How to Prepare for Competency-Based Interviews

When you’re facing a job interview after many years out, it can be difficult to know how best to prepare. It may be many years since you last had an interview and the structure of interviews has changed significantly in the last decade. One relatively new and increasingly common addition to the recruitment process is the use of competency-based interviews. These raise particular issues if you’ve had a long career break and if you have never encountered them before they can throw you off balance in an interview. The key to performing well is detailed preparation – this is not the moment to rely on ‘thinking on your feet’ as you may have done previously in less structured more conversational interviews.

What is a competency?
A competency is a particular quality that the recruiter is looking for in job applicants, covering both behaviours and skills. Common examples are:

  • Adapting to change
  • Analysing
  • Communicating
  • Creating and Innovating
  • Decisiveness
  • Influencing
  • Integrity
  • Leadership
  • Planning & organising
  • Problem-solving
  • Resilience
  • Team work

 

What should I expect in a competency-based interview?
The purpose of competency-based interviews is to allow hiring managers to determine, more accurately, your fit with the precise requirements of the role through a systematic assessment.  All candidates for a role will be asked the same set of questions about the competencies appropriate to the role.

In the interview, you will be asked questions to test whether you have the desired competencies, by giving concrete examples from your past experience. During the interview you will be asked a series of questions like these:

  • Describe a situation when you [produced an imaginative solution]?
  • How do you [determine your priorities]?
  • Tell me about a time when you [motivated others to reach a team goal]
  • Give me an example of when you [were faced with a difficult problem]

The key to answering these questions is to give specific examples from your prior experience and not just to discuss the topic in a theoretical, impersonal or overly general manner. The interviewer is likely to dig further into your example by asking specific questions to examine your behaviours and attitudes.

How to prepare for a competency-based interview
It is essential to put time into preparing and rehearsing your responses.

You will usually be told in advance that you will be given such an interview. The first preparation step is to identify what competencies are being assessed, to give you the opportunity to prepare your examples. You may be told of these upfront. If not, do ask for this information and, if it is not provided, analyse the job description and the company careers webpages to pick out the competencies highlighted there.

For each competency, think of two examples which give good evidence of the competency area. Draft a reply which focuses on the actions you took in each example which led to a successful outcome. One of the common pitfalls in these interviews is to give too much explanation of the context and background and not to give enough attention to what you did which is what your interviewer really cares about. A useful mnemonic for structuring your examples is STAR: Situation – Task – Action – Result.  Your answer needs to include all four elements to be effective, with most time spent on Actions.

Make sure that you are clear about and emphasise your specific contribution. Talk about what you did using “I did” rather than “we did”. Your interviewer wants to know about you not the team.

Further advice for returners

  • It is common for returners to underplay their strengths and skills, particularly after a long break. This is not the time for modesty or to underplay your role in achieving a task!
  • Your examples don’t have to all be recent, so don’t be concerned if you have had a long break and are using a few examples from 5, 10 or 15 years ago. Just take time beforehand to remember as much as you can about the example so that you can provide enough detail about your contribution.
  • Your examples don’t need to be solely work-related. More recent examples from your leisure activities, studies or any skilled volunteering you have done are just as relevant to use alongside, provided they effectively demonstrate the competency asked for.
  • If you would like some pre-interview practice and feedback to test out your examples, enlist a buddy to work with you or contact us about our interview coaching services.
Related post:

Six Essential Steps for Successful Interviewing

When was the last time you were interviewed? When it’s five, ten or fifteen years since you last spoke about your professional achievements, facing an interview can be a daunting hurdle.

While styles of questioning have become more structured, the basic goal of the interview process remains the same: the employer is trying to assess your suitability and fit for the role and their organisation. At the same time, it is vital to remember that you are also assessing the organisation for its suitability and fit for you.

The two key ingredients of successful interviewing are passion and confidence.  Both of these come from being clear about what you’re looking for and what you have to offer.  If you believe you’re a good fit with the role and organisation you’re applying for, it will come across.

Six Essential Steps

1. Research
You need to research all you can about the role, the organisation, the industry and the people interviewing you. There is so much available online: company website, social media (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram); corporate videos; news articles. Your network can provide other sources of information which might not be publicly available whether your contacts are employees, suppliers or customers of the organisation, or in the same industry. The more knowledge you have and can demonstrate in your interview, the more impact you will have. For example, reading a LinkedIn profile will give you some idea of the interviewer(s) and could help you to find common ground.

