“Tell me about a time when…” How to nail competency questions!

I remember the first “proper” job interview I ever had, I tanked it badly. It was a catalogue of disasters, but the one thing that still sticks out in my mind is how badly I had failed to prepare. I was told to expect at least half a dozen competency based questions. I could have very easily done some preparation prior to the meeting. Of course, I knew best and thought I could get away with it… I was wrong. Very wrong.

It amazes me how many candidates still fail to prepare themselves for competency questions. You know they are coming so let’s get prepared.

THINK ABOUT EXAMPLES BEFORE THE INTERVIEW – sounds obvious, but very few people prepare themselves properly. A quick Google of “competency based interview questions” brings up a wealth of information that you can use to your advantage. OK, no one knows exactly what questions are going to come up, but at least you can practice and develop a couple of model answers (the STAR technique is great for this) so that you won’t have to think (too much) on your feet during the interview.

FOCUS ON ACHIEVEMENTS – this again needs a bit of pre-interview thought-work, but it is certainly worth it. When thinking about the examples you might use (see above) try and take them a step further by weaving in an achievement or an action that you were particularly proud of at the time. Perhaps you dealt with a particularly irritated customer and you defused the situation … great example, but if you managed to defuse an annoyed customer AND turn them into one of your best clients then that’s even better. Everyone loves hearing a success story and (as long as it is relevant to the question being asked) it can take an answer from good to great.

WHAT DID YOU DO? – sounds obvious, but one of my client’s biggest bug bears with competency based questions is too much “us and we” instead of “I and me”. The interview is a chance for you to show off (a bit) and demonstrate why you are the best person for this role. It is really hard to tell what you did when you say “the team did …”. Don’t get me wrong, you need to show you are a team player but if you stayed at the office until 10pm to get a release done or landed a multi-million pound sales deal single handed, then shout it from the roof tops. I always urge candidates to think “I and ME” not “us and we”.

BE HONEST – it is OK to hold your hands up in an interview and admit that you haven’t done something, been in a certain situation or had something happen to you. What isn’t OK is trying to hash together an answer on the spot because you think that is what the interviewer wants to hear. Honesty is always respected and appreciated. I advise candidates to admit that they haven’t been in a certain situation but I try to encourage them to take the control of the question to say something like “to be honest, I have never been in that situation before. However, if I found myself in that situation tomorrow, this is what I would do…”. It is honest and it shows the interviewer you are willing to give the question a go, safe in the knowledge that you are answering from instinct and maybe not experience.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of how to navigate the minefield that is the competency interview, but it is at least a start. The internet is a brilliant tool so use it to your advantage. Do your homework, think about how you would tackle some practice questions. Show off and weave in a couple of achievements to really underline how good you are and remember at the interview it’s all about you.

What has been your experience with competency questions? Perhaps you have some knowledge that you can share here to help others. Perhaps you have a weird example that you have just been asked… tell us about it.

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