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:
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.