on behavioural evidence. You may be asked some hypothetical, scenario-based questions too, where you’ll be asked to say what you would do in a given situation.

These are designed to see how you would apply a skill to a specific workplace, so by their nature they are often very focused on the job role. For example, a construction employer might ask a candidate for a trainee site manager role: 'What would you do if a water pipe burst and delayed construction work on site?'. However, there are some scenario-based questions that are more general, such as:

  • What would you do if a client wasn't happy with your work?
  • What would you do if you noticed that a colleague was underperforming and seemed unhappy?
  • You've got a deadline for some important work but you've been booked onto a training session. What would you do?

While you can imagine how you might respond to a situation and explain how you would tackle it, try always to reinforce your skills by comparing the situation with something similar you have faced successfully before. Always give specific evidence where you can.

Find out more about other types of interviews questions

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