Rachel Haddy is an Employability and Placements Adviser. In this article she discusses some of the pitfalls of competency-based questions and how to avoid them.
In December 2020, I interviewed for a Community Engagement role at a museum. There are two things I distinctly remember about my experience, aside from seeing hordes of bobble-hatted Christmas shoppers from the interview room window. One: The interview revolved heavily around competency-based questions. Two: I did not answer those competency-based questions well.
Competency-based questions test specific skills and attributes relevant to the role you’re applying for. They are based on the principle that your past behaviour is the best indicator of future performance, which is why they are so popular with employers. In an interview setting, you might be prompted to discuss your competencies in the following ways:
- Describe a situation when you solved a problem.
- Tell me about a time when you used your initiative.
- Give an example of a time when you made a difficult decision.
Now, if you’ve attended any of the Career Zone’s advice sessions, you’ve probably heard of the STAR format before. STAR (an acronym for situation, task, action, result/reflection) gives you a brilliant structure for answering competency-based questions in a meaningful, evidence-driven and reflective way. Essentially, you set out the situation you were in, the task which faced you, the specific actions you took and the result of your actions (or reflect on what you gained from the experience).
‘Competency-based questions test specific skills and attributes relevant to the role you’re applying for. They are based on the principle that your past behaviour is the best indicator of future performance, which is why they are so popular with employers.’
At my museum interview I was asked a series of competency-based questions and instead of giving effective and concise STAR responses, I wandered through an uncomfortable desert of surface-level answers, ending them messily and prematurely. The panel nodded along and kindly left time at the end of each question for me to expand on my answers. I wanted to do just that, but I didn’t know how, so I endured the silence. Even the portraits on the walls were cringing.
Unsurprisingly, my wish of waking up on Christmas morning to find a shiny new job contract in my stocking was unfulfilled. However, the panel were generous enough to give me detailed feedback about my interview performance and why I had been unsuccessful. They weren’t half as critical as I had been of myself, but they did point out some areas for improvement which I have carried with me since.
One of the competency-based questions I answered during the interview was ‘describe a time when you’ve worked successfully within a team.’ I had a great example up my sleeve, so I took a sip of water and told the panel about a podcast I had produced alongside other museum trainees in a previous role. I was right in thinking that this was a positive example of teamwork, but I did not frame it in an effective way and here’s why. When employers ask about your teamwork skills, they need to know specifically how you worked within the team and what actions you took which made you a strong team member. Instead of doing this, I overused the word ‘we’ and discussed the actions of the team as a whole. When asked about my teamworking skills in interviews since, I’ve offered a lot more detail about what I did specifically. I’ve focussed on actions such as taking the initiative to create a shared spreadsheet so all team members could be kept up to date with project developments and using effective communication skills to keep my team motivated when we encountered challenges. It can feel difficult and awkward to talk about your achievements and what you’ve done well, particularly in the context of questions about teamwork, but remember the panel are not looking to hire your entire team, they are only interested in hiring you.
‘Another pitfall it’s easy to fall into when answering competency-based questions is forgetting the R in STAR.’
Another pitfall it’s easy to fall into when answering competency-based questions is forgetting the R in STAR. It can be tempting to launch into a STAR example, clearly setting out the situation, task and actions you took, but forgetting to describe the result of your actions or what you gained from the experience. Employers want to hear about the impact you made in order to better understand what you could do for them. Where possible, strengthen your response by making the result quantifiable. For example, ‘my ideas were implemented and a 15% reduction in stock levels was achieved.’ If it’s not easy for you to describe the specific results your actions had, reflect on what you gained from the experience. Make it clear to the employer how the skills and knowledge you used and developed throughout this experience make you their ideal candidate.
‘They provide you with great opportunities to sell yourself and are relatively easy to anticipate which is helpful when it comes to interview preparation.’
It’s also important to remember that not all questions testing a competency will be asked in a way that invites an example, but always offer one! An employer might say to you, ‘In this role, you will be communicating regularly with external stakeholders. What do you think makes effective communication?’ Whilst the question doesn’t explicitly ask for an example of a time you’ve demonstrated communication skills or worked with external stakeholders, do build a STAR response into your answer. This will make it more evidence-based and consequently impactful.
Whilst there are pitfalls associated with competency-based questions, that isn’t to say you should be afraid of them. They provide you with great opportunities to sell yourself and are relatively easy to anticipate which is helpful when it comes to interview preparation. If you’re applying for a job and see time management skills listed in the person specification, then prepare a time management STAR example, as this could be something the panel focusses on. If you would like support with interview preparation, at the Career Zone we offer 1-1 advice appointments and mock interviews as well as interview technique workshops. You can find out more about these opportunities on the Career Zone webpages.
So, the next time you encounter a competency-based question in an interview, don’t panic (or get distracted by the festive shoppers like I did!) Take a deep breath, think of all the brilliant STAR examples you’ve already prepared and wow the panel with a well-structured, compelling answer. You’ve got this.