Many organisations use competency-based questions for at least part of their recruitment process, so it pays to be aware of what you may be asked and develop some robust strategies for answering them. In the first of two blogs on interview technique our guest blogger Mike Higgins shares his insights into how to approach competency questions.

What I see when doing practice interviews is that generally students tend to have strong examples, but can respond in an unstructured way. This can make it difficult for the interviewer to pick out the relevant evidence.  Here are my top tips for how to approach answering competency questions:

The STAR (Situation, Task, Activity and Result) framework helps you to stay on track, be concise and cover all the bases.  In detail:-

SITUATION sets the context, essentially why this example occurred.  The interviewer is more interested in what you did, so this part should be short, say 10% of the answer.

  • “In my last internship at XYZ Consulting, my manager asked a team of four of us to analyse the last years’ worth of projects and identify the most profitable.”
  • “When I was working at ABC during the summer on reception, a man came in highly angry and agitated as he’d received a letter.”

It should place the story in space and time and indicate how it got started.

TASK isn’t what you did but what you saw your job to be, your goal.  This lets the interviewer know what is coming up but also reminds you to stick to the point.

  • “My job was to organise the team and set some timescales for delivery”
  • “My job was to find out what had happened and calm him down”

Again, this should be short, about 10% of the answer.

ACTIVITY is what you actually did, in a bit of detail.  Some points to note:-

  • Be more careful than you normally would be about using “I” and “We”. In a team, you rightly use “we” a lot, but in an interview if you over use this it can make them question what specifically you did – make the tea or hold the coats? “I called a meeting in which we discussed how to split up the tasks, then I wrote up the minutes, circulated them and set up a spreadsheet to monitor progress.”
  • Quantify where you can. You may have managed a budget, but was it the £50 stationery budget, the £500 decoration budget or the £15bn Crossrail budget?  You know, but they won’t unless you tell them.
  • Use names and titles. “I spoke to some departments and gathered some feedback” lacks specifics.  “I spoke to John in IT, Jane in HR and Fred in Facilities and gathered feedback on what they thought of the timesheet process” feels more real.
  • Use timescales. “It took about an hour.” “We met every fortnight.”  “We found we could contact 20 customers in a day”

Everything does not have to go perfectly, so don’t be afraid to include setbacks or blind alleys where you had to backtrack, as long as you prevailed eventually!

This should be about 70% of the answer.

RESULT is the big TADA! at the end.

You should end the answer on a high, and then stop talking!  It can be difficult to finish and sit in silence whilst the interviewer is still scribbling, but don’t be tempted to fill the silence by going back over the same ground again, or even worse, highlighting what didn’t go as well as you wanted.

“In the end, we delivered the report and presented to the group of managers.  We created a lot of interest, judging by the range of questions.  I finished my internship shortly after, but I believe the recommendations were acted upon, and they achieved the projected saving.” 

Make it short, positive, and about 10% of the answer.  Emphasise with tone and body language that you are finished.

Thanks to Mike Higgins for this blog. Mike’s next post will include more tips on how to perform strongly at interviews – don’t miss it next week!  Mike works as a careers consultant at LSE Careers and is also the author of “Pit Stop: A Career Workbook for Busy People”.