Cracking the competency questions

If you’ve made it through the telephone interview, and your first face-to-face with your potential employer, then you might get offered a competency interview. If there’s ever a phrase to trigger imposter syndrome it’s, ‘We’d like you to come for a competency assessment.’

And while these interviews can be stressful, there’s a lot that you can do to help yourself get past this stage and through to the shortlist. Here are our top tips for handling a competency interview.

Understand competency interviews

Competency interviews are popular, because they have more focus than the standard, unstructured, interview. Rather than asking open-ended questions, you’re more likely to be asked to relate experiences from your work and personal history.

They’re quite systematic, and don’t have a natural conversational flow. You’ll be asked a series of questions, each one targeting a particular skill that is needed for the role. Questions are commonly that explore areas like:

  • How well you communicate with others
  • How you work within a team
  • How comfortable you are with responsibility
  • How confident you are with decision making and/or leadership
  • How you approach problems
  • How goal-oriented you are

The questions are fairly short, and usually encourage you to identify and explain an incident from your past work history. For example, ‘Can you think of a time when a project didn’t go to plan? What lessons were you able to learn from that?’

But how can you prepare for questions if you don’t know what you’re going to be asked?

Do your research

It’s time to go back through all the documentation that you’ve seen about the job and look for clues! If you check through the original advertisement, the job description, and the company’s website you should be able to draw up a list of ‘soft’ skills that they are looking for in their winning candidate.

Once you have that, spend some time brainstorming with the help of your CV. Can you think of times in your career where you’ve shown that particular skill? Jot them down – and make notes of any anecdotes where things have gone wrong, too. You might get asked the question from that perspective.

The most common method for coming up with answers to these questions is known as the Star Technique. It’s a handy acronym for framing your answers:

Situation – This is the background the story. Giving some context to the rest and explain the problem.
Task – What were you, personally, doing in this situation. What were your responsibilities?
Activity – What did you, personally, do?
Resolution – What was the outcome?

Even if you are talking about a situation where you made mistakes, you’re still getting a valuable opportunity to show your new employer your resilience, and how you are able to learn when things go wrong.

Now you have a list and a framework, practise talking about these events. Ask a friend to act as interviewer, or just talk them through out loud. As you do that, you’ll be able to identify which parts you need to include, and which can be left out until you have a full and thorough, but not waffle-y, answer.

Don’t forget to breathe

These sessions can feel quite intense, so don’t worry if you need to buy yourself some time before you answer. Take a sip of water, clear your throat, or just take a deep breath. All of those will buy you a valuable second or two before you need to speak. If you’ve got your preparation right, the answer will bubble up from your memory shortly after.

With good preparation, competency interviews do not have to be nerve-wracking. They allow you to talk about specific experiences and stand out from other employers, so instead of dreading them, stay positive and prepare far in advance.


Read our blog on 5 interview questions that are harder to answer than you think.

If you’d like interview advice, please get in touch with one of our dedicated consultants on 0206 269 6144.