How to ace a competency interview

“So, tell us about a time when you…”

The dreaded competency matrix-based job interview. We’ve all been there, and it’s not always an easy ride!

Going for a job interview can be nerve-wracking enough (but please don’t panic, we have the best preparation strategies) but competency orientated sessions can rank up there with quirky curve ball questions when it comes to tough interview sessions.

Faced by people you’ve probably never met before, asking seemingly random questions about how you coped with x, y or x situation, can throw the best of us. The trick is – competency questions are not random. And you can ace them. We promise.

Don’t panic!

Before you sit down with the recruiter, you can never know entirely what tack they are going to take. (However, we advise always asking what you might need beforehand, in case specific research is needed or you need to bring examples of your work.) 

It could be a seemingly informal chat or a task-based technical quiz, but it’s likely some of your questions will be “competency” related – where an interviewer wants to see whether you have encountered specific situations, how you managed them, and how well you can express your experience.

So, firstly – expect them! Even if you do not get asked targeted “what happened when” questions, the preparation you do for these questions will give you a fantastic set of answers that you may be able to apply to other lines of questioning, and knowing these examples inside out will give you a great confidence boost.

“Typical” competency questions

Interviewers can ask competency questions in an array of different ways, but they usually boil down to getting you to describe yourself and your personal approach and decision-making skills, as well as how you have managed key tasks and responsibilities that relate to the job you are applying for.

They are meant to take you out of your comfort zone, so are more often based around how you cope with difficulties. Examples include:

“Tell me about a time when you disagreed with your boss or a client, and how you managed the situation.”

“What has been your biggest professional challenge so far?”

“Describe how you would manage a series of competing deadlines, all for very urgent and important projects.”

While these questions are there to test your reasoning, and how you manage challenges and conflict, they are your chance to shine and clearly demonstrate how you turn difficulties into opportunities.

Show the interviewer you’re a STAR!

There is a tried and tested method to crack competency-based questions, which is all about controlling and contextualising your answer.

Do this by using the STAR method:

S – situation
T – task
A – action
R – result

The questioner normally asks you to “describe” or “tell me about” when something happened – so start with outlining the situation.

Be brief but specific.

Then outline the task you had ahead of you.

Talk about what action you took – and be sure to talk about your role in resolving the issue. While it may have been a team project, the interviewer is interested in your management, not your colleague’s.

Finally, show how your actions produced a specific result – and the more positive the outcome, the better. The experience may well have affected how you deal with similar situations, or even company policy. If so, say so! Show the interviewer that you are constantly learning and improving.

If you get stumped – or genuinely can’t give an appropriate answer

Sometimes, you get a competency question you might never have expected – ether because it’s slightly wacky, or possibly because it asks you to describe dealing with a situation you have never actually been in. If you can adapt one of your pre-prepared experiences then do.

Be clear that your response is not direct, but you are showing the interviewer you can think on your feet and give a good alternative.

Say: “I have never been in that particular situation, however, I had an experience here that I believe is relevant, and I would use a similar approach to deal with the situation you describe”.

Very occasionally, you may be given a question that is not relevant to your field at all (possibly because the interviewer is not prepared themselves, or simply to throw you). For example, if you’re going for a HR role and you get asked about sales targets. In which case – stick to the cardinal rule for interviews and CVs – be honest! Explain that you are not sure how the question relates to you, and offer to talk about a more recent/relevant experience.

Prepare as much as you can, and remember to reflect (and breathe) before you answer!

A good way of thoroughly preparing for competency questions, as more generally, is to make sure you have a good grasp of the job description – really consider how you meet the criteria, and how you have met and developed those skills in previous jobs.

Think carefully about what the recruiter is looking for, and imagine you are them. What questions would you ask about your experience with a specific task? List the key competency areas of the job, list specific examples that you can turn into STAR responses, and practice! It can also help if you practice answers out loud, with a friend or family member running through potential competency questions with you.

Finally, when it comes to answering competency questions in interviews take your time! It is perfectly all right to take a moment to think about your answer (or how you may want to modify one of your prepared versions) and give a measured, positive response that shows the recruiter just how good you are!

About the Author

Karen Dykes

Karen Dykes

Recruitment Partner

Karen, recruitment partner and part of the management team at Anne Corder Recruitment, manages a huge array of responsibilities. Managing everything that is not directly job handling, Karen is also an expert in candidate sourcing, change management, training and temp recruitment.