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Competency based interview tips

Sample questions and answers to help you ace your job interviews


Written by Mairead Butler and posted in opinion


This is an opinion of a young person and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of SpunOut.ie. It is one person's experience and may be different for you. If you'd like to write something for SpunOut.ie please contact editor@spunout.ie.


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Soft skills are becoming increasingly important in today’s economy. How you interact with people and perform on a team is essential to proving you are right for the role. Your employer wants to determine if you have the ability to learn quickly, not just hear about what you already know.

In a competency-based interview, your employer will be looking for concrete answers on how you applied your skills to certain situations. They will commonly include phrases like ‘Please provide me with an example of, tell me a particular time when’. In these instances make sure that you are not speaking about hypothetical scenarios. Using sentences like ‘if I were ever in that situation’ or ‘I think I would probably’ defy the point of the questions. Instead, select a specific example from the past. Draw on a variety of experiences from school, college, part-time work, and volunteering or social activities.

They don’t have to be particularly deep or complex examples; they merely need to illustrate the fact that you possess these skills. It is also essential to use the correct structure when answering questions. One of the most commonly used methods is the STAR Methods: S-Situation T-Task A-Action R- Results. Here is an example of how this can be used.

Question: Describe a time when you worked with a team who were lacking motivation and you boosted morale?

S - My football team were really down as we had lost a lot of matches
T -I decided that I would do something to try and boost morale
A - I organised a team night out for all of the players and included the managers
R - I found that this really lifted spirits on the team. We went on to win our next two matches and I got player of the year.

As discussed above, the answer does not have to be very in-depth; it just needs to be your personal experience. The most important part of the STAR method is the result. Almost everyone forgets this and will just describe what they did. What the interviewer is really looking for here is the outcome so make sure not to leave this part out.
Here are a few examples of a commonly asked competency based questions and simple examples on how to answer them.

  • Describe a time when you communicated with impact/empathy? - I raised a large sum of money for a charity by explaining the cause to people in my locality.
  • Name one way you have self-developed in the past 12 months? - I decided to take an online French course, as I know that languages are very important for succeeding in business
  • Have you had a new idea that changed a process or system? - (This is a very common question as many companies are focused on innovation and bringing new ideas to the table).  If you struggle to find an answer here you can use something simplistic, such as ‘I suggested to my manager that we move the umbrellas to the front of the shop when it rains so that customers would run in and grab them immediately. This increased sales by 20%’.
  • Tell me about a time that you made a decision that your teammates did not agree with? - As a team leader on a college project I made the difficult decision of changing the report that one of the other team members had written. As it was very poor quality work it would have affected the entire team, but she was very dissatisfied that I had chosen to do this. In the end however, my team achieved one of the highest scores in the class.
  • Tell me about your biggest weakness/failure? - For this question, make sure you do not choose a weakness that would be directly linked to the job. For example, telling someone in a technology firm that you have limited computer skills would be far from ideal! Instead, choose something that you can follow up with a positive, i.e. I struggled a lot with punctuality during college. However as a result of doing an internship I was forced to hone my organisation skills and improve on this.
  • Tell me about a time you provided excellent customer service? - In this instance you really want to show that you can go above and beyond expectation levels. ‘I was working in a luxury shop selling bags and a customer needed a product that was out of stock. The deliveries only arrive in the evening when the shop was closed but I stayed after hours, waited until it arrived and hand delivered it to her house.

When answering these questions always stay calm. The fact that you have got an interview means that they are interested in the skills that you have. This is your chance to self promote so don’t hold back. For particularly difficult questions all you can do is try your best. Oftentimes interviewers will probe with very tough questions just to get an idea if the candidate will crack under pressure. As long as you provide the interviewer with SOME answer and not just a vacant stare or an ‘I don’t know’, it should be satisfactory.

The harder you are finding the questions the more of an indication that the interviewer thinks highly of your ability so don’t be alarmed. Always remember, it’s not just about what you say but HOW you say it so make sure that your body language is open and inviting.

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Published June 12th, 2014
Last updated February 20th, 2017
Tags interviews employment work compass
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