Competency Interview Advice

Preparing for a Competency-Based Interview

What is a competency-based interview? It’s all about you!

Competency-based interviews can also be called structured, behavioural or situational interviews, and they are designed to test various skills and competencies (which is a concept that links together knowledge, skills and attitude). The interviewer has a list of set questions, each focusing on a specific skill, and your answers will be compared against pre-determined criteria and marked accordingly.

Working on the principle that past behaviour is the best indicator of future performance, competency interviews can be used by employers across all sectors but are frequently used in assessment centres and also in graduate recruitment.

They do differ from normal interviews, which tend to be more informal. In unstructured interviews recruiters often ask a set of open-ended questions relevant to the job, such as 'what can you do for the company?' and 'why did you apply for the job?' to get an overall impression of who you are. A competency-based interview tends to be more systematic and each question targets a skill needed for the job. Typically more corporate organisations will use these formally, however we are finding that lots of smaller or ‘non-corporate’ companies use them on a more informal basis, gauging your responses on a more general level and not using a scoring system. We can  help guide you on which variation you’ll get at your interview with our client.

For the more formal approach, for each question the interviewer will have a list of positive indicators which they will look out for in your answers, and a list of negative indicators (which they’d rather not hear). They will score your answers from 0-4 points based on the weighting of positive and negative indicators in your answer. So, as an example:

0 – No evidence

No positive indicators

1 – Poor evidence

Little evidence of positive indicators. Mostly negative (probably decisive) indicators

2 – Areas for concern

Some positive indicators, more negative indicators (one may be decisive)

3 – Satisfactory/Good

Satisfactory/good positive indicators, some negative but none decisive

4 – Good/excellent

Strong display of positive indicators


Key competencies commonly sought after by employers include:

  • adaptability
  • commercial awareness
  • communication
  • conflict resolution
  • decisiveness
  • independence
  • flexibility
  • leadership
  • problem solving
  • organisation
  • resilience
  • teamwork.

Competency-based interview questions

Questions asked during a competency-based interview aim to test a variety of skills and you'll need to answer in the context of events from your own experience. This can be from either a positive or even an negative outcome scenario – in each case it’s about what you have learnt and what you did, or will do, differently the next time.

The skills tested will depend largely on the job you're interviewing for and the sector you'll be working in, so it is unlikely that all of the examples below will be relevant for your role you are interviewing for.

You should expect questions opening with 'Tell us about a time when you…', 'Give an example of…' or 'Describe how you…'

There is an almost inexhaustible number of questions that you could be asked, but examples of the kind competency questions you may be asked at interview include:

  • Which change of job in your career did you find the most difficult to make? (Tests your adaptability).
  • Tell me about a time when you included someone in a project because you felt they would bring something different to the team. (Tests your approach to diversity).
  • Tell me about a time you went against company policy. Why did you do it and how did you handle it? (Tests your compliance).
  • Tell me about a situation where conflict led to a negative outcome. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it? (Tests your conflict management).
  • Tell me about a situation where you felt the conventional approach would not be right. How did you come up with a new approach and tell me about how you handled any challenges? (Tests creativity and innovation).
  • What big decision have you made recently? How did you go about it? (Tests decisiveness).
  • What kind of responsibilities do you delegate? Please give an example of successful delegation on your part. (Tests your delegation skills).
  • When is the last time that you had an argument with a colleague? (Tests your empathy).
  • Give me an example of a time where the initial approach was not right, and you needed to change your method. (Tests your flexibility).
  • Which decisions do you feel you can make independently, and which do you prefer to have senior support for? (Tests your independence).
  • Tell me about a time you had to sell an idea to different stakeholders with different agendas – what approach/es did you use? (Tests your influencing skills).
  • What would you do if your boss asked you to do something illegal/immoral? (Tests your integrity).
  • Describe a situation where you had to use different leadership styles to achieve a goal. (Tests your leadership).
  • What place does empathy play in your work? Give an example where you needed to show empathy. (Tests your listening/communication skills).
  • What makes you frustrated or impatient at work? (Tests your resilience).
  • What is the biggest risk that you have taken at work? How did you deal with the process? (Tests your risk-taking skills).
  • How do you build relationships with other members of your team? (Tests your teamwork skills).
  • Describe a situation where you had to explain something complex to a colleague or a client. Which problems did you encounter and how did you deal with them? (Tests your verbal communication).
  • How do you plan the writing of a report? (Tests your written communication).

How to approach and answer competency questions

It’s important to understand that your approach to these kinds of questions needs to be subtly different to standard interview questions, and have in the back of your mind that it’s possible you are being scored. Having said that, you don’t want to go on all day with your answers – it’s a careful balance. You can always finish off by asking the interviewer if what you have said answers their question.

You will need to have a think before the interview about the key competencies that will be tested in the interview, and the job specification and discussions with us will give you a good idea of this. Understanding the requirements of the role is key here; then you’ll be able to think about the kinds of questions they may ask, and have some situations and answers ready to discuss at interview.

Using the STARL method (situation, task, action, result and learning) to structure your answers is a useful way to communicate important points clearly and concisely. For every answer you give, identify the:

  • Situation/task - describe the task that needed to be completed or the situation you were confronted with.
  • Action - Explain what you did and how and why you did it.
  • Result - Describe the outcome of your actions.
  • Learn – What did you learn, what did you, or will you, do differently the next time?

Where possible, try to relate your answers to the role that you're interviewing for. While your responses to the interview questions can be pre-prepared, do try to avoid sounding like you're reading from a script.

It’s not a good idea to attempt to wing it by thinking on your feet, you’ll be likely to panic, or forget a better example, and the quality of your answers will suffer. Also, avoid embellishing the truth at all costs – it will always come out in the end, and could easily be checked this stage.

Preparation for these types of interviews is key, but it is well worth putting in the time and thought beforehand to enable you to show what you can actually bring to the role.

Good luck!

19 April 2022