How to answer competency-based questions on application forms and at interview

 

Our Job Competencies Database (see tab below) allows you to find out core competencies needed for over 100 jobs. You can then investigate questions you might get on application forms and at interview to find out about your skills in these areas and also view a range of sample answers.

  • Introduction
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  • The
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  • The Job
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  • The Good,
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    and the Ugly
  • Competency
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  • What is the
    underlying
    question?
  • Answers for
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Picture of interviewee

Competency-based selection methods are based on the assumption that past behaviour is the best predictor for future behaviour.

Competency-based questions are now common on both application forms and at interview.

These questions are looking for evidence of skills that are used in the job and often start with "Describe a situation where you had to ......" or "Give an example of when you ....".

It's not enough to just say what you can offer. Just like a jury in court a selector will need convincing. You do this by giving evidence.

Selectors are less interested in what you've done that how you've done it.

When have you planned and organised an event, taken the initiative or lead a team. How do you cope with failure? Do you give up, or keep trying until you succeed. Or perhaps try an alternative route to your goal. Keep a log of what you have done so you can remember any evidence you can use.

 

What competencies is the selector looking for?

This will vary according to the job but competencies of importance to many recruiters of new and recent graduates include:

 

Questions will then be asked in the format "Describe a situation where you showed persuasiveness".

 

THE "STAR" APPROACHstar

The STAR approach to answering competency questions on application forms and at interview teamwork communication skills appliaction and interview skills ornaising and planning skillls

A good way of dealing with this type of question is by using the STAR approach.
STAR
stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. It helps you to structure your answer as a mini essay.

  • The SITUATION AND TASK forms an introduction, describing the scenario you faced, time and place.
  • The ACTION forms the main body and should be the longest part.
  • The RESULT is the conclusion, and, like the introduction, should be quite short.

 

Sometimes STAR is called CAR (Context, Action, Result). It's exactly the same but with Situation and Task combined into Context. Just to complicate matters, some organisations call it SAR: Situation, Action,Result and some TAO: Task, Action, Outcome!

A few organisations have now added Reflection (what have you learned from the experience and what would you do differently next time?) to give STARR!
STAR =SAR = CAR = TAO
Situation Situation Context Task
Task
Action Action Action Action
Result Result Result Outcome

(Reflection: what have you learned from the experience? What would you do differently next time? This shows that you have a growth mentality: you are constantly trying to improve yourself)

EXAMPLE QUESTION:
Describe how your personal planning and organisation resulted in the successful achievement of a task.
  EXAMPLE ANSWER:
CONTEXT Describe the situation and the specific task you were faced with, when, where, with whom? Whilst employed at Weaver Bros. last summer I was given the task of rationalising the stock control system
ACTION How? What action did YOU take? Sometimes people focus on what the group did without mentioning their individual contribution. I would look at factors such as when the stock was last ordered, what it was used for and how often it was used. I worked out a method of streamlining the paperwork involved in this process and redesigned the relevant forms, which I then submitted to my manager.
RESULT What results did you achieve/conclusions did you reach/what did you learn from the experience? My ideas were accepted and implemented and a 15% reduction in stock levels was achieved.

The focus should be on you even if the situation involved a group, interviewers will want to know what was your specific role in achieving the desired result.

When answering these types of questions: 2 CV car

Try to give quantifiable results if possible.
  • "during my time as chairman, membership rose by 20"
  • "we raised £200 for charity"
  • "my marks improved from 55% to 65%"

You can't always do this, but it gives a much better impression of your achievement.

  • If the result was negative, then say what you learned from the experience and what you would do differently next time.
    Sometimes interviewers will ask you about a situation where you were unsuccessful. This is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate how well you learn lessons from failure, but also to demonstrate qualities such as resilience (to bounce back and try again); determination; strength of character (when the going gets tough, the tough get going!); flexibility; initiative; and lateral thinking. There is a saying that "The most successful people have failed the most" as the best way to learn is via your mistakes.
  • The examples you give can be from work, study or personal life – but try to give a variety. A good starting point is to use our Progress File to "brainstorm" everything you've done in your life in the past few years.
    "They expected answers to questions in a particular format: Situation, Task, Action, Result. This helped me to formulate answers to questions in logical way and meant that I spent most of the time talking."
  • Don't go into too much background detail - keep to the point! Often there isn't enough room to use the CAR approach, but it's still worth keeping in mind when you prepare your draft answer.
  • Think of the most relevant examples, rather than the most "impressive". If you are asked to describe a time when you had to give a presentation in front of the public, a seminar paper which involved research and planning will carry more weight than "presenting a bouquet to the Queen when I was four years old"!
  • Use action verbs to improve your content.

