Preparing for a competency-based interview

Preparing for a competency-based interview

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You’ve had a callback, and you’re scheduled for an interview for a new job that you really want. You’re excited about the interview…. That is until you find out that it’s a competency-based interview.

Your confidence and vast well of experience feel like they’ve flown out the window, and you start to get nervous and unsettled. Maybe you won’t nail this interview, after all… Does this sound familiar? Are you intimidated by the idea of a competency-based interview? Maybe you aren’t even sure what a competency-based interview is, and what it entails?

You can rest easy. Our guide to competency-based interviews will set you up for success and help you to prepare with confidence, calm, and skill.

What is a competency-based interview?

A competency-based interview, sometimes referred to as a behavioural, structured, or situational interview, is specifically designed to assess your skills in one or more areas. They are based on the idea that your past behaviour is the best predictor of your future performance. Therefore, the interviewer will want to know all about specific instances from your past.[i]

While you might encounter a competency-based interview in any sector, they are most common with large graduate recruiters.

Rather than an unstructured back and forth conversation that flows naturally, your interviewer will ask you questions from a set list. The questions have all been carefully designed to learn more about how you have handled specific situations in the past. Your answers are then checked against predetermined criteria, and the interviewer will assign marks to your responses.[ii]

The interviewer will systematically ask you a set list of questions. Each question is designed to learn more about how you would react to specific situations, and to gain more insight into your competencies. While you might feel like you need online psychology courses just to wrap your head around this interview style, it’s easier than you might think – it only requires practice, practice, practice.

Common competency-based interview questions

While every competency-based interview will differ depending on the industry and position you’re applying to, there are some common questions that you can expect to hear variations of during your interview.

  • Can you name your most significant achievement to date?
  • Tell us about a situation in which you led a team.
  • What do you do when faced with adversity?
  • How did you overcome a specific workplace challenge?
  • Tell us about an example of handling conflict in your work environment.
  • What do you do to maintain positive working relationships with others?
  • When was a time you made a decision, but then changed your mind due to new information?
  • How did you go about making a recent big decision? What was your thought process?
  • Explain a situation in which your communication skills improved?
  • When have you most recently shown integrity and professionalism?
  • When a colleague has a conflicting agenda, how do you convince them to see things your way?
  • Tell us about a time you tried something new at work. What happened?
  • How do you use creative thinking to solve problems? Give a specific example.
  • Describe an instance when you were successful when the odds were stacked against you.

How to answer these questions

We can’t stress this enough – the best way to answer competency-based questions is to be prepared. While you may be a jocular individual who excels in traditional informal interviews, your sparkling conversation skills will be of less help in a structured competency-based interview.[iii]

To prepare for your competency-based interview, you need to do the following:

  • Determine the competencies the employer is seeking
    Scour the job description, check out LinkedIn, and ask colleagues and friends if they have any insight. Do your best to determine the skills, abilities, and behaviours that the employer is seeking by assessing the bullet points in the job listing. Each of these bullets tends to refer to a competency they’re seeking. Once you have this list, start researching articles and doing a deep dive into the topics. Some recruiters may even be willing to provide you with a competency framework in advance.
  • Develop a list of potential questions and think about how you can respond
    Once you have a list of the competencies, think carefully about the kinds of questions that the interviewer could ask. Now, think about examples from your work history that relate to these questions. If you don’t have a work-related example, don’t worry – think of something relevant from your education, travel, or personal life. Make sure your list includes a wide range of examples from all aspects of your life.
  • Develop and practice telling engaging stories for each response
    Now that you have a list of examples to draw from, it’s time to craft compelling stories that demonstrate your competencies. An excellent way to do this is by using the STAR Technique. This acronym stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result – you’ll structure each answer around these critical points.[iv] Set the scene (the situation), explain what you wanted to achieve (the task at hand), tell them what you actually did (your action) and then detail your results. Resist all urges to overembellish, and make sure your stories are concise and engaging – no one wants to bore their interviewer!
  • During the interview, choose the right story for each question
    You’ve got a list of potential questions, you’ve got your examples, and you’ve crafted engaging stories to illustrate them. Now you just have to choose the right story for the situation! Be specific, don’t repeat stories, be creative, and never, ever say “I haven’t done that.” You’ll find this step easier if you practice with friends or family.

What are employers looking for in a competency-based interview?

As with any interview, employers want specific things from candidates. They want to know that you have drive, passion, creativity, and a desire to learn new skills.[v]

Some of the most common competencies interviewers are looking for include:

  • Adaptability – You must adapt to not only survive but to thrive. Show your interviewer that you are ready and willing to change with the times and adapt to specific situations.
  • Commercial Awareness – Do you keep up with your industry in the media, trade journals, and at conferences? Make sure you mention your regular research.
  • Communication – Clear, effective, and concise communication is the hallmark of a successful businessperson. Don’t just tell your interviewer that you’re a good communicator – show them.
  • Conflict Resolution – Are you able to solve conflicts in your own life, and help others mediate theirs? Think of examples that show the interviewer you can resolve all kinds of disputes.
  • Decisiveness – There’s a difference between doing your research and taking some time to make a measured decision and waffling for ages. Show your interviewer that you can make a clear and decisive decision with evidence from your past.
  • Independence – Can you work independently and be relied upon to meet deadlines? Come to your interview prepared to demonstrate this characteristic.
  • Flexibility – No one wants an employee that is too rigid and ‘stuck in their ways.’ After all, you will need to adapt to the workplace culture and ways of doing things if you are hired.
  • Leadership – Be prepared with specific stories of how you successfully led a team to complete a project or complete a task.
  • Problem-solving – Tell stories of time that you ‘thought outside the box’ to develop imaginative and successful ways to overcome problems – it will get you noticed.
  • Organisation – You can have all of the skills and education, but if you’re disorganised you can’t work to your highest potential. Think of examples that demonstrate your
  • Resilience – Getting knocked down a peg separates the elite from the rest – only the elite rebound quickly and put what they learned into practice so that they succeed the next time. Think of specific instances where you were resilient in a business or personal context.
  • Teamwork – It takes a true leader to work well with others. Make sure you have examples of time that you excelled in a team situation.

Of course, the typical interview common sense still applies, perhaps even more so. Make sure you arrive on time, dressed impeccably, and with a printed copy of your CV.

Final thoughts for your competency-based interview

Now that you know the basics of a competency-based interview, here are some closing thoughts to implement on the big day:

  • Keep things positive, and never criticise others
  • Emphasise the role you played in the successful outcome
  • Never respond with ‘I don’t have an example’ – find a way to spin your similar experience into an answer
  • Don’t ramble on – keep your answers clear, concise, and engaging

With these tips and preparation methods, you’re ready to ace your next competency-based job interview. Good luck!

Reference list

Cheary, M. (2018). Competency-based interviews: What you need to know. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Nov. 2020].

Indeed Careers (2019). How to Use the STAR Interview Response Technique | [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Nov. 2020].‌

Mason, D. (2019). Competency-based interviews | [online] Available at: [Accessed 14 Nov. 2020].

Ryan, L. (2016). 12 Qualities Employers Look for When They’re Hiring. [online] Forbes. Available at: [Accessed 19 Nov. 2020].

Seager, C. (2020). How to handle competency-based interview questions. [online] TotalJobs. Available at: [Accessed 14 Nov. 2020].



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Nick Cooper
Nick is NCC's resident blog author and covers a range of subjects, including teaching and health & social care. NCC is an international learning provider with over 20 years’ experience offering learning solutions. To date, NCC has engaged with over 20,000 employers, and delivered quality training to over half a million learners.
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