Have you ever been in an interview, and you’ve been asked to describe a time you have come across a particular challenge or situation and spent a panicked 30-seconds (that felt like 15-minutes) trying to come up with an example, then waffling through an answer before finishing with, I’m sorry I can’t remember what your initial question was!

I’ve been that person and I’ve also been on the other side of the table. You feel disappointed that you haven’t performed at your best and I can promise you the interviewer is willing you to be your best too.

What I am describing is a competency-based interview. They are favoured in the recruitment process as they allow the interviewer to ask a set of questions (often the same to all candidates) to gauge how you have used specific skills in your previous employment and to understand how you approach tasks and challenges.

It can feel overwhelming and nerve-wracking, but if you know what to expect, how to prepare for it, and reframe it as an opportunity to have a conversation about your career highlights it can feel a much more palatable prospect.

What to expect in a competency-based interview 

The questions asked in the interview will have been created to assess your ability to perform tasks specific to the role you are interviewing for.

You should go through the job advert with a fine-toothed comb to draw out the skills and competencies required for the job, and this will be a good guide as to the type of questions that could come up.

Examples of key competencies and questions 

Before we move onto how to prepare for the interview, here are some examples of key competencies and the type of questions you might get asked:

Management & Leadership Skills – here the interviewer wants to know how you influence others and lead a team

  • Can you give me an example of a time where you lead a group or a team to achieve an objective?
  • How do you motivate your current team to achieve their goals?


Problem-solving – this is to ascertain how to analyse problems and implement solutions

  • Tell me about a time you identified a new approach to a problem or business challenge
  • How do you typically approach problems or challenges at work?


Interpersonal skills & Teamwork – the interviewer will want to know about your communication skills and how you work with others

  • Tell me about a time you dealt with conflict at work
  • Describe a time where you have worked in a team


Personal qualities and attributes – these questions are designed to assess your approach to decision-making, integrity and autonomy

  • Tell me about a time your work or idea was challenged
  • Describe a time when you were unable to complete a task on-time


Motivation – these questions are used by the interviewer to understand what motivates you

  • How do you define success in your role?
  • Tell me about a time you had a difficult target to achieve


How to prepare 

Start by going through the job advert and list out all of the competencies, skills and experience they are looking for.

Now think of all your career highlights and the times you’ve been at your best. Next you need to marry up your stories with the skills and experience required in the job advert.  Ideally you want to find two examples of every competency.

The very best responses to competency-based questions will be well-structured, clear and concise and will spotlight your specific skills and demonstrate the value you bring to the role.

Sounds easy right?!

Well actually it is!  There is a tried and tested method to answering these types of questions called the STAR framework, and once you’ve mastered it, it makes interview prep a lot more straightforward.

Read on to get interview ready!

How to structure your answers using the STAR method 

This method is going to ensure you are including all the key components into your answer, it’s going to keep you on-topic and stop you waffling or losing your train of thought.

  • Start by describing the SITUATION or background to your example
  • Move on to describing the TASK required as a result
  • Explain the ACTION you took, and how you approached each task
  • Finally, summarise the RESULT or outcome of your example

You can develop your answers even further by reflecting on what you learnt from the experience, what you could have done differently and what impact you had.

For more help on structuring your answers using the STAR method check out my blog How to Master the STAR Technique.

Practice, practice, practice 

Once you have your examples prepared, you need to practice your delivery. In the interview itself you want to be familiar enough with these examples to be able to articulate them clearly and calmly.  Although it sounds silly, practicing them out loud is a really effective way to do this.

One last piece of advice 

You’ll hear this over and over again, but the final piece of the puzzle is to remember to be yourself! But what does that actually mean in reality?

Your aim is to come across as professional and prepared, but not at the expense of showing your personality. Give honest, genuine answers, rather than robotic, textbook responses. Remember there is no one right answer, what the interviewer is interested in is how you answer the question and what this tells them about you and it’s your opportunity to shine the spotlight on the times you’ve been at your absolute brilliant best.

Good luck!

Jane McKenna is a partner coach at Careering into Motherhood. Jane helps women navigating career change or maternity leave to uncover their story, reconnect with their professional identity and find career happiness through 1:1 coaching, group programmes, online courses and workshops. You can get in touch via her profile page