Interviewers using behaviour-based interviewing techniques such as competency questions are likely to probe for additional details during your responses. Always make sure you provide concise, highly specific answers that are well explained, thought-out and detailed.

Questions can relate to past failures as well as to past achievements. You must adequately explain why you failed to complete tasks; when such questions are posed, don't avoid mention of past failures altogether, but demonstrate what you have learnt from them.

If you find yourself struggling to think of any prior experiences which are relevant to the question asked, give a hypothetical answer and describe what you would do if a similar situation were to occur in the future.

A classic question is:

Tell me about a time when you failed to complete a task or project on time, despite intending to do so.

Your interviewer will want to find out how you manage your time during difficult tasks and the reason why you failed to meet your deadline on this occasion.

An effective answer would develop a positive justification for a past failure, as with the following example: 

During my final year at university, I failed to deliver my dissertation by the due date. This was because I was heavily involved in cutting-edge research right up until the end of my course and was waiting for imminent results from surveys being undertaken by researchers at other academic institutions.

Considering this was my final piece of academic work, I wanted to ensure it was based on the most accurate and up-to-date sources of information available, even if this meant a delay in production. To ensure no marks were deducted from my dissertation, I contacted my course director and personal tutor two weeks before my dissertation due date to discuss my particular situation. I argued my case, and was consequently allowed an extra two weeks to produce my work.

Although my work was delayed, I feel that this delay was justified in that the work was of the highest quality it could be. Furthermore, I organised myself so that all relevant people were aware of a possible delay in the production of my dissertation.

Weaker answers rely on negative justifications:

During my final year at university, I failed to deliver my dissertation on the due date. This was because I was ill for a couple of weeks during my final term.

Aim for positive justifications rather than negative ones.

Tips For Answering Competency-Based Interview Questions

In order to give clear, effective and varied answers, consider the following pointers:

  • When answering competency questions you can give examples from work, study or personal life, but make sure you give a wide variety of examples and a different example to answer each question.
  • Don't go into too much background detail when answering competency questions. Your interviewer only wants to know about your past behaviours. Further detail is redundant.
  • Make sure your answers and examples you use are the most relevant to the questions asked, rather than the most impressive or elaborate.
  • Carefully evaluate the person specification. One of the most important elements in a competency interview is assessing your suitability in terms of core competencies. Take time to read and understand the spec, highlighting skills, experience and knowledge that’s important.
  • Explore the company’s website. Understand what the company does and what attributes current employees might possess.
  • Evaluate industry intelligence. Find out everything you can about the industry the company exists in and the types of people in that industry who are influential.
  • STAR technique. Think: Situation, Task, Action, Result. This will help you to tell a story in a clear and concise manner, while showing evidence to support your answers. See below for more detail.
  • Don't make your answers up! Your interviewer will find this very easy to spot.