 

Bacause many students are becoming so well prepared for competency-based questions, some organisations now feel that they no longer reveal the true person being interviewed and are moving to strengths-based interviews and motivation-based interviews.

Job Competencies Database

The following program will allow you to find out some of the core competencies (skills) needed for a wide range of jobs. You can then investigate questions you might get on application forms and at interview to find out about your skills in these areas and also view a range of sample answers. You will need Adobe Flash to use it which you probably already have installed, but if not, you can download it here

First choose the job type which interests you (from the drop down box at the top (e.g. finance and law), next choose the specific job from the box to the right (e.g. solicitor). Finally click on any of the BLUE UNDERLINED competencies (e.g. PERSUADES) to give evidence you could use for this skill/competency and an example question and answer. You can sometimes get a second example by clicking on the BLUE UNDERLINED text again.

If PRINTING your results, use the PRINT BUTTON (top right) and change your printer settings from "portrait" to "landscape" to get a better printout.

 

Back to our Skills Pages ........Back to our Applications and Interviews pages

 

Describe a situation when you saw an opportunity to really make a difference for the future of a group, an activity or yourself.

   
     

The Good Answer

I knew that I wanted a year out in Africa and that I did not just want to travel but also to share in the life of the country and its people. Teaching gave me such an opportunity to put down roots in a community but, as this was a voluntary programme, I needed to raise £2000 in order to take part in this project. I did this by working very long hours in a factory over the summer to raise the funds that I needed.

   
  Demonstrates determination
I planned my year by reading a great deal about Tanzania, using websites to research the country & speaking to Tanzanian students at the university. I also asked the organisation that arranged the placement to put me in touch with previous volunteers so that I could pick up tips from them on life in Tanzania, the schools & what I should take with me.   Evidence of careful planning and forward thinking.
Despite all this planning I still found that I needed to be very flexible & to adapt to teaching a class of 60 lively ten-year old boys with few text books & even less in the way of scientific equipment. I had to adapt to this lack of resources & to bear in mind that the pupils were learning English at the same time as they were learning science.
  Shows adaptability
This experience was the most satisfying of my life and the headmaster was so pleased with the children's progress that he asked if I would be able to return at sometime in the future.   Positive result given
     

The Bad

During the final year of my electronics degree, we were grouped into teams to work on projects and I was told I was to be the leader.

  Did not volunteer for the role
The groups were assigned at random so that we found ourselves working with people who we did not know particularly well and we needed to assess one another's strengths and weaknesses quite quickly to divide up the work of the project.
Our project involved designing and building a power meter to measure the output from a high-power pulsed infra-red laser. Each member of the group was assigned responsibility for a specific part of the work and we met weekly to discuss and assess our progress.
  No mention of his own contribution which could have been tiny - everything refers to "we" or the group as a whole
We were given a mark of 62% for our project.   No individual mark given
     

The Ugly

One example of where I made a difference was when a group of my mates and I had to decide which pub to go to. I took on the responsibility of making the decision.

  Did not get the backing of the group: decided for himself!

One of my mates is into Real Ale and so wanted to go to the Red Lion, but another likes music so he wanted the Kings Head. Using my initiative I suggested we go to the Jolly Roger which was showing the Liverpool - Bolton match on Sky Sports. With my skills of persuasion (I offered to buy the first round!) I convinced them all to come with me to the Jolly Roger.

  No account taken of the wishes of the other group members.
     

And The Plain Ridiculous!

   
  • Being a Virgoan, my sense of assertiveness and resilience has prompted me to continue with my ambitions to be a solicitor in a major city law firm. I am also a seventh generation descendant of a Chinese princess and a Sulawesian warrior, which makes me both an amiable and energetic person.
  • Up until a little while ago I used to compete in British-Eventing competitions on my horse, from which I got a real kick.
  • Working on a farm has improved my communication skills which are especially important when working with large livestock.
  • My role included typing in details of accounts, customer liaison and money-laundering duties.
  • Instrumental in ruining an entire operation for a chain operator
  • Proven ability to track down and correct erors.
  • I’m an accurate and rabid typist
  • I have excellent memory skills, good analytical skills, excellent memory skills.
  • I was closely involved in every aspect of my former company, right up to its bankruptcy.
  • I am seeking challenges that test my mind and body, since the two are usually inseparable.
   
     

 

What happens in a competency-based interview?picture of interviewer

These are also known as skills-based, behavioural, situational or structured interviews! They work on the principle that:

PAST PERFORMANCE IS THE BEST PREDICTOR OF FUTURE PERFORMANCE.
The interviewer will therefore be seeking examples of past behaviour that provide him/her with concrete evidence that you have the necessary competencies to succeed in the job. 

