How to: Answer competency-based interview questions

‘Tell me about a time you’ve had to answer a competency question…’

Competency questions (AKA behavioural interview questions) have become so popular in modern recruitment that there’s almost no hiding from them. Often characterised by an opening such as ‘Tell me about a time…’ or ‘Give an example of how…’, these types of interview questions strip back the importance often placed on experience and qualifications.

Instead, their primary function is to test how well you can do the job at hand, according to your attributes.

We’ve already focussed on what you need to know about competency questions, but here’s our advice on answering five of our favourites, courtesy of ‘Why You? 101 Interview Questions You’ll Never Fear Again’:


Competency interview questions


1. Tell me about a time you supported a member of your team who was struggling

Whilst it may seem like a pretty straightforward competency-based question, there is actually one big hidden consideration to think about when selecting your best story, which goes far beyond the typical STAR method of answering.

While many companies rightly value teamwork and empathy in their staff, the cold, hard truth is they do so because they think that helping and caring is of benefit to their bottom line.

The best answers to this question not only stress how you supported a colleague in crisis, but also how your support translated into improved performance for the company.

Basically, be nice…but in a way that brings benefits back to the business.

Right answer: ‘My job comes with a fair amount of analysis on a day-to-day basis, which means I’m confident using software like Excel. One of my newer colleagues didn’t have much experience and was having a tough time with their reporting, so I offered to help out a few days after work to get him up to speed. Since then, he’s never had a problem with reporting, and I’ve never had a problem getting a drink if he’s at the bar.’

Wrong answer: ‘Team? If I’m honest, I like to think of myself as more of a one man wolf pack…’

Common interview questions and answers

Customer service interview questions

2. Give an example of a time you’ve had to improvise to achieve your goal

Translation: Can you think on your feet?

This question is basically a kind of unholy hybrid between a curveball and a classic competency question. It’s designed to take you out of your comfort zone and see how you cope under pressure, but it’s also asking for a real-life experience to back up what you say.

So what sort of anecdote are you looking for? Improvisation is all about facing the chaos, trusting yourself to handle the unexpected and overcoming fear of failure to come out swinging.

Think of a time when you used your initiative to get out of a sticky situation and you’ll have nothing to worry about.

Right answer: ‘My previous company often hosted client conferences, which were an important revenue driver for the business. For each event we booked an MC to introduce speakers and keep things entertaining. At a conference last year, to my horror, our scheduled MC came down with food poisoning the night before the event. We were too close to the event to find a replacement, so as the event manager, it fell to me to fill in. I was incredibly nervous, but after a lot of deep breaths and a little practice backstage, I got through it. I had some great feedback, and my presenting skills even improved as a result, which was a bonus.

Wrong answer: ‘I improvised a lot on my CV to get this interview…’

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Interview types: What you need to know


3. Why are you a good fit for the company?

Let’s face it: everyone wants to be wanted.

A recruiter is unlikely to be overly enamoured by a candidate who looks like they’re simply playing the field. So, instead of selling why you’d be a great hire for any company, the best approach here is to demonstrate why you’re a perfect match for this one in particular.

Do your homework. Take some time before the interview to look at the company’s website and their social media presence, for example. This should give you an insight into the organisation’s personality and culture, and identify the things they believe really makes them stand out.

Once you have all this information, you have a blueprint. Now use your own skills, accomplishments and personality and tie them in with everything you’ve learned to hack together the perfect response.

Right answer: ‘Based on the research I’ve done about your company, yours is an organisation that really values staying on the cutting edge of technology. I was especially impressed with some of the technical details I read about the XYZ project. I think there’s a really good fit between my interest in evolving my own skills and technical knowledge, and the fact that your firm is known for continual technical improvements. That’s one reason I’m really excited to have the opportunity to work here’

Wrong answer: ‘You have a job. I need a job. Put your hands together, and everyone’s a winner.’

Interview question: ‘Why do you want this job?’

Four things to take to a job interview


4. Which websites do you use personally? Why?

The secret to answering this one directly relates to the role you’re applying for.

If it’s a traditional role in a less tech-savvy kind of business, the chances are the interviewer is fishing to find out how you keep abreast of the latest industry trends. If that’s the case, nothing overly fancy is required, just a quick rundown of some of the best news sites for your sector should suffice.

However, if you get the impression that your interviewer is inviting you to show off your techie credentials, always try and oblige them. Give them a rundown of apps on your iPhone home screen, detail how you decided on your preferred blogging platform or complain about how your favourite plug-ins perform on one browser or another (N.B. don’t choose Internet Explorer as your browser of choice).

Choose which camp your job falls within and go with it.

Right answer: ‘I probably check websites like TechCrunch and Mashable about once a day. They’re a great source of news about a wide range of industries, and definitely help me keep up with any particular tech-heavy chats around the coffee machine.’

