What is a competency-based interview? Understanding the process

Five candidates of different genders waiting for job interviews

Competency-based questions are used by a third of employers with new candidates. This article will guide you through what this type of interview entails.

Competency-based interviews are a popular style of interviewing for businesses recruiting candidates at all levels. While they are widely used during graduate and junior roles, they can also be useful for new roles at all levels. They help to evaluate a person’s competencies and interpersonal skills when they lack a comprehensive CV detailing their experience and work history.

Given that a third of employers use competency interviews as part of their recruitment process, it’s vital that graduate-level candidates familiarise themselves with the process and what it involves. Businesses are looking for people who can showcase their skillset while demonstrating a genuine enthusiasm for their future career, so preparation is crucial.

Our guide can help you understand the process of a competency-based interview and how best to prepare, so you can make a good impression.

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What makes competency-based different from a traditional interview?

What does a competency interview involve?

Preparing for a competency interview

What makes competency-based different from a traditional interview?

Cropped shot of a man being interviewed by two businesswomen in an office

If you’ve been invited to a competency-based interview, you may be wondering what’s in store and how it will differ to a regular interview.

While standard interviews are normally free-flowing and conversational, competency-based interviews are highly-structured, with the interviewer using pre-set questions from a script. Often, these questions are standardised examples created by psychologists and are intended to reveal insights into your skills and capabilities.

Though this style of interview may sound daunting on paper, it can work in your favour if you put in the right preparation and understand how to frame your answers. Businesses will be hoping to learn about your skills and how these will translate in a business setting, so you should have examples to hand which demonstrate your competencies and think about how these can be spun to meet the requirements of the role.

It may be difficult for people applying for graduate and junior roles to demonstrate like-for-like examples of competency in a similar workplace, so you may have to be creative. Think about responsibilities you assumed during your studies or in your previous working roles and adapt those to the role you’re applying for.

Of course, if you have industry and role experience, then it shouldn’t be so difficult to find demonstrable skills and achievements to showcase during a competency-based interview.

What does a competency interview involve?

Businesses which use competency-based interviews recognise the importance of skills built over a lifetime, so won’t solely ask work-specific questions. Instead, they want you to demonstrate that you have the core skills and competencies that make you right for the role, based purely on your life experiences and personal achievements.

They business will also look into ascertaining the candidate’s values, working behaviours and methodologies.

Here, we look at some of the competencies businesses are often looking for in candidates:

• Interpersonal – With a view to quantifying how well you’ll slip into the cog of business, companies want to see your social repertoire. Collaboration, teamwork and an ability to thrive are all plus points here, so think of examples which showcase your aptitude for working with others.

• Analytical – Every company wants problem solvers and decision makers; those who can find solutions through care and attention to detail. They’ll assess your analytical skills by asking for examples of how you approached and dealt with a problem.

• Motivational – As well as your skills and capabilities, companies want to see a genuine thirst for work, and so will examine your motivation, initiative and drive for results and quality. Prepare by thinking about your greatest achievement, how you worked towards it and what your drivers and motivations were.

These are just a small handful of the potential competencies businesses will focus on during an interview, and they will vary depending on the sector and type of role. As part of your prep, you should research common competency questions for your specific career path and plan answers which cover each of these.

Typically, competency-based interviews last around an hour when the candidate has given appropriately long answers to each question. And, because many companies use standardised questions, it’s possible to prepare well in advance with a low risk of being hit with a curveball.

Preparing for a competency interview

Close up of shaking hands after successful agreement.

As with any interview, it’s crucial that you prepare thoroughly for a competency-based interview and have multiple examples at your disposal which demonstrate your skills and capabilities. Without the interviewer having a CV which validates your experience, you need to sell yourself comprehensively and prove that your personal skills and competencies marry up with the needs of the business.

Below, we outline some of the best ways to prepare for an upcoming competency job interview.

Research likely questions

As mentioned above, there are set questions which you’re likely to be asked as part of a competency interview, and this gives you the advantage of being able to prepare comprehensive answers and know exactly what to expect from the assessment.

The internet is a powerful resource for interview prep, with guides outlining common questions for virtually every role across all the major sectors and industries. This means you can really put the work into preparing effective and persuasive answers, tailoring your responses to the criteria of the role.

Choose highlights from your employment and personal history

For each question you find while researching the above point, you’ll need to sift through your history to find strong examples which demonstrate your competencies in each specific area. Think about your greatest achievements and challenges, as well as instances when you helped solve a problem, and consider how these can be angled to best showcase your skills and capabilities. Even if you have a limited history of employment, use your own experiences to map out responses which will prove to the interviewer you have the appetite, work ethic and skills to align with the role.

Use the STAR technique

Many recruiters recommend the STAR technique when advising candidates ahead of an upcoming interview, and in the case of competency-based questions, it’s certainly the most powerful and compelling way of framing your answers.

Using the STAR system means you can deliver a comprehensive answer that gives the interviewer a complete breakdown of your skillset, how you worked to solve a problem and what you achieved. Below, we look at the STAR method and what it represents:

• S – The situation. This is when you set the scene and give a brief overview of the problem, laying out the background and the context of the project undertaken.

• T – The task. What was required, when was it required and who was needed to carry out the work. This demonstrates your logic, planning and interpersonal skills.

• A – The action. A breakdown of what you did to achieve a result, including your skills and problem-solving behaviours. You’ll tick the ‘analytical’ competencies box if you can get this section of your answer right.

• R – The result. What happened and what was achieved? This is your time to really sing your own praises and show the interviewer that the task couldn’t have happened without your skills and input.

The STAR technique is a great way to approach a competency-based interview. It gives you a great platform on which to prepare powerful and compelling answers to common questions, and is a logical way of delivering the information in an interview setting. By following this method, you’re essentially ticking the interviewer’s boxes and giving them a clear overview of your skills and competencies – a crucial factor in any form of job interview.

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