This devilish  little interview technique once caused so much stress that some candidates would completely fall apart before the eyes of an interviewer or worse still; threaten to cancel before even attending! But why the panic and what exactly are Competency Based Questions?

Some years back the standard job interview consisted of 30-45 minutes where a hiring manager who, armed with your CV, would ask you to talk through your career. Afterwards, he or she might then explain the job and go on to talk about the company where finally, you’d be asked if you had any questions and voila! – Interview complete.

Today’s interview, in many cases, couldn’t be more different. Candidates now face a myriad of obstacles, challenges, assessments, tests and of course our old friend, Competency Based Questions.

We owe it all to the HR revolution of the 90’s and 00’s which inspired companies all over the UK, who historically had very little interest in such things, to adopt all kinds of new techniques and interviewing gimmicks to improve their chances of successful candidate selection. There were many ‘left field’ ideas such as asking random ‘if you were a fruit, what would you be and why?’ type of questions designed to challenge the candidate and to reveal seemingly mystical personality traits that otherwise might have been missed. Of course, most of these concepts disappeared however, the ones with real value remained. Competency Based Questions was one such idea that really worked.

So, what exactly are Competency Based Questions? Simply, they are questions designed to yield examples of times when you used or delivered a skill or attribute in a practical way.

The sheer panic people had experienced when faced with these misunderstood questions was born from nothing more than a fear of the unknown. The crazy thing is that the concept of Competency Based Questioning is surprisingly simple and actually offers more structure than normal questions thereby making it easier to predict and prepare for them.

These days, it would be foolish not to understand and prepare for Competency Based Questions as there is a very strong likelihood of being asked one – In fact, they have become so common that some interviewers don’t even know they’re asking one!

To combat the Competency Based Question here is some help:


1. Change your attitude. Competency Questions are not scary if you know how to answer them. So, resist your cynical and fearful auto-response and learn how to deal with them once and for all. We promise that if you follow this advice that by the end you’ll actually enjoy answering them.

2. Obtain a full job description or at the very least the job-advert from the employer or agency.

3. Identify the obvious skills needed.  Every job requires certain skills, obviously. However, it’s these specific skills that are likely to be explored using Competency Based Questions. These are generally referred to as “Key Competencies”. So, prepare for them by analysing the job description/advert making a list as you go.

4. Analyse for implied skills. Some ‘Key Competencies’ are not directly stated on the job description but instead merely implied. For example, “You will be responsible for leading a team of five”. This statement implies that you’ll probably need management experience to get the job, ideally managing more than one person. Again, analyse the information and make note of the implied competencies. Other examples include but are not limited to:

Decision Making
Problem Solving
Self Motivation
Team Work
Team Communication
Management Communication
Stakeholder Management
Time Management
Complaint Handling

5. Prepare Examples. Armed now with a full interview check list that most likely mirrors the interviewers’, one by one, think of the strongest examples of where you successfully used each required skill in a practical way. If you can’t think of a professional example, perhaps you can find one from School, University or in your private life? A transferable example is far better than nothing and in fact, it might be even better than a weak professional one.

The Interview

1. Take your preparation notes with you.  An interview is not a memory game so don’t leave your chances of success to your poor, stressed, unpredictable head! Having a ‘mind blank’ is not really an acceptable excuse if you could have predicted being asked the question.

2. Recognise a Competency Based Question. Jobs may differ as will the skills they demand however, we can expect the competency questions to be delivered in very similar ways irrespective of the topic. For example:

Can you describe a time when you…
Please give me an example of where you…
Can recall a time when…
What examples can you think of when you…

3. How to answer a Competency Based Question.  A great formula for providing a comprehensive ‘Competency Based Answer’ is to use the STAR method:


Lay the scene by describing when and where you worked and what the circumstances were.


Describe the goal – what is was that you had to achieve.


Describe in a logical, sequential fashion what you did from start to finish to achieve the goal.


Describe the result and the consequences including any recognition or positive outcomes that may have occurred.

4. Return Fire!  Why not ask the interviewer some competency based questions about the company? Employers make bold statements such as, “excellent career progression”, so put them to the test by asking the interviewer for evidence. For example, “Can you give me any recent examples of where an employee has benefited from the excellent career progression on offer?”

5. Don’t Lie. Lying in interviews is dangerous enough however, the point of a competency question is to delve into the detail of your use of a given skill and so avoid the inevitable cringe of failure and just don’t do it. Seriously.

So, now you know how to deal with Competency Based Questions and can expect pain free, chilled out, tranquil interviewing for the rest of your days… until of course the evil world of HR invents the next terrifying interview weapon of mass panic and hysteria!