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How to answer competency questions

Book open Reading time: 2 mins

Core competencies are the qualities that employers look for in a successful candidate, judged to be especially useful for the job in question. Here’s what to look out for, and how to put them across on applications or at interviews.


What is a core competency?

Core, or key competencies are the personal qualities that an employer believes are necessary to do a particular job well. Candidates are then assessed for these qualities at application, be it in writing or in interview.

These assessments are becoming increasingly popular as a way to distinguish between multiple candidates who all have top grades at school and university.

Examples of common core competencies include:

  • Teamwork  
  • Responsibility  
  • Career Motivation  
  • Commercial awareness  
  • Decision making  
  • Communication  
  • Leadership  
  • Trustworthiness and Ethics  
  • Results orientation  
  • Problem Solving  
  • Organisation

How are they assessed?

Core competency questions aim to use past behaviour as an indicator for how you will work in future. This type of more general questioning is also a way to judge the working potential of a candidate who may not have a lot of industry experience yet.

Your will be asked to demonstrate your personality, skills or competencies using situational examples from your own life. These could be situations from school, university, or any other activity where you could have demonstrated any of these qualities.

An example might be “Tell me about a time you have had to persuade people to your point of view”, or “Please give me an example of a time when you had to work to a tight deadline”.

How to answer competency-based questions

When answering competency-based questions, it is essential to give clear, structured answers, to avoid waffle and irrelevant details.

One of the safest methods to use the STAR technique. This stands for:

Situation – Present the situation in which you found yourself

Task – Explain what you were trying to achieve

Action – Present what action you took to achieve this result, and why

Result – What was the result of your action, what did you achieve and what did you learn? This is also a point to make sure you relate it back to the original competency the question was looking for.

Make sure you focus on your actions, rather than those of people around you, and that you give specific details. An answer for one of the above questions, in this format, could be:

How to prepare

Even though you are welcome to request a moment to compose your answer, it is hardly enough to put together an ideal answer. You will need to prepare before the interview if you want to impress, so walk into the room with examples at hand.

One way to predict the questions you may be asked is to look through the original job description and try to pick out the important details. For example, if the word ‘collaboration’ appears multiple times, then make sure you have an example ready to talk about how you work in a team.

It goes without saying, that real examples are much more effective than made up ones, especially when it comes to further questioning.