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Guide to Competency Interviews

Published 14 September 2017

As competency based interviews are becoming an ever more frequent part of candidate selection, here is a brief guide to what such interviews involve, along with some advice on how best to approach them:

Guide to competency based interviews

Competency interviews are based on the idea that past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour. Accordingly, the interviewer’s goal is to get specific examples of when and how you have demonstrated particular behaviours and interview questions are carefully designed to probe specific skills, competencies and characteristics.

Whilst each interview may vary in terms of the questions asked / competencies reviewed, there are general themes that are usually covered. It is well worthwhile preparing for this type of interview by, for example, being familiar with some of the possible questions and how you would answer them.

What is a competency based interview?

Competency based interviews enable us to understand a candidate's past behaviour and use this on the basis that this is the best predictor of future behaviour. Competency based interviews are designed to assess a candidate against a standard set of competencies required for the role. Competencies are the attributes of an individual that are important for effective performance in a role and are usually a mixture of skills, ability, motivation and knowledge.

The competencies assessed in an interview differ from role to role depending on what behaviours are required in the role.

Some common competencies you may have come across are:

  • Working with Others / Teamwork
  • Planning and Organising
  • Analysis and Problem Solving
  • Leading and Decision-Making
  • Communicating

How are competency based interviews conducted?

A competency based interview is a timed, structured interview made up of specific questions relating to each competency area that is to be assessed. The interviewer will be asking you for specific examples of your past behaviour which demonstrate evidence against each competency and all candidates applying for the same role will be asked the same questions. Questions often begin with "Tell me about a time when…" or "Give me an example of…"For each question, the interviewer will ask you a question and then follow this up with a series of probing questions to gather all of the information they need for each competency area.

Here is an example of a typical question for the competency 'Working with Others'.

[Opening question]

"Tell me about a situation where it was important that you worked as part of a team."


"What was the situation?

Why was it important?

What part did you play in the team?

What difficulties / conflicts did you encounter? How did you approach these?

How successful were you in meeting your team objectives?

What feedback did you receive?

What have you learned from this experience? How have you applied this learning since?"

How to prepare for a competency based interview

Now that you have some insight into what a competency based interview is and how it will be conducted, you can begin to prepare and practise for one.

Unfortunately, we cannot tell you exactly which behaviours or competencies we are assessing at the interview. However you should be able to think of situations you have been in that demonstrate to us that you have the qualities we are looking for.

Below are some hints and tips which you may find useful:

It is important that you get to know what is required of the role you have applied for. Spend some time 'dissecting' the job advert and any further information available on the website. Look for keywords and phrases such as 'team-player', 'strong analytical skills', 'ability to deliver to tight deadlines', 'excellent communication skills' and so on. From these keywords you can gain an indication of the type of competencies and behaviours that may be assessed in the recruitment process.

Apply your common sense - if you have applied for a customer-facing role, then it is most likely that you will be asked to describe situations where you have interacted with a customer and delivered good customer service. Similarly, if you have applied for a technical role, you will most likely be assessed on your ability to analyse and solve problems.

Think back over your past experiences and situations you have been involved in that might demonstrate to an interviewer the behaviours they are looking for. The examples might be from work, college, sports, volunteer roles or other groups or teams you may have been a part of. Try to think of your most recent experiences so you can remember lots of detail about what you did in that situation (i.e. try to use examples that are no older than 2 years).

A useful technique to use when preparing for and answering competency based questions is the 'STAR' technique. This acronym acts as a reminder to you as to how to structure your response.

  • Situation – what was the context / situation?
  • Task – what was required of you in terms of aims / objectives / challenges?
  • Action – what did you do (as opposed to your colleagues / team-mates / supervisor)?
  • Result – what happened / what was the outcome of your actions?

You will be asked to provide specific examples with lots of detail. When using this format it is useful to give the interviewer a little bit of the Situation and Task but the bulk of your example should consist of your Action – what you did and said in this situation. It is always a good idea to also think about challenges and problems that you faced and how you overcame them as well as what you learned from your experiences.

By following this format, you will give the interviewer a good understanding of your experience and behaviour.

You might find it useful to have a go at being interviewed with the help of a friend or family member. Don't try to rehearse or memorise your answers, simply familiarise yourself with your previous experiences in a structured way to help you remember what you did in these situations.

Tips for the Interview

  • Be yourself - act naturally, the interviewer wants to get to know you.
  • Try to relax and ask for water if you need it.
  • Don't be afraid to take time to collect your thoughts and think of your best example to fit the question before speaking.
  • It's OK to ask questions – remember it's a two-way conversation.
  • It's also OK to ask the interviewer to repeat a question, or clarify your understanding of what you are being asked.
  • If you are unsure about whether your example is what the interviewer was looking for, at the end of your response check with the interviewer that you have answered their question.
  • Your interviewer will be busy taking notes during the interview and may not be able to maintain eye contact with you; don't let that distract you or put you off. It's their job to get everything down so they have an accurate record of what you have said in the interview – it does not mean you are giving bad examples.
  • And remember, if your interview is to be conducted by telephone, it's just as important as a face-to-face interview, so follow the same preparation guidelines.

Good luck with your interview.