How to ace a competency-based interview

Preparation is key when it comes to selling your own story.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 10 May 2017

Tell us about a time you nailed a competency-based interview. Struggling? While not exactly the most intimidating of all recruitment set-ups, these interviews can still catch you out if you’re not careful. Here’s MT’s handy guide to showing off your experience.

Be strategic

Competency-based questions are by their nature open-ended, which creates the temptation to rant. Don’t. Extraneous details can be an unnecessary distraction that could cost you the job – much like rapidly clicking your pen the whole way through the interview, only worse. ‘You’ve got to use every single word to sell yourself,’ explains interview coach Claire Jenkins. ‘Be tactical about anything that’s not strictly job-related.’

Personal details may make you memorable, but it really depends on the interviewer. You may think being a renowned high-wire tightrope walker/daredevil on the weekends is your greatest achievement, but they might worry whether you’ll actually be in the office on a Monday morning, rather than being scraped off the Big Top floor.

...But don’t lie

‘The important thing is presenting the best you can possibly present. Sometimes that means putting something impressive up front or leaving something out,’ says Jenkins. This does not mean lying – aside from being immoral, it’s also likely to get you caught out.

Think of it more like picking the most flattering picture for your Facebook profile – if you’ve got a really strong story from 20 years ago, for instance, don’t be afraid to use it. ‘Don’t give it an anchor, just talk generically about it,’ says Jenkins. ‘You don’t need to say when it was.’ Similarly, if the epilogue of your ‘how I won that big client and doubled our revenue’ story actually ends with the deal falling through the year after, it might be wise not to volunteer that at interview...

Focus on results

Everyone knows the STAR method of formulating answers to competency-based questions (situation, task, action and result) but the most important part is the ‘result’ – not just what it was, but why it mattered. This isn’t always easy, of course, particularly when most of us work in teams. The trick is to reduce it to what you did that no one else would have done, says Jenkins. ‘What would have happened differently if you hadn’t been there? What can you stick a flag in and say this was my contribution to that?’

More importantly, you need to know which results to give. What are your relevant competencies? What is it that you do well and that adds value? People often struggle to identify them, says Jenkins. ‘If I gave you three boxes and you had to put a competency on each of them, what would they be? If you can boil it down to three things, let’s say people management, strategic vision and compliance on something or other, it makes it a lot easier for you to explain.’

...But watch the ego

A competency-based interview is an opportunity to convince an employer that you could do the job, which means it rewards people who know how to tell a good story – with themselves as the subject. If bragging doesn’t come easily, just remember that everyone else is doing it to some extent. ‘You don’t need to use words like "great" or "fantastic" to describe yourself,’ says coach Maria Rivington. Instead, stick to quantifiable results and make sure you do your homework.

‘The biggest mistake is a strategic one and over 50% of candidates in an interview process will be rejected because of it. The focus on any interview must always be on the organisation you’re applying to work for and how you can benefit them, not the other way around,’ Rivington explains. This involves reading the job description thoroughly and tailoring your answers to their job.

And bring a notepad

It’s an interviewee’s worse nightmare. Everything’s going well, and then you’re asked about a time you resolved a conflict a work. You have a great story lined up, but your mind goes blank. The blood rushes to your face, as the interviewer’s eyebrows slowly start to rise...

If you struggle with nerves, bring a small note book and jot down some key words. Aside from being handy to write down questions and looking professional, ‘it’s not worth blowing your chances just because your adrenaline sometimes gets the better of you – just knowing you brought something to refer to can ease your mind and you may never have to look at any notes at all,’ Rivington says.

It also means that if you have a bad interviewer (it happens), you can make sure you cover all the key points that you wanted to talk about, by ticking it off a list. That way you can at least leave knowing you’ve given it your best shot.  

Want more tips? Here's MT's big read on clearing those interview hurdles.

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