Competency Based Questions

What are Competency Based Questions?

Competency based questions are interview questions that require candidates to provide real-life examples as the basis of their answers. Candidates should explain why they made certain decisions, how they implemented these decisions and why certain outcomes took place.

Why are Competency Questions Used in Interviews?

Recruitment professionals believe that the best way to find out about a candidate's potential future performance is to find out about examples of past performance. However, graduate candidates don't usually have any experience of the industry to which they are applying. Consequently it is impossible for interviewers to discuss previous job roles.

Instead, interviewers use competency questions to persuade candidates to reveal how they have performed in various situations in the past, revealing individual personality traits. These are a great help for interviewers interested in finding out exactly who a candidate is and how they may act if employed.

Interviewers usually isolate specific key competencies that they believe suitable employees should possess and ask competency based questions focused on skills in these areas. When considering how to answer competency questions, candidates should not talk in broad terms, be too general or use their imagination when replying to interviewers. Instead, candidates should use specific situations from their life as examples.

What Competencies Do Recruiters Look For?

These are some of the key competencies which interviewers often focus on, each followed by a corresponding example question:

  • Communication. For example: Tell us about a time you had to adjust your communication approach to suit a particular audience.
  • Decision making. For example: Give an example of a time when you had to make a difficult decision.
  • Leadership. For example: Describe a situation when you assumed the role of leader. Were there any challenges, and how did you address them?
  • Results orientation. For example: Give me an example of a time when you were particularly successful.
  • Teamwork. For example: Describe a situation in which you were working as part of a team. How did you make a contribution?
  • Trustworthiness. For example: Give me an example of a time you were deceptive.

The best way to prepare for competency based questions is to practice actual questions as much as possible, using resources such as those provided by JobTestPrep.

How to Answer Competency Questions

Interviewers using behaviour-based interviewing techniques such as competency questions are likely to probe for additional details during your responses. Always make sure you provide concise, highly specific answers that are well explained, thought out and detailed.

Questions can relate to past failures as well as to past achievements. You must adequately explain why you failed to complete tasks; when such questions are posed, don't avoid mention of past failures altogether, but demonstrate what you have learnt from them.

If you find yourself struggling to think of any prior experiences which are relevant to the question asked, give a hypothetical answer and describe what you would do if a similar situation were to occur in the future.

Example Question

A classic question is:

Tell me about a time when you failed to complete a task or project on time, despite intending to do so.

In your response your interviewer will want to find out how you manage your time during difficult tasks and the reason why you failed to meet your deadline on this occasion.

An effective answer would develop a positive justification for a past failure, as with the following example:

During my final year at university I failed to deliver my dissertation by the due date. This was because I was heavily involved in cutting-edge research right up until the end of my course and was waiting for imminent results from surveys being undertaken by researchers at other academic institutions.

Considering this was my final piece of academic work, I wanted to ensure it was based on the most accurate and up-to-date sources of information available, even if this meant a delay in production. To ensure no marks were deducted from my dissertation, I contacted my course director and personal tutor two weeks before my dissertation due date to discuss my particular situation. I argued my case, and was consequently allowed an extra two weeks to produce my work.

Although my work was delayed, I feel that this delay was justified in that the work was of the highest quality it could be. Furthermore, I sufficiently organised myself in relation to my department and tutors, so that all relevant people were aware of a possible delay in the production of my dissertation.

Weaker answers rely on negative justifications:

During my final year at university I failed to deliver my dissertation on the due date. This was because I was ill for a couple of weeks during my final term.

Tips For Answering Competency Based Interview Questions

In order to give clear, effective and varied answers, consider the following pointers:

  • When answering competency questions you can give examples from work, study or personal life, but make sure you give a wide variety of examples and a different example to answer each question.
  • Don't go into too much background detail when answering competency questions. Your interviewer only wants to know about your past behaviours. Further detail is redundant.
  • Make sure your answers and examples you use are the most relevant to the questions asked, rather than the most impressive or elaborate.
  • Don't make your answers up! Your interviewer will find this very easy to spot.

If you’re soon to have a competency based interview, this free ebook is well worth downloading. It covers how to recognise competency-based questions and relate them to an organisation; how to use the STAR and SOARA methods; and how to use narratives that work well as model answers.

Techniques for Answering Competency Questions

Each of the following techniques will stand you in good stead during the interview.

The STAR Technique

This is also sometimes known as SOAR, where Task is replaced by Objective.

  • Situation: Describe the situation.
  • Task: Describe what task was required of you.
  • Action: Tell the interviewer what action you took.
  • Result: Conclude by describing the result of that action.

Be positive about your actions throughout your response and do not make up an example as you will not come across as believable. If you cannot think of good examples instantly, ask the interviewer for a moment or two to think about the question and then give your answer.

The CAR Approach

One way of dealing with this type of question is to use the CAR approach. CAR stands for Context, Action, Result. It helps you to structure your answer like a mini essay.

Context is your introduction, where you describe the scenario you faced, the date and the place. The Action forms the main body and should be the longest part of your answer. The Result is the conclusion and like the introduction, should be quite short.

  • Context: Describe the situation and the task you were faced with, when, where, with whom?
  • Action: How? What action did you take? Sometimes people focus on what the group did without mentioning their individual contribution.
  • Result: What results did you achieve/conclusions did you reach/what did you learn from the experience?

Further Examples

Competency Question:

Give an example of when you've led a team.


I have led a team on a number of occasions. For example, when I was coach of my university football league. Not only do I believe that I am an efficient leader; I also believe that I work well as part of a team and can take instructions and work simultaneously with other people or colleagues.

I have the ability to communicate among different team members effectively, ensuring that the message I am try to put across to members is done so with clarity. This ultimately enables me to be an effective and successful team leader. Providing direction, support and guidance is the key to success.

Competency Question:

Give an example of when you've overcome a problem at work.


I have not really encountered many problems with work as this will be my first time in full-time work, though I do have deadlines to meet both at work in my part-time job and also in college. At college I have deadlines to meet and have tasks that need to be completed; these are often challenging, so I plan my time around them and also do what I can to deliver the best and highest quality work.

Further information

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