How to nail a Competency-based interview

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Most interviews today are competency-based. It’s a phrase that can be confusing. Simply put, a competency is an important skill or attribute that is required to do a job effectively. Whilst you will also be asked questions concerning your strengths, motivations and ambitions during a competency-based interview, competency assessment will be the core component. 

Knowledge, Skills, Judgement & Experience

The competencies that the organisation is seeking will usually be listed in the job description. Communication and Organisational Skills, Teamwork, Interpersonal and Leadership Skills are some of the more common competencies. By assessing your levels of competency, the employer is determining if you have the skills, knowledge, judgement and experience to be successful in the role. So how are they assessed?

1. Past Examples

This is the most common competency assessment technique. You will be asked to share examples of how you demonstrated the required competencies in the past. For example, ‘talk me through a time where your communication skills helped to achieve a specific goal.’ This approach is based on the thinking that the best indication of future behaviour is past behaviour. You will hear phrases such as ‘Tell us about a time when...,’ ‘Describe a situation where..., ‘Give us an example of...’

A useful way to structure your answer is with the mnemonic STAR.

S/T = Situation or Task

You are setting the scene, giving a brief description of the situation or task you were facing.

A = Action or Ability demonstrated

You outline what you actually did, how you approached handling the situation. You are emphasising the skills you displayed. When describing what you did, avoid using broad generalisations or clichés, the more specific you are the better. 

R = Result or Resolution

You close your example by sharing how your actions resolved the situation, how you completed the task, or what you learned from the experience. 

When a competency let you down!

When preparing for an interview you will line up the examples and responses that show you in the best possible light. Occasionally and to further assess your self-awareness and learning, an interviewer could ask you to give an example of a situation where a specific competency let you down. So just in case, have one or two examples of situations that didn’t go as well as you would have liked. When speaking about them you will of course emphasise your learning and what you would have done differently with hindsight.

2 Hypothetical Scenarios

The second way a competency is assessed is asking you how you would approach a hypothetical situation. For example, to assess your organisational skills you could be asked – ‘if two clients are seeking something from you urgently, how would you go about prioritising their requests?’ 

Hypothetical scenarios are used when candidates may not have past experiences to draw upon, for instance if they are starting out in their careers. They can also be used to test, candidates’ ability to think on their feet. Hypothetical scenarios can be challenging because they cannot be predicted, though they will usually be based on situations relevant to the role. 

3. Competency Definition

The third way a competency is assessed is when the interviewer asks you to share your understanding of what a competency means. This line of questioning is generally used in tandem with one of the other competency assessment methods. 

You may have your examples lined up and to be asked a question like – ‘what are the qualities of a good leader,’ or ‘what makes for a good team player,’ could easily throw you. So for each of the competencies listed in the job description, think about how you would define them as part of your preparation. You don’t need to give a dictionary definition or an academic answer, think about someone who is skilled in that area and what they would do to demonstrate that competency.

Think of a competency-based interview like an exam, where you know in advance the themes or topics that are going to come up. Competency-based interviews are sometimes referred to as structured interviews because the competencies provide a framework for the interview. This helps the interviewers prepare their questions and it also helps you prepare the scaffolding of your answers.


James Sweetman is the author of five books, including the free ebook ‘How to Excel at Interviews.’ As an experienced Business & Personal Coach he specialises in assisting clients prepare for interview. More information about James and his work, including a wealth of resources and tips, can be found at or on his YouTube Channel.

His popular ebook ‘How to Excel at Interviews’ can be downloaded for free at