How To Answer Competency Based Questions

Competency based questions on graduate job application forms are your first hurdle in the race for employment. Make a mistake and you won’t get the chance to impress in an interview or assessment centre – so it’s worth putting in the effort early on!

So what is a competency based question?

Essentially it’s a question that asks you for evidence of a time you have used a skill (or competency). Important competencies will differ depending on the company you are applying to, but will typically include things like leadership, adaptability, organisation, decision making. You get the picture.
Questions may start off with one of the following:
 ‘Give an example of a time when…’,
● ‘Describe a situation where you have...’ 
● ‘Provide an example of …'

Don’t be fooled! All these questions want you to talk about exactly the same things:
1. Where you have used a certain skill
2. What the result was

Luckily there is a winning formula you can use to ensure you answer crafty competency questions.

Situation – What was the specific situation that you were involved in? Set the scene for your story.

Task – What were you trying to achieve? What was required of you?

Action – What action did you take to solve the problem?

Result – What was the result? Would you do anything differently next time?

Before we go through some example questions and answers, here are some general pointers for making the most of STAR:

● Speak in very specific terms and try to include numbers where you can; undefined answers make your story less believable. So rather than saying ‘I increased the membership of the hockey society’ , say ‘I increased the membership of the hockey society from 15 to 50 over a period of 6 months, generating £600 extra revenue for the club’

● Finish on a positive note. If the ‘Result’ of your actions wasn't what you were hoping for, what did you learn from your experience? What would you do differently next time?

● Stick to first person. Always speak in terms of what I did, rather than what we did. Employers want to know about your contribution, not anyone else's.

● Keep your examples recent, ideally within the last two years.

● If you are struggling to think of times when you have used the competencies being asked for, think carefully about continuing with your application. For instance, if you’re applying to a company who specify they are looking for leadership and people management, and can’t think of times you’ve used these skills, the role is probably not the one for you.

● If you can, try to use different scenarios for each question - don’t talk about three different situations that arose during your time as social secretary of the swimming team – you’ll look like a one trick pony!

● Keep the emphasis on the ‘Action’ section; it’s the most important part of your answer.

● As always, get your mum/dad/neighbour/friend/anyone who you can bribe to give your form the once over when you’ve finished.


Provide an example of where you overcame a problem. Given the chance, what would you do differently?  

SituationDuring my fundraising internship with Charity Y it was my responsibility to lead a team of volunteers to fundraise £2,000 for the charity over 9 months. During the final six months several of our volunteers dropped out, meaning we were struggling to meet our target.

Task: The challenge was to re-recruit some of our original volunteers so that we had the man power to meet our financial target.

Action: I wrote a persuasive email encouraging people to come to a volunteer meeting. I spoke to to each attendee individually about what they were hoping to get out of volunteering and tried to accommodate their needs. I also changed the structure of the meetings such that different people chaired the meeting each week, to give each volunteer a feeling of influence, importance and responsibility. Finally, I split the volunteers into two teams to compete to raise the most money, which proved to be the final catalyst needed to motivate the group.

Result: I increased the number of volunteers from seven to 20, and lead them to generate £1,000 during the last two months, meaning we exceeded our original target by £200. If I had the chance to do it again, I would have given the volunteers more autonomy from the beginning to prevent them from losing motivation in the first place.

So there you have it. Anything else we can help you with?

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