2. Develop examples of your skills and competencies
You will talk most eloquently – and passionately – about those roles and experiences which are the highlights of your career, so pick one or two and decide what you want to say about them. The biggest change to interviewing in recent decades has been the prevalence of the ‘competency-based interview‘. You are likely to be asked to demonstrate the specific competencies or skills that the role requires (such as analytical ability, influencing senior stakeholders or teamwork), through detailed examples. Read carefully through the job description, identify the job requirements and think back through your experience to identify examples of your achievements which show these competencies. Examples don’t all have to be work
related: they can be equally valuable if they have come from education, sport, voluntary work or community activities.

Avoid doing the following:

  • apologising that the situation was a long time ago or saying ‘Back in 2011’, just say which role it related to
  • spending too long talking about the detail of the issue you faced and not long enough about the successful action you took. Your interviewer is more interested in what you accomplished than the intricacies of the background story.
  • talking in the third person when it was you who did the work (and not your team)! Use ‘I’ as much as possible, otherwise you can appear overly modest, even unconfident.

3. Prepare answers to typical questions
These include:

  • Why do you want this role?
  • Tell me about yourself.
  • What are your strengths and development areas?
  • What else would you like to tell me?

These questions have two things in common.  They are all open questions and they are all an invitation to you say precisely why you are the right person for the role. In preparing your answers, think about what you most want the interviewer to remember about you when you leave the room.

4. Rehearse
If you’ve not been to an interview for a while, it can feel strange to be talking about yourself in the way that an interview
requires, so it is a good idea to practise saying your answers out loud. You may find it helpful to role play the interview experience with a friend or another job seeker. If you have someone whose perspective you trust, feedback on how you are coming across will be useful.

5. Prepare your own questions 
Remember that interviews are a two-way process. While the interviewer is assessing your suitability for the role and organisation, you need to be doing the same.  Make sure that you ask the questions that will help you to decide if the role and organisation is a good fit for you and your requirements. You will also show that you have done your homework.

6. Send a Thank You
Always send a thank you email. Not only is this good practice, but it gives you a further opportunity to reinforce your suitability and enthusiasm for the role.

Telling your story

“I struggle to view myself as anything more than a mother any more”

Ex- investment analyst after a 10 year career break

If you’re planning your return to work after a long career break, one of the hardest questions to answer can be “What do you do?”. You’re not sure whether to talk about your time at home or what you used to do all those years ago. When my children were small and most of the people I was meeting were other parents, I introduced myself more often as someone’s Mum than as Julianne. It’s not surprising that as our career break goes on, our independent working selves feel so far in the past that they’re not really part of our story any more (see previous post “Who am I anyway?”).

If your old professional life feels like distant history, then it’s harder to believe in yourself and feel positive about your return to work. This not only knocks your confidence but also makes your job search much less effective. Many women returning to work after a break find a new job through old and new contacts rather than through advertised roles, so you need to have a ready reply rather than a stumbled mumble when an ex-colleague asks “What are you doing now?” And when you do make it to an interview, if your response to the classic “Tell me about yourself” interview question is to spend the majority of the time describing and explaining your career break, you are underselling your past experience and are unlikely to come across as a credible candidate for the job.

When you’re putting together your story, don’t start or end with your career break. We suggest you use a structure we call the “Career Break Sandwich”.

  • Talk first about what you did before in your working life, then talk about your career break and finish with where you want to go now.
  • Explain why you’ve taken time out of the workplace, but avoid apologising for or justifying your break or spending too much time talking about what you’ve been doing. However do include any study, voluntary work, time spent abroad, unusual/challenging activities or anything else that might be interesting in terms of skills development or updating to a possible employer.

Herminia Ibarra, in her career transition book Working Identity, suggests that a coherent story helps us to make sense of the changes we are making, so building our inner self-confidence. It also makes us more likely to get other people’s support: “Until we have a story, others view us as unfocused. It is harder to get their help“.

Aim to draw out links between your past and future, particularly if you have a varied work history or are planning a career change: Have you always enjoyed helping people develop? Or solving difficult problems in a team? You’re always bringing the benefit of your past experiences, at work and at home, as a foundation for what you want to do now.

Telling your story does take practice. Try out your narrative first with family and friends and get their feedback. Telling and retelling allows you to rework your story until you feel comfortable and convincing. Aim for a longer version to answer “Tell me about yourself” or “What are you looking for?” and a short version so you no longer hesitate when someone asks “So, what do you do?”

Posted by Julianne (updated June 2018)