Preparing for competency-based job interviews

Competency-based interviews (also known as structured interviews) use questions which are designed to test one or more specific skills. Your answer is matched against pre-determined criteria and marked accordingly. For example, the interviewer or occupational psychologist may ask how you generally handle stress and then ask you to describe an example of a situation where you worked under pressure.  This will assess your ability to deal with stress.

What are the differences between competency-based and normal interviews?

Normal interviews or unstructured interviews are essentially a conversation where the interviewers ask a few questions that are relevant to what they are looking for to get an overall impression of you as an individual. Questions are fairly random and can sometimes be quite open. For example, a question such as "What can you offer our company?" gathers general information about you but does not test any specific skill or competency. In an unstructured interview, the candidate is judged on the general impression that he/she leaves; the process is therefore likely to be more subjective. 

Competency-based interviews or structured or behavioural interviews are more systematic, with each question targeting a specific skill or competency. Questions are used to explore behaviour in specific circumstances, followed up by requests for concrete examples to back up the answers. The interviewers will then dig further into the examples by asking for specific explanations about the candidate's behaviour or skills.

Which skills and competencies do competency-based interviews test?

Competency-based interviews can be used to test a wider variety of skills and competencies at a range of levels. For example, for an administrative position, skills and competencies would include communication skills; ability to organise and prioritise; and ability to work under pressure. For a managerial role, skills and competencies may include an ability to influence and persuade others; an ability to cope with stress and effectively manage pressure; an ability to take calculated risks; and an ability to direct and lead others.

The following, non-exhaustive, list has the more common skills and competencies that you may be asked to demonstrate:

  • Adaptability
  • Compliance
  • Communication
  • Conflict management
  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Decisiveness
  • Delegation
  • External awareness
  • Flexibility
  • Independence
  • Influencing
  • Integrity
  • Leadership
  • Organisational awareness
  • Resilience and tenacity
  • Risk taking
  • Sensitivity to others
  • Team work

What kind of competency-based interview questions can you be asked?

Although most questions tend to ask for examples of situations where you have demonstrated specific skills, they can appear in different formats. Examples include:

  • How do you ensure that you maintain good working relationships with your co-workers?
  • Give us an example of a situation where you had to deal with a conflict. What was the situation? What was your role? What was the outcome? How do you influence people in situations where there are conflicting agendas?
  • Tell us about a situation where you made a decision and then changed your mind. What was the situation? What did you do? What was the outcome?
  • Can you give us an example of a situation in which take charge of a situation. What was the situation? What was your strategy? What was the outcome?

In many cases, the interviewers will start with a general question, which they will then follow up with more specific example-based questions. So, for example:

  • How do you communicate instructions to others?
  • How do you manage tasks?
  • Give us an example of a situation where you had a fundamental disagreement with one of your co-workers.

The key to answering competency-based questions is that to "demonstrate" that you have the right skills by using examples based on your prior experience, and not just talk about the topic in a theoretical and impersonal manner.

You can learn more about how to prepare for your competency-based interview and find out about the STAR (Situation, Task, Action & Result) technique in our Job Interview Course.