Updated 28 May 2020
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.
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.
These are 10 of the key competencies which interviewers often focus on:
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Preparation for any type of interview will help increase your chances of success, but with competency interviews it’s especially crucial.
You must be able to recall scenarios that demonstrate your key competencies, when asked to do so by an interviewer.
To adequately prepare, you should:
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.
To give clear, effective and varied answers, consider the following pointers:
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Each of the following techniques will stand you in good stead during the interview.
This is also sometimes known as SOAR, where Task is replaced by Objective.
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.
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.
These four questions are all ones you can expect to come across in a competency-based interview.
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.
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.
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.
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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