The interviewer will ask you a series of questions along the lines of:
  • Describe a situation when you ......
  • Give an example of a time when you .....

What is the best way to prepare for a competency-based interview?

  • Read the employer's web site and/or job description, and note the skills and competencies they require.
  • Note down any examples you can think of when you have put these competencies into practice. These examples could come from vacation or part-time work; university clubs and societies; voluntary work; study at school or university; holidays and travel or personal and family experiences.
  • Compose a paragraph or so for each situation, outlining what happened, how you approached it and what the outcome was.

    "Questions they might expect to face at most interviews (e.g. asking for an example of teambuilding, or showing that they are a fast learner) are difficult to answer well if you are not used to them, and haven’t prepared a list of examples to draw from. We’d recommend students consider why we’re asking the question. For example, a good answer on teambuilding outlines difficulties you may have had with other team-members and show that you understand what you need to do to overcome that, rather than simply tell the interviewer that the team worked together really well."

    Civil Service

 

The "CAR" format should help you to structure these outlines (click on "The CAR Approach" tab above)

What if I can't think of any suitable examples?

Try and be as open as possible: the examples you give don't have to be high-level. Planning and organising a week's independent travel in Scotland is as valid an example as a trek through the Himalayas.

If you really can't think of anything, consider how vital that competence is to the employer. If, for example, leadership is a key factor, and you have really never taken the lead in anything, are you applying for the right job? Would you be happy in it?

If there is only one area that is giving you problems of this type all may not be lost, provided that you are strong in other areas.

Once you have done this, select the examples which you feel are the best illustrations of the required competence. These may be the ones that you choose to use on the application form, or else will be the first examples that you give in answer to the interview questions.  Don't forget the other examples, though interviewers may sometimes probe for as many examples as possible.

When you have answered these, the interviewer may prompt you for further information. When you have exhausted one topic, the interviewer will move on to the next leaving little opportunity for discussion. At the end of the interview, there may be an opportunity for you to ask your own questions. This format may seem rigid, unnatural and unfriendly to many interviewees but, as well as providing evidence of competencies relevant to the job, it is also seen as a fair and equitable method of selection since all candidates are asked exactly the same questions.

Who uses competency-based interviews?

Answer questions in a positive manner. For every answer, try to always refer to specific examples of experiences you had or skills that you have developed.

All you want to tell them is that you have the skills and by working with them, you are able to build upon these skills and at the same time make an effective contribution to their firm.

Kent student who received two job offers

Estimates in the USA indicate that a third of employers are using situational interviews in their recruitment. The number in the UK may be slightly smaller, but is growing rapidly. Any large organisation - a manufacturing company, bank, retailer, computing company, , is likely to use situational interviews in graduate recruitment.

How can I tell if I will have a competency-based interview or a traditional interview?

The application form may give you a clue. Many employers will design the application form to include a number of questions in this format. At the interview, the examples you give may be probed in more detail and further examples sought of the behaviour/competences in question.

Although you can't always predict in advance what type of interview an employer will use, time spent preparing answers to situational questions will never be wasted. Even if the interview follows a traditional format, you will have thought about the competencies the employer needs and be able to back up your answers with concrete examples, which always makes a more positive impression.

 

You will find below suggestions of what the underlying question that the interviewer is getting at is, suggestions on how to answer, plus examples of the sorts of answers you could use.

 

THE QUESTION
THE REAL QUESTION
THE ANSWER
EXAMPLES
       
Describe a time, perhaps linked to a challenging task or assignment, when things were difficult and you were working under pressure
  • How do you cope in difficult situations?
  • Do you panic?
  • Can you respond to challenges and set yourself goals?
  • Briefly outline the task and the difficulties.
  • Show the steps that you took to cope with the situation.
  • If other people were involved, be specific about what your particular role was.
  • State the result - don't worry if the outcome was not 100% successful but show what you learnt from the experience.
  • Balancing your studies with a part-time job.
  • Coping with a family crisis or illness.
  • Being landed with extra, unexpected responsibility at work.
  • Completing a project that did not run smoothly as anticipated.
       
Describe a recent experience of working with other people. What did you contribute and what was the outcome?
  • How do you get on with other people?
  • What role do you take in a group?
  • Are you able to focus on goals and targets?
  • Outline the situation, your particular role and the task of the group overall.
  • Describe any problems which arose and how they were tackled.
  • Say what the result was and what you learned from it.
  • See our teamworking page for lots of help.
  • Putting on a drama or music production.
  • A group project at university.
  • A business game or "Young Enterprise" scheme.
  • Working in a fast-food restaurant.
       
