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Competency Based Interviews

Career Coach Emma Louise O'Brien - from our friends at Renovo - shares her top tips on preparing for this particular type of interview...

A competency based interview is a style of interviewing used to evaluate behaviours in certain situations rather than testing technical ability. The interviewer will ask questions to demonstrate a particular skill or ‘key competency’ the company is looking for. They will want to hear ‘real life’ examples of how you have handled situations in the past rather than ‘what you would do’.

Companies are increasingly using competency based interviews as part of the selection process to evaluate future applicants fairly. A competency based interview can give valuable insights into how you have responded previously in differing situations and predict future working styles.


Firstly understand the role – it is essential that you are clear on the role you are interviewing for, so try and gain an understanding of what you would be doing on a day to day basis. Start off by reading the job description and look at the person specification - you may want to highlight essential/desirable qualities with a highlighter pen. Pick out some of the key competencies stated in the job description and think of your own work related examples for each one. Common competencies may include: Teamwork, Communication skills, Decision making, Leadership, Problem-solving and Results focused.

Next, try and predict common scenarios in the role you are being interviewed for where you would need to demonstrate that competency. It may help to refer back to day to day responsibilities in the job description. Try and think of several work examples for each competency in case you are asked multiple questions regarding that competency. If they’re looking for someone with excellent teamwork and leadership skills, think of a scenario in which you’ve demonstrated this.


Competency based questions usually begin with phrases such as “Tell me about a time where you had to…”, “Describe a situation where…”, “Give me an example of when you …” So for example, if an interviewer is asking about communication, there are hundreds of questions that they could ask. If you are going to be communicating complex information or having to influence a stakeholder, think of previous examples where you have done this.

There is a great technique that can be used to help you structure your answer to a competency based question. The technique is called the STAR technique, STAR is the acronym for Situation Task Action and Results. Treat your interview examples like small stories, they will need a beginning, middle and an end. A good answer should take no more than 3-4 minutes.


Start your answer with Situation/Task. You can talk about the situation and the task together in order to set the scene. You must describe a specific event, situation or task that you needed to accomplish. You need to give enough detail for the interviewer to understand what the situation was, however, this part of the answer should be fairly brief.

Move on to the action; this should take up the main detail of the answer. Describe the action you took and be sure to keep the focus on you, using ‘I’ not ‘we’. Even if you are discussing a group project or effort, describe what you did, or who you collaborated with, not the efforts of the team. Explain what you did and your thought process behind it and try and demonstrate skills required from the role you are applying for so they can see similarities.

End your answer with Result. Describe the result and quantify it if possible. The potential employer is looking to see what benefit to the company your actions had. Ideally the result of your action should be positive, however, if the answer is negative, make sure you describe what you have learnt and what you would do differently next time, ending the answer on a positive.


Now you have thought of your answers, it may help to write them down and put them on a crib sheet using STAR bullet pointing a few lines or key words for each letter. Once you have done this, start reading your answers out loud. The more you say them the more likely you are to remember them.

Try and think of a “trigger or anchor point” for each answer that will link the example and the competency, so even if the question is asked in a different way, you will know to use that example, e.g. “Can you give me an example of a good decision you made?” Decision is the competency, the name of a project may be your anchor point to link the two together. If you have rehearsed your answer when you hear the word decision you should associate this with the trigger point (name of project).

The most important thing now is to practice the answers out loud. See if you can ask a friend or family member to do a mock interview with you. If this isn’t possible, just practice the answers out loud in front of a mirror. A lot of people put time and effort into interview preparation, but when they get into an interview they start answering questions and become flustered because they are not used to hearing themselves saying the answers. Time yourself, record yourself use voice notes and play yourself back. Only you can be your best critic.

On The Day

Now you have thought about and practised your answers, it will useful to consider how your answers will be measured and evaluated. During the interview marks will be allocated for each question. Different organisations will use slightly different marking templates, however, a typical scoring system is;

0 No evidence/No evidence reported
1 Poor/Little evidence of positive indicators
2 Areas for Concern/Limited number of positive indicators
3 Satisfactory/Satisfactory display of positive indicators
4 Good to Excellent/Strong display of positive indicators

If the interviewers feel that there are areas that haven’t been addressed, they may use probing secondary questions to find out more information. This would give you an opportunity to present a full picture of your behaviour. The aim is to score as may points as possible, so ensure you go into detail where possible, rather than assuming they will know why you responded or handled the situation in that way.

Interviewers will also be looking for the outcome of your example – if you can demonstrate that you have used the competency with a positive outcome, this is likely to have a stronger impact.


Practice makes perfect when it comes to being successful at interviews. If you are applying for similar roles, the hard work you put into this now ultimately will be useful for multiple interviews.

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