How to Impress at Interview – Answering the Competency Questions

Interviewers often assess your ability to do the job through “competency questions”. Answer these well, and you’ll prove your suitability for the role.

Competency questions are questions about specific skills, such as organisational ability, teamwork, communication or customer-service skills. You’ll be asked to give an example of how you’ve used the skill in the past.

Predict them by reading the job description. This is an example for an events researcher role:

“A likeable and enthusiastic individual who has strong analytical skills, the ability to write in a concise and accurate manner and forge strong relationships. You will have excellent communication skills, some knowledge of the financial markets and a willingness to pull together as part of a team. A high degree of self-motivation and drive is required to succeed.

You must be able to work to deadlines and have a strong work ethic. Fluency in French is a distinct advantage as is experience in conference producing.”

For this role, you could expect questions about your communication skills, attitude to work and ability to work to deadlines.

You’ll know when you’re being asked a competency question, as they often start with “Tell me about a time when…” or “Can you give me an example when…” or “Describe a situation when…”

Potential competency questions for the job description above are:

Tell me about a time when you…

… had to work to a strict deadline / …were under a lot of pressure to finish a project (for deadlines / work ethic)

…your colleagues needed to rely on you (for teamwork)

…you had to compete with someone else (for drive /ambition)

For other roles, typical competency questions could be:


… a stressful situation that you had to deal with (ability to deal with pressure)

… a time when you had to deal with a difficult customer (customer-service)

… a problem that you had to solve recently (for problem-solving)

… a time you needed to learn something quickly (quick learner skills)

To answer these questions, find real examples – preferably recent and relevant to the role. You can also use examples from previous roles, or voluntary work. Prepare one or two examples for each competency and frame them in a story format.

–        what the situation was (the problem you had to solve)

–        what you did to solve the problem

–        what the result was

–        (optionally: what you learnt from it)

For example, in response to “Tell me about a time you had to work to a strict deadline” you could say:

“Last month my manager asked me to prepare an urgent report about events venues in Paris. He wanted me to compare venues for cost, location and size. I knew this report would take at least three days, but I also had other urgent projects. So I asked for a brief meeting to reprioritise my workload. I arranged to come into the office an hour earlier to make use of the French time differences, and I outsourced some research work to my contacts in Paris. I stayed late to finish the project and made sure it was on my boss’s desk well before the deadline, so he could review it and request any last-minute changes.”

Practise telling your stories so you sound natural. Your story doesn’t need to be too long, but you might get follow-up questions if the interviewer wants extra detail.

Four or five different “stories” is probably enough. If you change the angle slightly you can also use one story to demonstrate more than one competency. For instance, the story above could also be used to highlight problem-solving, team-work, ability to work under pressure and communication skills.

Clare Whitmell is a qualified business communication trainer and specialises in writing and presentation skills coaching. As well as regular contributions for Guardian Careers she also blogs CV writing and job hunting tips on