What is a competency-based interview and how can you prepare for it?

How employers use interviews to gain an understanding of what makes people tick

Competency-based interviews involve giving examples of past experience to illustrate how suitable you are for a particular position. Photograph: iStock

Competency-based interviews involve giving examples of past experience to illustrate how suitable you are for a particular position. Photograph: iStock


Over the past decade or so, a pattern has emerged in the world of interviewing, whereby competency-based interviews have become the norm. Competency-based interviews involve giving examples of past experience to illustrate how suitable you are for a particular position.

“We have seen a shift towards competency-based interviews, and really the premise is that past performance is the best barometer of future behaviour,” explains Siobhan O’Shea of CPL Recruitment. “An employer will ask tailored questions depending on the role, and you then demonstrate your capability, skills and ultimately your suitability through examples. For example, the questions could be based around leadership, organisation, communication, innovation, teamwork and so on.”

The competency-based interview has become more popular across most sectors, but is perhaps most popular in the larger, international firms. “Companies of all sizes are moving towards this interview style. It’s a natural evolution in trying to understand what makes people function and tick. Larger organisations usually have more resources and therefore tend to apply more rigour and process in how they interview. The multinationals can be known for putting you through your paces.”

Competency interviews overlap in a number of ways with those known as behavioural interviews. Both involve using past experiences to demonstrate ability – however, competency-based questions often refer more to hard skills, such as technical ability, while behavioural-based interviews tend to refer to soft-skills, such as teamwork or communication skills. In recent times, these two styles have begun to overlap more and more, and the terms are now often used interchangeably.

STAR methodology

The STAR methodology is recommended for most types of interview, particularly those that are competency- or behavioural-based. The STAR methodology involves describing a situation, task, action and result when giving a relevant example in an interview.

Questions in this type of interview are often quite open-ended, and leave interviewees a lot of scope to elaborate on their past experiences, and to highlight their major achievements. Common questions in competency-based interviews include: “Give an example of a time you worked in a team to complete a task”, and “Describe a significant problem you encountered recently, and how you sought to resolve it”.

An integral aspect to this kind of interview is being prepared, having reflected on your past experience beforehand and having examples of relevant past experience to hand.

“Do a bit of self-reflection, and maybe a skills inventory or a self-inventory, looking at your skills, attributes and desires, and really think about those and what you can bring to an organisation,” says Rose Mary Hogan, head of graduate recruitment at Glanbia. “It’s really important to be able to talk about those skills quite confidently and clearly and be able to show that link between all of those great skills and attributes that you have and how they relate to what an employer is looking for.”

“I think it’s all about ensuring you have every type of question prepared. If you’re thinking, ‘I’ll only prepare for a behavioural interview’, you could be missing a trick on the traditional interview questions, such as ‘tell me about yourself’, and ‘why are you suitable for this job’, which are both common interview questions, but are questions people make huge mistakes on,” adds O’Shea.

“The key thing is to prepare, prepare, prepare – for all types of interviews,” she emphasises. “You should not be arriving to an interview unprepared – good interview preparation takes time and commitment.”

Daunting task

A lack of experience can render a competency-based interview a daunting task for those early on in their careers, but this does not have to be the case. “If you’re aware that you don’t have a huge amount of work experience, you absolutely need to think ahead and ask yourself, ‘what examples can I use?’” says O’Shea.

“It could be a role that you took on in college or in the summer, or maybe you managed a committee in college – what did that bring to the table in terms of your skillset, and for your interview examples? What you want to avoid at all costs is sitting in the interview wondering, ‘What am I going to say?’ It really is about putting in the work in advance.

“It’s important to consider how you can sell your skills. You might have been a babysitter, or worked in a shop – it is worth knowing in advance how you will talk about your experience, and show where you applied your ability to achieve positive outcomes, regardless of what the actual role was,” she adds.

Good match

While it is also important to think ahead of what your skillset can bring to the company for which you are interviewing, Hogan maintains it is also critical to confirm that the company is an appropriate environment for you too. “Ensuring it’s a good match is very important too. When we’re interviewing someone we’re looking at how they’ll fit our environment, but we’re very aware that they’re also interviewing us. I’d say for anybody going into an interview to do your due diligence, do your research, make sure you understand the role and the environment as well. Ensure you’re going in with your eyes wide open, and ensure that it’s the best fit for you, as much as you’re the best fit for the employer too.”

Sample competency-based interview questions:

1. What is your biggest achievement?

2. Give an example of change in the workplace and how you handled this.

3. How do you cope in adverse circumstances?

4. Can you cite an example of how you dealt with a difficult or sensitive situation that required extensive communication.

5. Describe a time when a team member has annoyed you.

6. How do you explain things to other people?