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 assess a candidate's potential future performance is to question candidates about their 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 have candidates show 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.

Question format can vary. Sometimes the interviewer will be looking to gather non-specific information, rather than evaluating any particular competency or skill. More normally, interviewers will isolate key competencies that they believe suitable employees should possess, and tailor questions to focus on those skills.

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 10 of the key competencies which interviewers often focus on:

  • Communication. Regardless of the position or industry, the way we interact with others is crucial and you need to be able to build and maintain excellent relationships with clients and colleagues. Example question: ‘Tell us about a time you had to adjust your communication approach to suit a particular audience.’
  • Decision making. Good decision making will help you solve problems, devise solutions and make efficiencies. Example question: ‘Give an example of a time when you had to make a difficult decision.’
  • Leadership. Valuable for many reasons – such as showing that you can coordinate, motivate and lead a successful team. Example question: ‘Describe a situation when you assumed the role of leader. Were there any challenges, and how did you address them?’
  • Results orientation. Being focused on results is a skill that will help you excel in your career. It can be anything from improving a system or process through to hitting targets. Example question: ‘Give me an example of a time when you believe you were successful.’
  • Teamwork. Businesses don’t work properly without good teamwork. Collaborative working can achieve results, improve productivity and boost performance. Example question: ‘Describe a situation in which you were working as part of a team. How did you make a contribution?’
  • Trustworthiness. Good employees can be trusted to get things done. Example question: ‘Would you report on a colleague who you knew was taking money from the company illegally?’
  • Responsibility. Employees who take responsibility for and pride in their work are highly valued. Example question: ‘Describe a situation when you held responsibility for completion of a task.’
  • Commercial Awareness. A skill that illustrates intelligence, professionalism and commitment to the firm. Example question: ‘Describe a situation when you have had to use commercial awareness.’
  • Professional Development. Being open to enhancing your skills will always help you succeed at work. Example question: ‘Describe a period where you enhanced your skills effectively.’
  • Technical Skills. Ever more important, technical (and particularly digital) skills are highly sought after because so many businesses are using them to grow. Example question: ‘Describe a situation where you have used technical skills in your work.’

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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.

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How To Prepare for Competency Questions

Preparation for any type of interview will help increase your chances of success, but with competency interviews, it’s especially crucial, so that you are able to recall scenarios that demonstrate what the interviewer is looking for. To adequately prepare you should:

Explore the skills and competencies that you will be asked about. Although this sounds obvious, it’s surprising how many people fail to carry out the correct research to ensure the answers they provide are strong enough. As an example, if the person specification states that you require good communication skills when dealing with customers, the role is likely to involve complaints handling - so you will need to highlight skills such as empathy, and understanding while being assertive. Alternatively, if you’re applying to a consultancy, they may look for evidence of communicating complex issues in a simple manner (without as much empathy).

Conduct some personal brainstorming to help identify a range of examples relevant to the role. Write these examples down and then select those which can be most closely linked to the specific competencies. Think carefully about examples that best demonstrate your skills and attitude, and which are most likely to impress the panel.

Prepare your answers based around solid examples from your work, volunteering or academic studies. The most common competencies that are asked include problem solving, team working and being results-driven. Identify examples from your past experience which demonstrate that you possess those skills. You do not have to find hyper-complicated examples. In particular the outcome of the story does not have to be extraordinary; what matters most is that the role you played in reaching the outcome was substantial.

Learn to narrate using the STAR method. This means setting the scene, explaining how you handled the situation by placing the emphasis on your role, and detailing the outcome/result.

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.

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.

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 organised myself 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.


Aim for positive justifications rather than negative ones.

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.
  • Carefully evaluate the person specification. One of the most important elements in a competency interview is assessing your suitability in terms of core competencies. Take time to read and understand the spec, highlighting skills, experience and knowledge that’s important.
  • Explore the company’s website. Understand what the company does and what attributes current employees might possess.
  • Evaluate industry intelligence. Find out everything you can about the industry the company exists in and the types of people in that industry who are influential.
  • STAR technique. Think: Situation, Task, Action, Result. This will help you to tell a story in a clear and concise manner, while showing evidence to support your answers. See below for more detail.
  • Don't make your answers up! Your interviewer will find this very easy to spot.

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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.

Read our full article on how best to use the STAR technique.

The CAR Technique

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?

4 Example Competency Questions

These four questions are all ones you can expect to come across in a competency-based interview.

1. Describe a situation when you had to complete a piece of work to a high standard while meeting a strict deadline.

Structured Answer:

Situation: As part of the final project for my degree, I completed a quantitative research project to explore whether customer loyalty increased or decreased with businesses who use social media as opposed to those who don’t. I worked with a creative agency who sponsored my project to allow me to gather the information I needed.

Task: To provide useful information for the agency, I needed to carry out thorough research and draft the report within a three-month period.

Action: To ensure the project was delivered on time, I had to become fully conversant with quantitative research techniques. I therefore studied this extensively, which improved the way I gathered data for the project. I also managed to complete this project while fulfilling my other volunteering commitments and assignments for other courses.

Result: Even though the workload was significant and I was under a great deal of pressure, I achieved a pass of 80% for my final project and my work was published in a respected journal. The agency who sponsored the research also published the findings of their project, and I secured an internship with them over the summer.

2. Provide an example of when you used effective time management and achieved success.

Structured Answer:

Situation: While working in an internship programme with a team of four other interns, two of them decided not to continue with the internship.

Task: As a group we had been asked to assist with a major client project, helping to formulate a digital strategy before the end of our first month on the internship.

Action: Although the company were going to reduce the workload that had been allocated to the group, I spoke with the manager and the remaining intern and we agreed to take on all of what had been originally agreed for the four of us. I reviewed the work schedules, allocated new responsibilities and worked two hours longer each day unpaid.

Result: We managed to make a significant contribution to the client’s strategy and delivered all of our obligations as agreed. I was commended for taking on additional responsibilities efficiently and professionally. 

3. Describe a situation when the cause of a problem was not immediately apparent.

Structured Answer:

Situation: While working as an intern for a digital agency, data analysis showed that there had been a 15% drop in traffic over a period of 12 weeks. Analytics also showed that a lot of customers were abandoning the shopping cart before completing the purchase, and the bounce rate on the landing page was increasing.

Task: I was asked to conduct some research to find out the possible outcomes of this drop in traffic and growing bounce rate, and provide recommendations for addressing the issue.

Action: Using a variety of tools such as Ahrefs and Google Analytics, I conducted an analysis of competitor performance and the effectiveness of our content strategy.

Result: Using these programmes, I identified that a group of blog and website owners had stopped linking to our content. Once the problem was identified, I worked closely with the SEO and marketing teams to win many of those links back, which helped to restore traffic and engagement to previous levels.

4. Describe a situation which required the use of your creativity.

Structured Answer:

Situation: In the HR business where I interned, a client was experiencing high employee turnover without an obvious cause.

Task: I was asked by a manager to carry out some data analysis, to identify any trends or patterns that would reveal the likely causes.

Action: I decided to develop an anonymous staff questionnaire which all employees could complete online.

Result: A significant proportion of staff completed the questionnaire. A key finding was that many felt that their training and development wasn’t taken seriously. Furthermore, staff felt that it was difficult to speak to management about change. These suggestions were passed onto the management team, who made improvements to training and development, established more effective channels of communication and began an open-door policy. Turnover in the next six months showed a marked decrease.

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