How To Succeed In Competency Based Interviews

This article aims to adequately prepare people who are about to have a competency based interview. It sketches out the rationale behind this approach and provides insight into the type of questions to expect. Specific guidelines will also be provided and if these are followed they should result in a successful outcome.

These days an increasing number of organisations are using competency based interviews in order to recruit staff. These can often be quite different from a conventional interview and candidates are often caught unaware and simply do not know how to deal with them. Therefore, applicants attending such an interview must prepare thoroughly in order to succeed. Anyone responding to competency based questions with vague answers and imprecise information is almost certain to be rejected. Candidates need to understand the rationale behind this approach, the kinds of questions that are likely to be asked, and the best way of answering them. All the required information will be provided in this article.

The rationale behind competency based interviews

The competency based interview is designed to reveal what the person actually thought, said and did in particular situations. In other words, each question will evaluate at least one particular competency or skill and the underlying knowledge, attitudes and experience which accompany these. Answers are then compared with pre-determined criteria and assessed accordingly. The aim is to achieve an objective interview, eliminating subjective assessments which tend to reflect an interviewer’s own bias. Interviewers who use this technique are trained to probe for detailed descriptions of a person’s behaviour and to hear and record any evidence of competency. The method is based on research which has clearly shown that the best way to predict future performance is by analysing previous behaviour.

Those who use competency based questions believe there are a number of advantages to the approach. These include: offering greater reliability and validity than other interview techniques; providing interviewees with more opportunity to discuss contributions they have made in specific situations; enabling assessments based on tangible evidence of behaviour associated with successful outcomes.

Example competency based interview questions

The questions that will be asked are based upon the competencies or skills the interviewer believes to be required in the role for which a person is applying. These will vary according to the type of role and its level of seniority. But, typically, the kind of competencies employers are looking for may include the following: teamwork, communication, flexibility, decision-making, problem-solving, integrity, creativity, tenacity, risk taking, conflict management, leadership.

Let’s take the example of communication, since this is a skill required for many jobs. Here are a few questions that may be asked in order to assess communication skills:

  • Describe a situation in which your ability to communicate well made a positive impact on the success of a project.
  • What did you learn from a situation in which you failed to communicate effectively?
  • Give us two examples of how you communicated well with very different groups of people.

Another key competency, especially for senior positions, is leadership. Here are a few examples of questions designed to probe for this skill:

  • Describe a situation where you successfully persuaded your team to take a totally different approach from the one they preferred.
  • What did you learn from a situation where you found that your leadership style was not working effectively?
  • What has been your hardest leadership challenge to date and how did you approach it?

These sample questions will hopefully clarify how competency based interviews operate. Interviewers will know in advance the kind of behaviours they are looking for and answers given will be analysed on the basis of how someone scores, in terms of positive or negative evidence that is presented during the interview. Some industries and some particular organisations use tried and tested assessment tools. Most interviewers use some form of scoring chart and often such a chart will expect higher marks in what are perceived to be the most important competencies. But, in essence, each candidate will be compared with an expected ideal score or outcome, as well as with other candidates.

The best way to answer these questions

The first step towards answering competency based questions effectively is thorough preparation. A job specification is usually supplied for every position. This must be read in detail and then it should be easy enough to understand the key competencies required by the organisation for that role. The next step is to compare it with the personal resume, thinking through each competency and making notes of specific situations and how they were handled. These scenarios can be used as examples in the interview. The notes should be rehearsed beforehand until the answers flow naturally.

It’s important to be clear and concise and to avoid long, confusing answers. Again this must be practiced. The competency based interview is very much like a courtroom scenario. The person being questioned is required to give compelling evidence in support of his or her case. Success in this type of interview demands precision, an extremely positive attitude and a clear, focused approach to every single question. There are various techniques that have been suggested as ways of handling competency based questions. These typically involve speaking about the situation or context, the task, the actions that were taken and the eventual result. Such techniques may well offer considerable help in both preparation and delivery.


It’s always worth remembering that whatever pressure you’re under in an interview, you must always answer honestly. Otherwise you’ll never come across with any integrity or genuine confidence. The interviewers understand that no-one is perfect and they are simply trying to assess if a candidate adequately measures up to their minimum expectation of someone who can successfully fill the position in question. With the right preparation, attitude and delivery anyone can succeed in a competency based interview.

With 20+ years of experience writing CVs, it still puts a smile on my face when I hear a client has secured an interview Lee Tonge - Founder and Director


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