Navigating competency-based interview questions

Careers consultant Laura Brammar explains how to tackle some of the tricky aspects of recruitment and applications, from common mistakes to techniques to use when applying for posts.

Put yourself in the selector’s shoes

You have a job vacancy that needs filling. It could be anything from a plumber to a paediatrician. How do you find the person who will do the best possible job? You could just ask candidates “Are you an excellent plumber/paediatrician?” but it probably wouldn’t get you very far and would give you very little evidence of whether or not they could do the job in practice.

Thinking about it though, what does being an excellent plumber or paediatrician actually mean? How would you recognise one if you saw one? The chances are that you would look for actual behaviours. But which particular behaviours or competencies would you look for? To work that out you would first need to analyse current excellent plumbers or paediatricians and see what they do, how they interact with others, how they organise materials and themselves, how they manage their time, etc.

The process described above is, perhaps unsurprisingly, called a job analysis, and crucially it is what underpins competency-based selection and assessment. Moreover, it is the process which informs the questions you will ask candidates on an application form, or later at an interview. So rather than ask “Are you an excellent plumber/paediatrician?” you might instead ask, “Can you describe a particular situation where you demonstrated your communication skills with a patient/patient’s relatives/person with a broken boiler?”

An answer to this type of question will give you much more evidence on which to make your decision as a selector.

Evidence-based selection

If you try and think of these types of questions as being evidence-based, it will be much more helpful, and transform this type of question from vague HR-speak into specific requests for pieces of relevant evidence pertinent to the job.

The key word here is specific. Remember that these questions are written by selectors who are looking for particular behaviours. For example, whilst it wouldn’t be technically inaccurate to respond to the previous question with “Well, I’m constantly demonstrating my communication skills with patients/customers,” it wouldn’t be a very effective way of answering a competency-based question. Instead, choose an example as an illustration of the particular skill that they are looking for. Also, make sure you’re providing an example of the appropriate skill. It is very easy to provide a great example of your leadership skills when the question is really looking for team working skills.

Not about creative writing

“But couldn’t you just make it up?” you may ask. Exaggerating or fabricating is, of course, always possible, and many doctors argue that such white space questions, as they are sometimes known, are more a test of your creative writing skills. In reality though, fibbing doesn’t work, particularly during an interview when you can expect to be asked a series of probing questions, to elicit more detailed behaviours. Both on paper and in person, it is very easy to spot a false answer that doesn’t ring true. Not only is this an ineffective way of answering the question, but more significantly it is a dangerous risk to your professional integrity and reputation. Furthermore, creating examples from scratch is totally unnecessary, particularly when you know how to exploit real examples in an effective and persuasive way.

Maximise your answers; prepare, structure, double-check!

Once you know that competency-based questions are essentially opportunities to demonstrate a required behaviour, you can then prepare your answer by identifying what particular behaviour that is (e.g. leadership skills, organisation skills) and brainstorm some examples of that particular behaviour.

Person specifications for particular roles can be very helpful in outlining which competencies you will be assessed on during the application form and interview stage.

You can then use this list of competencies (e.g. communication skills, management skills) as a starting point to generate lots of examples for each different competency. You may have one situation that you could apply to a range of different skills, depending on what the question asks.  Give yourself enough preparation time before you apply to reflect on what would be the best examples for each skill.

Then, once you have an example in mind, you need to think about how you are going to organise that material to comprehensively answer the question, often within strict word limits.

One very useful structure is known as the STAR technique;

  • S = Situation: a concise description
  • T = Task: what had to be achieved?
  • A = Action: what did you actually do?
  • R = Result: what was the result?

If you start by noting some bullet points for each of these sections it will help you keep your answer focused on the question in hand. It will also help you to avoid some common flaws.

Easy mistakes to make

It can be tempting to fall into bad habits when answering this type of question. Let’s imagine you were asked the following on an application form or in an interview:

“Describe a situation when you used effective team working skills to make a difference to the care of a patient.”

Beware of these common pitfalls:

Referred to the wrong skill

Identify what the question is really asking, not what you want it to ask!

Sounded too vague

Remember to talk about a specific situation, not just in general terms.

Bogged down by detail

Remember, you need a concise description at the start. Don’t get lost in too much unnecessary detail about the patient etc.

Undersold yourself

The focus of your answer needs to be on the action stage.  What did you actually do? Talk about ‘I’ or ‘my team’ rather than ‘we’. Put yourself in the heart of the answer, as they are looking for evidence related to you, not your colleagues.

Lacked a clear result/outcome

Just like the concise introduction, you also need to provide a brief statement about the outcome which sums up why you chose this as a good example of the skill in question.

Over or under the word limit

Show you can follow clear instructions by sticking to the word limit provided.

Evidence of careless errors

Always take time to double-check your spelling and grammar. Just one mistake can give a very poor impression.

It can sometimes also be useful to check your answers, either on an application form or during a practice interview with someone else, perhaps a friend, colleague or professional careers adviser. This can help reassure you that you are articulating yourself clearly and effectively answering the question.

Go forth and answer!

In summary, whether it’s on an ST1 application form or during an interview for a consultant-grade post: if you’ve prepared some appropriate examples, structured your answers, and taken the time to check how they read or sound to others, you are well primed to successfully navigate your way through competency-based questions in the future.

Good luck!

Laura Brammar has worked as a careers consultant for more than 10 years, including work with The Careers Group, University of London and University College, London.

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