Wrong answer: ‘I’m a pretty big fan of Facebook. By the way, did you get my friend request?’

Interview tips: Our advice to help you ace the interview


5. If you were offered the job, what’s the first thing you’d change?

Approach with caution. This is about as loaded as a question comes…

If you’re specifically asked to do a turnaround job or get the sense that the role is about making changes, go ahead and highlight some specific areas that strike you as in need of work.

However, bear in mind that barging in and disregarding the experience and opinions of your new co-workers is unlikely to go down too well with your prospective team. You’re trying to get across that you’ll bring ideas to the table, not that you’re a bully.

Make sure that when you suggest areas for improvement, you do so with tact. Stress consultation and the need for information gathering. Words like ‘evolve’, ‘add’, ‘contribute’ and ‘develop’ can be more effective than ‘change’, ‘transform’, ‘overhaul’ or ‘fix’.

Remember: no one likes a know-it-all.

Right answer: ‘I can see from the job description that part of this role will involve helping to manage the company’s social media channels. I noticed in my research that you don’t post very often and the tone seems a little inconsistent. I’d be looking to help develop a more reliable voice and personality for the brand, to help set us apart from the competition.’

Wrong answer: ‘I’m glad you asked. I’ve brought along a thirty-seven slide PowerPoint presentation detailing each change. Can someone dim the lights?’

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Need more interview questions?

Not sure any of these questions will come up? Don’t panic. We’ve got plenty more…

Buy James Reed’s new book: Why You? 101 Interview Questions You’ll Never Fear Again and start loving Mondays now.

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We spoke to a group of university students to find out – and see if recruiters actually agree…



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8 comments on “How to: Answer competency-based interview questions

  1. Alan Scouser - February 14, 2017 at 04:14

    Competency based interviews are a BIG hindrance to jobseekers. I am FED UP with getting knocked back simply because I cannot “talk the talk”. It should be more about a candidate’s previous work experience and ability to use office packages, rather than all this competency/team player/ claptrap.

  2. John J Guy - March 27, 2017 at 19:16

    This is a large part of the modern business world. It is now necessary to be able to discuss and express yourself, along with your work. Sometimes In great detail!

  3. Patty Pereira Taylor - April 12, 2017 at 17:46

    Very good examples. Thank you 🙂

  4. Harriet - May 21, 2017 at 20:19

    I’m with Alan on this one, and disagree with John, in my
    experience far from a large part of the business world, the only time I need
    this skill set is for an interview for a new job, I’ve been a c-suite interim
    for over 20 years and yet I still need to consult sites like this to
    remind me of the BS and hoops I need to jump though because this is so far
    removed from what I do for a job and is a totally irrelevant skill in any other
    context. Interviews merely tell and employer that the candidate is good at
    interviews, but they are sadly a necessary evil, so we’ve just got to suck it
    up. 🙁 Useful site, thanks

  5. Mohammed Kawsar - June 1, 2017 at 08:28

    The drawback of competency based interviews is that they rely heavily on the interviewees ability to articulate themselves, and how well the interviewer(s) understand what is being said. A friend of mine was unemployed for nearly a year; always getting knocked back at interview. Then, he focused his efforts on learning all he could about competency based and STAR format interviewing. He’s used this knowledge to move from one job to the next over the past 5 years and now has a really good job that is well payed.

    However, his work ethic hasn’t changed. He’s still lazy, and has a short attention span. The difference is that now when he feels his job is at risk, he applies for another job and moves. And because it usually takes a couple of years for his shortcomings to be fully discovered, none of his prospective employers question it. I honestly feel that he has taken job opportunities from people who could have done much better, had they performed better at the interview.

    I myself have recruited people like that in the past, who look good on paper and they talk the talk, but after they’re through their probationary period, they start to show their true colours, and performance management of such individuals is so time consuming.

  6. Will S. - June 28, 2017 at 23:24

    Absolutely hate these types of interviews. I’ve temped at this place for 2 years once and I was among one of the most experienced, skilled and knowledgeable members of staff at that site. Then when the permanent recruitment drive came along, I missed out because I’m essentially bad at BS-ing. So all that effort, hardwork and stress for remuneration barely above the national minimum wage all went to some guy that can just talk, talk and talk.

    Of course, I left that company a month later.

    I just wish the world would realise what happens during a 45 mins interview does not reflect what has happened over years upon years of actually doing a job.

  7. Dan Copping - April 4, 2018 at 13:32

    Thanks for the examples. I found them useful.

  8. Stuart Banks - August 2, 2018 at 17:25

    Tell me what you want, what you really, really want,……………………and my considered response will delight and exceed your expectations. Keep me in the dark, feeding me half truths, propaganda and enticement traps to exploit, devalue and replace me by automated systems and I shall become your worse nightmare.