How to Ace a Competency-Based Job Interview

Competency based interviews are an increasingly common type of interview where the interviewer asks questions about your approach to work, rather than your actual experience. This can feel very counterintuitive – particularly if you have substantial experience of working within a field – but answered well these questions provide you with a lot of opportunity to showcase your strengths and share your successes.

Ed Mellet failed employers’ assessment tests over and over before securing the job he wanted. From that experience, Mellet, now an entrepreneur and careers professional, launched PracticeReasoningTests to teach job applicants to successfully complete the reasoning tests they are likely to face. I asked Ed for his recommendations on taking competency-based interview tests.

What is a competency-based test?

In a competency-based interview each candidate will be asked the same questions, in the same order, and the interviewer will usually assess the candidate’s responses against a set of specific criteria. This makes the competency-based interview fairer and more predictive of future workplace success than a traditional unstructured interview.

Typical questions might be something like:

  • Tell me about a time when you worked collaboratively with others
  • Tell me about a time when you had to manage a number of conflicting deadlines
  • Tell me about a time when you had to influence someone

Why are they used?

Competency-based interviews are based on the idea that the best predictor of future behaviour/performance is how the individual has behaved/performed in the past. These interviews help assessors understand how candidates are likely to approach particular situations and to explore whether that approach is likely to be successful within their organization.

They are particularly effective for distinguishing candidates who, on paper, all appear to have the ability to do the job. They are also useful for jobs where candidates may not have a lot of experience in a similar role, such as graduate schemes, as they allow candidates to share examples from all areas of life.

What are competencies?

A competency is an ability to do something, like communicate effectively or work with others. For example:

Competency: Decision Making

Definition: The ability to make sound decisions, drawing upon relevant information, in a timely manner.

Competencies are then turned into interview questions and specific behaviours or success criteria are identified. For “Decision Making,” the question might be:

Question: Tell me about a time you had to make a difficult decision.

Success Criteria:

  • Makes use of available data to inform their decision
  • Considers the pros and cons of a number of options
  • Arrived at a logical and sensible conclusion
  • Consulted with others
  • Was prepared to be responsible and accountable for making the decision
  • Made the decision within an appropriate timeframe

How should I prepare?

In some ways competency-based interviews are relatively easy to prepare for because they required you to talk about your previous experiences. They do not try to catch you out or ask questions that are not relevant to the role. However, to set yourself up for success, it is still important to prepare properly, here are some ideas for how you can do this:

-Find out what competencies you will be assessed against. If you know what competencies you will be assessed against you can start thinking about these in advance. The best way of doing this is to look at the Job Description for the role and identify likely or explicit competencies they contain. It might also be worth contacting the HR team and asking them if they are able to provide a list of the competencies and definitions for the role.

-Familiarize yourself with the concept of competencies and explore how competencies tend to be defined and assessed. The best way of doing this is to do a google search. This is particularly effective if you know what competency you will be assessed against. This should provide you with a number of examples of competencies, an idea of what the success criteria might look like, and even examples of good and bad responses to typical questions. You should tailor your response to try to meet these success criteria.

-Explore what poor examples might look like. Often, the marking criteria for competency-based interviews include examples of both good and bad responses. For example, for the competency “working with others,” a good response might include “asking others what they think and proactively seeking to involve others in the discussion,” while a bad response might be “dominates the conversation, unwilling to allow others to speak, and dismissive of their contributions.” This will give you an idea of the sorts of things you need to avoid in your answers.

-Make a list of all of your major successes. Competency-based interviews are great because they allow you to talk about the things you’ve done well in the past. Make a list of these – ideally you should be able to create themes around the competencies you identified earlier. Remember, the example needs to show your thought process and how you approached the situation, and while ideally the more impressive the scenario the better, don’t discount smaller, more everyday examples if they allow you to demonstrate the competency. Where possible, these should be within the last two years because this means you will remember enough of the details.

-Practice. The more you practice the better you will perform. Ask a trusted friend or family member to quiz you around your examples and make sure you are comfortable talking them through.

Tips for interview success:

  • Use the STAR technique to structure your answers. This stands for Situation, Task, Action and Results. This ensures you deliver a sequential, structured, and concise response that is clear for the hiring manager to follow.
  • Create a hard copy of your list of successes and take it with you. This competency-based interview is not a test of memory and there is nothing worse than going blank and being unable to think of anything to say in response to a question. Having your list there to refer to will help you perform at your best.
  • Expect probing questions. The assessors will ask probing questions to get a greater level of insight into what exactly you did. For example, “why did you do that?” or “what were your considerations?” You should expect to be quizzed in greater detail about anything you might mention.
  • Watch for cues. Watch your assessors to get a feel for how the interview is going. If the assessor has stopped making notes that tends to be a bad sign. If the interviewer is trying to say something, make sure you let them – you may have gone off track and they are trying to help you out. Ask “did that answer your question?”
  • Make it clear what you did. Avoid talking about “we” and emphasise your contribution and approach.
  • Remember to prepare for other aspects of the selection process. Often, competency-based interviews are only part of an assessment processes that might also involve assessment centres or psychometric tests. Don’t focus on the interview and lose sight of these; practicing psychometric tests is important too.


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