Why are Competency Questions used in Interviews?

Recruitment professionals believe that the best way to find out about a candidate’s potential future performance is to find out about examples of past performance. However when faced with scenarios such as interviewing candidates who don’t usually have any experience of the industry to which they are applying therefore, it is impossible for interviewers to discuss previous job roles. Instead interviewers use competency questions in order to reveal how they have performed in various situations in the past, revealing individual personality traits etc. These are a great help for interviewers interested in finding out exactly who a candidate is and how they may act if employed.

Interviewers usually isolate specific key competencies that they believe suitable employees should possess and ask competency based interview questions designed to force candidates to reveal their skills in these areas.

Examples of key competencies interviewers ask about are: Teamwork, Responsibility, Delegation, Decision making, Communication, Leadership, Ambition, Commercial Awareness, Career Motivations etc.

How to Answer Competency Questions

An example of a typical competency interview question is:

“Tell me about a time when you failed to complete a task or project on time, despite intending to do so?”

In your response your interviewer will want to find out how you manage your time during difficult tasks and the reason why you failed to meet your deadline on this occasion (and consequently a reason why you may fail to meet deadlines in the future).

Interviewers using behaviour-based interviewing techniques such as competency questions are likely to probe for additional details during your responses. Always make sure you provide concise, highly specific answers that are well explained, thought out and detailed.

Although your interviewer will at times ask you to give examples of past failures (such as the question above) rather than achievements, you must adequately justify why you failed to complete tasks, and defend the reasons for your failure. Clever candidates will justify failure by giving examples of positive personality traits. Consider the following answers:

  • Competency answer one: Positive justification for missed deadline
  • “During my final year at university I failed to deliver my dissertation on the due date. This was because I was heavily involved in cutting edge research right up until the end of my course and was waiting for imminent results from surveys being undertaken by researchers at other academic institutions.
  • Considering this was my final piece of academic work, I wanted to ensure it was based on the most accurate and up to date sources of information available, even if this meant a delay in production. To ensure no marks were deducted from my dissertation, I contacted my course director and personal tutor two weeks before my dissertation due date to discuss my particular situation. I argued my case, and was consequently allowed an extra two weeks to produce my work.
  • Although my work was delayed, I feel that this delay was justified in that the work was of the highest quality it could be. Furthermore, I sufficiently organised myself in relation to my department and tutors, so that all relevant people were aware of a possible delay in the production of my dissertation.”

Compare this answer to those below, which justify failure with much weaker, negative responses:

  • Competency answer two: Negative justification for missed deadline
  • “During my final year at university I failed to deliver my dissertation on the due date. This was because I was ill for a couple of weeks during my final semester.”
  • Competency answer three: Negative justification for missed deadline
  • “During my final year at university I failed to deliver my dissertation on the due date. One of my worst characteristics is poor organisation, especially in relation to time.”

Tips for answering competency based interview questions

  • When answering competency questions you can give examples from work, study or personal life, but make sure you give a wide variety of examples and a different example to answer each question.
  • Don’t go into too much background detail when answering competency questions. Your interviewer only wants to know about your past behaviours. Further detail is redundant.
  • Make sure your answers and examples you use are the most relevant to the questions asked, rather than the most impressive or elaborate.
  • Don’t make your answers up! Your interviewer will find this very easy to spot.

Techniques for Answering Competency Questions

There are several ways to answer competency questions in an interview.

The STAR Technique

This is also sometimes known as SOAR, where “Task” is replaced by “Objective”.

  • Situation: Describe the situation.
  • Task: Describe what task was required of you.
  • Action: Tell the interviewer what action you took.
  • Result: Conclude by describing the result of that action.

Be positive about your actions throughout your response and do not make up an example as you will NOT come across as believable. If you cannot think of good examples instantly, ask the interviewer for a moment or two to think about the question and then give your answer.

The CAR Approach

One way of dealing with this type of question is to use the CAR approach. CAR stands for Context, Action, and Result. It helps you to structure your answer like a mini essay.

“Context” is your introduction, where you describe the scenario you faced, date and place. The “Action” forms the main body and should be the longest part of your answer. The “Result” is the conclusion and like the introduction, should be quite short.

  • Context: Describe the situation and the task you were faced with, when, where, with whom?
  • Action: How? What action did YOU take? Sometimes people focus on what the group did without mentioning their individual contribution.
  • Result: What results did you achieve/conclusions did you reach/what did you learn from the experience?

Examples of Competency Interview Questions and Answers

  • Competency Question: Give an example of when you’ve led a team.
  • Answer: I have led a team on a number of occasions, for example, when I was coach of my university football league. Not only do I believe that I am an efficient leader I also believe that I work well as part of a team and can also take instructions and work simultaneously with other people or colleagues. I have the ability to communicate amongst different team members effectively ensuring that the message I am trying to put across to members is done so with clarity. This ultimately enables me to be an effective and successful team leader. Providing direction, support and guidance is the key to success.
  • Competency Question: Give an example of when you’ve overcome a problem at work.
  • Answer: I have not really encountered many problems with work as this will be my first time in full time work, though I do have deadlines to meet both at work in my part time job and also in college. At college I have deadlines to meet and have tasks that need to be completed these are often challenging, these things I enjoy so plan my time around and also do what I can to deliver the best and highest quality work.


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