Give an example of a situation where you solved a problem in a creative way.
  • Can you think laterally?
  • How do you cope with solving problems?
  • Are you flexible enough to cope with change and challenges?
  • Outline the situation (what was the problem?), the various approaches you might have taken and the one that you adopted.
  • Why did you choose to tackle the problem this way and what was the result?
  • See our problem-solving page
  • Handling customer complaints at work.
  • Diagnosing a problem on your PC and resolving it.
  • A group project as part of your course.
  • Settling in to another university for your year abroad.
       
Describe how you handled a situation where you had to initiate and complete a task in the face of resistance from others.
  • Are you a leader?
  • Are you willing to take on responsibility?
  • Do you believe in yourself and your aims?
  • Can you persuade, rather than coerce, people and gain their co-operation?
  • What was the task, who resisted you and why?
  • How did you counter their objections?
  • How did you go about completing the task and what was the outcome?
  • See our persuading page
  • Suggesting how procedures at work might be carried out more effectively.
  • Gaining family support for coming to University/going on to postgrad. study.
  • Dealing with uncooperative children on a summer playscheme.
  • Balancing the books as treasurer of a student society.
       
Why are you applying to us?
  • Have you prepared properly?
  • Have you read our brochure, thought about what we are seeking and what you have to offer us?
  • Are you committed to this career?
  • The good public image the organisation has as an employer.
  • The opportunities it offers for training and career development.
  • Experience of the organisation, e.g. through a vacation job or course.
  • Information you have gathered from talking to people who work for the organisation, or its competitors.
  • Information you have gathered from reading the business or professional press, or searching the Internet (NB. Researching the company's web site will be taken for granted!)
  • Because the organisation's area of business fits in with your personal, academic or career interests.
  • See our commercial awareness page for lots of help with this.
 

 

Examples of situational questions and answers for particular careers.

MARKETING

As a MARKETING BRAND MANAGER you will need to be able to ORGANISE a range of activities to get things done. Can you give me an example of a time when you have had to co-ordinate the work of other people?

A possible answer:

Context: I was Social Secretary of the European Society on campus. We decided to mark Europe Day last May by organising a programme of social and cultural events representing all the EU member countries. I had to find people willing to take part: some were members of our own Society but I also approached other societies on campus, such as the French Society, and had to seek out individuals to make sure that all 15 countries were represented.
Action: Once I had a full complement of people willing to contribute I could draw up a programme of events for the day and we held regular meetings to monitor progress and iron out any problems.
Result: On the day there were 15 different events running from a French breakfast with coffee and croissants through films, lectures and musical recitals through to a late-night disco with music from all over Europe. Several hundred students took part in them and the European Society signed up over 30 new members.

  • As a MARKETING BRAND MANAGER you will need to be able to PERSUADE your fellow-managers to accept a particular course of action.
    Can you give me an example of a time when you have had to convince a person or group to do something that they were initially reluctant to do?
  • You will need to be able to ANALYSE INFORMATION such as sales figures and trends, market research reports and product specifications.
    Can you give me an example of a time when you have had to analyse detailed information to extract the essential points?
  • You will need to be able to WORK UNDER PRESSURE.
    Can you give me an example of a time when you have had to cope with a number of competing tasks? How did you decide what PRIORITY to give them?
  • You will need to be a good COMMUNICATOR.
    Can you give me an example of a time when you have had to make a PRESENTATION to a group of people?

SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH

As a RESEARCHER you will need to be able to PLAN your projects and the work of other members of your team.
Can you give me an example of a time when you have had to organise your time to achieve a specific aim?

A possible answer:

Context: Last summer I spent four weeks traveling around Europe with three friends. We planned the trip during the summer term, fitting it in around our revision when we needed a break and something to look forward to, then took summer jobs for two months to raise the money for the trip. We had to plan where we wanted to go, where we would stay, how we would get around and how to fit everything into our budget.
Action: Once we had agreed a general itinerary we divided up the different tasks between us. My responsibility was to make the travel arrangements: I researched the various options and decided that an Inter-Rail ticket would be the cheapest and the most flexible, so then I had to check the rail connections and timetables between the places we wanted to visit.
Result: Even though the trains didn't always run on time, we had a great time and visited all the places we had planned to.

  • As a RESEARCHER you will need to be able to WORK IN A TEAM.
    Can you give me an example of a time when you have had to CO-OPERATE with a group of people in order to accomplish a task?
  • You will need to be a good COMMUNICATOR, e.g. when presenting papers at conferences.
    Can you give me an example of a time when you have had to make a presentation to a group of people?
  • You will need good WRITING skills in order to present your findings and proposals for further research.
    Can you tell me about a major piece of written work that you have produced?

