Situational success: How to answer competency based interview questions

Marine People

More and more engineering interviews are now being conducted as competency based.  Although competency based interviews aren’t new, they have been around since the 1980’s, they are fast becoming one of the most popular interview formats, meaning that you need to know what to expect, how to prepare, and how best to answer competency based interview questions.

Competency based interviews are unsurprisingly looking to ascertain your competence to do a job.  Rather than just assessing your technical skills or qualifications, many of which can be understood from your CV, a competency based interview will assess your skills and behaviours in previous work based scenarios, on the basis that your previous behaviours will be indicative of your future ones. 

Your experience is often a given at this point, it has got you the interview, so being able to confidently pass a competency based interview, and demonstrate the competencies better than the other candidates, is usually standing between you and your next role.

Competency based interviews are generally similar in content, but will be unique to a company’s internal competency framework.  Common competencies include teamwork, communication, personal effectiveness, leadership, problem solving and organisation.

Within a competency based interview, the interviewer is looking for you to demonstrate when and how, you have demonstrated the required competency in the past.  Questions tend to start with phrases like ‘tell me a time when’ or ‘give me an example of’.  They will always give you an opportunity to describe a scenario.  So, thinking about teamwork, a competency question might be:

“Tell me about a time when you have been part of a team”

Using this example, I am sure that you would be able to give an answer without too much thought.  You are very likely to have worked as part of a team and be able to describe it.  However, the trick is to think about the absolute best example that you can, and one that you can expand.  The reason for this is the interviewer will want to broaden the question until you demonstrate the competence fully, with subsequent ‘drill down’ questions, in this scenario, these could be:

“What role did you play within the team”

“What challenges did this present”

“What would you do differently next time”

As you are likely to have several examples for any one question, take the time to pause and think about the best scenario.  We have seen on many occasions, interviewees barely take a breath and start with an example that they realise half way through doesn’t really fit the question, or one that is difficult to expand.

Before the interview have a look at the job description or advert, does it mention any competencies? Is it looking for a team player? someone with leadership skills, a great communicator? This can help you prepare some great scenarios based on what the company has already told you.  A browse on the website and a read of the company’s values can also give you great insight in to what they might ask you.

If you are not used to answering competency based interview questions, the STAR technique is a great way to practice, as it structures your responses for you. STAR stands for:

  • Situation– Set the Scene
  • Task– Describe the Purpose
  • Action– Explain what you did
  • Result– Share the outcome

Practising with the STAR technique will ensure that your examples always demonstrate a complete competency.  Have example scenarios prepared for all key competencies before your interview, pause and allow yourself time to think of the best example, and ensure that the examples that you use demonstrate a positive outcome for you, whether it be in a successful scenario, or a lesson learnt in a challenging scenario.

Although competency based interview questions can be a daunting prospect to the unpractised, when prepared you will find that it sets you up for a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate your complete suitability and competence for the role.

Good luck!