handshake - interviewOne thing I’ve noticed while working as a recruiter and interview coach is that a lot of my candidates and clients struggle with answering competency-based (or behavioral) interview questions. In fact, many times, the main reason a candidate gets rejected after their interview is the fact they didn’t provide relevant and detailed examples in their responses.

Even if an employer hasn’t told you that you’ll be involved in a behavioral-style interview, you are still likely to face behavioral or competency-based  interview questions. Here’s what you need to know to handle them successfully:


Traditional vs. Competency-Based Interviewing

Traditional interviews present you with questions such as, “Tell me a little bit about yourself,” “Why do you want to work here?” or “What motivates you?”

The process of competency-based interviewing is much more difficult. A prospective employer will try to make a prediction of your future success by understanding how you’ve handled certain situations in the past.

While in a traditional interview you can usually get away with somewhat vague answers, in a competency interview, you will be asked for very specific examples.

Be prepared to be asked for details, including names, dates, budgets and outcomes. The interviewers are likely to ask you about lengthy projects you’ve been involved in — you’ll need to tell them how your role has evolved and how you handled deadlines, pressures and difficult personalities.

When you give examples from your work experience, the interviewer will probe you to try to understand how you think and how you determined what steps to take and in what order.


How to Answer Competency-Based Questions

The questions will start with, “Tell about a time…” or “Describe a situation…” Once you’ve answered, you might be encouraged to elaborate further with questions like, “So, why did you decide to do this?” or “What made you decide to do this?”

The interviewer will try to establish what benefits you will bring to the company, and where you’re stronger than other candidates interviewing for the same job.

Therefore, when giving examples, I’d recommend that you use the S.T.A.R. statement format:

S – Situation
T – Task
A – Action
R – Result

S.T.A.R. represents how your key skills are applied in work. Your S.T.A.R. examples should illustrate your depth of knowledge, level of ability and value for each key skill.

  • Situation/Task: Describe a work-related situation you were in or the task you needed to accomplish. Be very specific and give details, but keep it short and concise.

  • Action: Describe the action you took, and be sure to keep the focus on you. Even if you’re discussing a group project or effort, describe what you did, not the efforts of the team. Don’t tell what you might do or would do; tell what you did do.

Note: Make sure you don’t say “we” all the time as this is a very common mistake. If you’ve implemented or initiated something, you need to make that clear. (Click here to tweet this thought.)

  • Results: Describe what you achieved. What happened? What feedback did you receive? What did you accomplish? What did you learn? How much time/money did you save?

Take the time to develop and practice your S.T.A.R. statements. You’ll want to have at least 6-8 S.T.A.R. statements at the tip of your tongue when you go into an interview.

Create S.T.A.R. statements from the jobs on your resume that you want to bring attention to. As you use these statements as examples, your interviewer will become familiar with the various positions you have held and will get a good idea of your track record of success in those various positions.


Examples of S.T.A.R. Statements

Let’s say your interviewer asks you a question about communication skills. In your answer, show how you are able to adapt your communication style to particular situations and audiences, or how you’re able to produce clear and concise written information.

Have a look at these two example answers:

Example 1

I was responsible for producing important management reports and supporting presentations for a range of important and high-profile clients. Through my understanding of the clients’ needs and my effective communication skills, I have ensured that the reports that go to the clients are relevant and focused and are continually improved.

The reports I have produced and the presentations I have made were well-received by all my clients. As a result of the combination of my analytical thinking and interpersonal and communication skills, I’ve been asked  to lead the development of the strategic plan for the organization.

Example 2

The unit I was attached to was responsible for producing a management report and supporting oral presentation for several large clients, some with significant problems and issues to report. In some cases the management report was publicly available and was subject to a great deal of scrutiny. A new style/format of management letter needed to be developed for my clients, as many of the clients were complaining that the letters were too long and difficult to read.

I was tasked with developing a new style of management letter for the clients. I had to meet stringent quality requirements/criteria while addressing the need to reduce its size. Following consultation, mainly over the phone and face-to-face, with the majority of our clients, I realized that a summarized report format with a better visual and more interactive presentation was the answer. I developed a format for a summarized report, reducing the average length from 40 pages to just 10. I achieved this through careful editing of information and increased use of graphs, etc. I then developed a more focused presentation to clients including more graphical displays and incorporating short presentations by colleagues directly involved in producing the work. During the presentations, I encouraged clients to ask questions and develop their understanding of the issues at hand.

The summarized management report and improved presentations were seen as a success by the clients, who, without exception, in responding to an evaluation survey, found the new format/style better than the previous, and all requested that the revised system be continued.

Which example is better? Example 1 is not a good example because it doesn’t give sufficient details of exactly what the person did or how they actually demonstrated their “effective communications skills.”

The second example is much better, as it describes exactly what the person did and how they communicated.

The result segment is the most important part of your answer, because a successful outcome proves that your actions were effective. If possible, offer statistics or figures that highlight the magnitude of your success, mention positive feedback you received, and talk about what you learned and how this learning will help you in the job you’re being interviewed fo.

What are your best tips for responding to competency-based questions? Share in the comments!

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