BANKING

As a BANKER you will need to be able to PERSUADE your clients to follow a particular course of action.
Can you give me an example of a time when you have had to argue your case and convince another person of its merits?

A possible answer:

Context: It's a bit embarrassing for a potential banker to admit to, but I had a lot of trouble managing my finances during my first year at University. I ignored the first couple of letters from the bank manager but eventually I had to meet her to explain the situation and (Task) persuade her to let me run quite a large overdraft until the end of the academic year.
Action: Before I went to see the bank manager, I drew up a cash flow forecast to show how I would economise through the rest of the year and how much I would still need to spend on essentials. I also found a job in a pub for two evenings a week.
Result: The bank manager was very impressed with my figures and let me have a larger overdraft than Id expected! With my part-time job and another job in the summer vacation I managed to pay off the overdraft by the start of my second year. I won't say that I've never been in debt since because its quite hard to manage as a student, however careful you are, but I've never let my finances get out of control again.

  • As a BANKER you will need to be able to ANALYSE INFORMATION such as balance sheets, cash flow forecasts and financial legislation.
    Can you give me an example of a time when you have had to analyse detailed information to extract the essential points?
  • You will need to be able to MOTIVATE your staff to achieve sales targets and service standards.
    Can you describe a situation where you have been responsible for achieving a result through the work of other people?
  • You will need to be able to TAKE DECISIONS, for example on applications for loans or credit.
    Can you tell me something about a major decision you have taken and how you arrived at it?
  • You will need to be DIPLOMATIC when dealing with clients.
    Can you give me an example of a time when you have had to persuade somebody to accept an unwelcome decision or situation?

CHARTERED ACCOUNTANT

One student who experienced this type of interview noted that:

"This helped me to formulate answers in a logical way and meant that I spent most of the interview talking."
  • As a CHARTERED ACCOUNTANT you will need to be able to WORK IN A TEAM.
    Can you give me an example of a time when you have had to CO-OPERATE with a group of people in order to achieve an aim?
  • You will need to be able to SOLVE PROBLEMS.
    Can you give me an example of a time when you have had to devise an innovative solution to a problem?
  • You will need to be DETERMINED in order to succeed in the professional exams.
    Can you give me an example of a time when you have succeeded in a challenging task in difficult circumstances?
  • You will need to be a good COMMUNICATOR in order to get on well with the range of people you will meet on audit.
    Can you give me an example of a time when you have had to work with somebody you did not know well to accomplish a task?
  • You will need to be able to WORK UNDER PRESSURE.
    Can you describe a time when you have had to manage a heavy workload or a number of conflicting priorities?

RETAIL MANAGER

  • A RETAIL MANAGER needs to be able to LEAD and MOTIVATE their staff.
    Can you give an example of a situation where you have had to take responsibility for a group of people working on a specific task?
  • You will need to be able to WORK UNDER PRESSURE.
    Can you tell me about a time when you needed to handle several different tasks at the same time and to meet a deadline?
  • You will need to be FLEXIBLE.
    Can you tell me about a time when you had to change your plans at short notice?
  • You will need to be DIPLOMATIC when dealing with customers.
    Can you tell me about a time when you where others have disagreed with your views (or you with theirs) and how you handled the situation?
  • You will need to be able to PLAN and ORGANISE the range of activities in the store.
    Can you describe a situation where you have organised yourself in order to arrange an activity or event or to meet a deadline?
  • You will need to be able to TAKE DECISIONS.
    What was the most difficult decision you have had to make, and how did you arrive at it?

COMPUTER SYSTEMS ANALYST

  • A SYSTEMS ANALYST needs to be able to COMMUNICATE complex information to the end-users of their system.
    Can you describe a situation where you have had to explain something in detail to a person or group who knew little about the subject?
  • You will need good PROBLEM-SOLVING abilities.
    Can you give an example of a situation where you solved a problem in a creative way?
  • You will need to be FLEXIBLE.
    Can you describe a situation, where you had begun a task involving other people and were then required to change your approach and do something in a different way?
  • You will need to be INNOVATIVE.
    Can you tell me about a time when you acted to improve a process or make a system work better?
  • You will need to be PERSUASIVE when presenting their solutions to clients.
    Describe a time when you had to persuade a person or a group of people to accept a decision which they were initially reluctant to consider.
  • You will need to WORK IN A TEAM.
    Can you describe a situation where you have worked with a group of other people to achieve a common goal?