How to answer typical competency-based interview questions

Pick up tips on how to handle competency-based questions at graduate job interviews and find out how to show you have the competencies or skills to match an organisation's selection criteria.

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You may find it helpful to use the STAR approach to structure your response.

Competency interviews and competency-based questions regularly crop up in graduate recruitment processes. Employers identify the skills and abilities (competencies) that are vital for working in their organisation and they use these as selection criteria for choosing new recruits.

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 a good indicator of your potential to be successful in the future.

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What competencies do graduate employers want?

The competencies used as selection criteria vary from employer to employer, but the most common skills looked for, in no particular order of importance, include:

  • communication
  • teamwork
  • problem-solving
  • leadership
  • time management
  • planning and organisation
  • customer-facing skills
  • delegation
  • influencing
  • decision making
  • motivation
  • adaptability
  • commercial awareness
  • creativity.

Our advice on how to showcase your skills and competencies explains how to convince employers you have the qualities they are looking for.

Job descriptions and adverts often list the key skills required for a role and many graduate employers also highlight the core competencies they look for on their recruitment websites.

How to spot a competency question

‘Can you talk me through an example of when you…’, ‘Describe a time when you…’ or ‘How would you go about…’. These are the common prefaces of competency-focused interview questions. Interviewers may then probe deeper to draw out more information.

For example, if teamwork is one of the employer’s selection criteria, you might be asked the following:

  • Can you give me an example of when you worked in a team?
  • 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?

Use the STAR technique

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 approach 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.

Sample competency question answer: teamwork

Proportionally, you should dedicate most of your response to the Action part. So, if you were responding to the teamwork question, here’s how you could tackle it:

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.

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 questions too, where you’ll be asked to say what you would do in a given situation.

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.

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