Preparation and practice are the keys to effectively answering competency-based interview questions.

It's a given that candidates should always do some preparation for an interview. And these days, there's one particular type of interview where good preparation is mandatory for success: the competency-based interview.

What is a competency-based interview?

Also known as a situational interview, this method requires candidates to clearly and concisely state how they have handled (or would handle) specific work-related situations. Your answers help the interviewer assess whether you have the specific competencies — skills, behaviors, and knowledge — needed for that particular role.

The company's goal in using this type of interview is to discover and hire someone who will both excel in their job and work effectively with their current employees.

What to expect

This is a very job-specific interview process, meaning that questions will be tied directly to the position being filled. 

For example, a hiring manager for an upper management role will likely ask questions to learn about your leadership skills, creativity, and communication abilities. A recruiter for a retail position would perhaps want to assess your teamwork and time-management skills.

You'll know you're in a competency-based interview if the questions begin with words like:

  • Tell me about …

  • Describe a situation when …

  • How did you …

While some candidates might be good at handling questions off the top of their heads, this won't work in a competency-based interview because you need to convincingly and confidently describe how you behaved in an actual business scenario. That's why you'll also hear this process labeled as a behavioral interview.

Whatever the name, preparation is absolutely essential if you want to prove that you match the company's needs.  

How to prepare

Review the job description

Your first step is to review the job description, focusing on the skills and traits listed under Desired/Preferred Qualifications.

If the job description says you must have proven leadership skills, you can expect with relative certainty that the interviewer will ask something like, “Tell me about a time when your leadership skills were tested.”

Know the STAR method

The STAR method is a very effective way to answer competency-based questions. Essentially, your answer should include:

S – a brief description of the situation

T – the specific task or challenge of that situation

A – any actions you took to find a resolution

R – the results of those actions

Laying out your answers in this format will provide the information a recruiter needs to assess your fit for the job.

Develop and memorize your answers

As you go through the required job qualifications, jot down past or current experiences you can use as answers. Next, follow the STAR method to talk through or write down the actual answers you'll give — and memorize them as best you can.

Be as concise as possible, and don't paint fellow employees in a negative way or place blame. Keep the answer about you and your abilities.

Then practice telling it like a story rather than reciting from a script; your answers (and you) need to come across as relaxed and genuine.

Sample competency-based interview questions and answers

Here are three examples of competency-based interview questions and answers that will help you develop your responses, noting how they follow the STAR process.

Describe a circumstance where your communication skills helped improve/de-escalate a situation:

“I was part of the staff in the marketing department of a large communications company, and we were running behind on a project. I took the initiative to set up and lead a conference call to describe the reasons for delay to the customer. As we set about managing their expectations, we were then able to over-deliver on results. The client was so satisfied that they decided to pursue another opportunity with our company.”

Tell me about a time you identified/implemented a new approach to a workplace issue:

“In my last job as an accountant, I noticed that our monthly purchase ledger was a very long and overly-detailed process. The large gap between transactions being logged also led to financial errors, so I implemented a new procedure making individual staff responsible for entering their own transactions once each week. Within the first month, this new process reduced the amount of errors in balancing the books and freed up a great deal of time for the entire finance department.”

When have you had to overcome obstacles to achieve an objective?

“As project manager, I had to submit a report by a certain deadline or we wouldn't be eligible for new funding. However, details from key stakeholders were missing, and the person who signed off the report was out of the office. I flagged areas with missing information, and described to my colleagues the implications of not receiving this data in time. In a call with the person who approved the report, I ran through the updates and got a sign-off. I was able to submit the report on time, we received the funding, and the entire department was praised.”

One final thought: Stay focused on the competencies of the job you're interviewing for and tailor your examples accordingly. Don't simply describe your usual role or actions.

Knowing how to handle a competency-based interview will greatly enhance your chances of getting hired for that next amazing job.

Not sure where to start your interview prep? Our interview coaches can help

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