The competence-based interview – also known as a structured or behavioural interview – is a mainstay of the recruitment process.
This is the tried and tested format that you’ve come to know and love, where recruiters ask questions that are related to your performance or conduct in specific situations.
Competence-based questions are designed primarily to help recruiters identify and decide if your skills and proficiencies meet the company’s hiring requirements, although they are also intended to give invaluable insights into your motivations, personality, and preferred working style(s).
What competencies do graduate employers want?
Depending on the business objectives of the employer, the types of competencies that recruiters look out for can differ from company to company, which means that you will need to have a good understanding of their goals in order to highlight the skills that they want.
That said, it is generally agreed that there is a common set of key competencies that all employers want:
- Teamwork and compliance
- Time management
- Commercial awareness
- Customer-facing skills
- Conflict management
- Persuasive skills
- Planning, delegation, and organisation
- Innovation, independence, and risk-taking
- Emotional intelligence
You can usually glean ideas about the kinds of competencies the employer requires from the job description provided in the job listings or adverts.
Some graduate employers may also directly list the competencies that they’re looking for on their own recruitment website.
If possible, make an effort to network and speak to the company’s employees for an insider view of the proficiencies required for the job.
You’ll get a more comprehensive understanding of the responsibilities involved, and you might discover unspecified skills that you’ll need to have if you hope to fare well in the position!
Tell me about a time when…
Most of the questions in a competence-based interview tend to ask for examples where you’ve exhibited specific skills.
A common line of inquiry in this type of interview will include phrases like, “Can you point out an example where…” or “Describe a time when you…”
Some interviewers may also use general or hypothetical questions to set the context, like “What are some of the projects that you’ve worked on during your time with Club X?” or “What qualities should a good leader possess?”
They will then start asking more detailed questions to funnel down to the competencies that they’re looking for.
For instance, if the employer is looking for a candidate with exceptional leadership skills, their line of questioning may sound like this:
- Can you tell us of a time when you led a team?
- In this case, what do you think your contribution as a leader was?
- Were there any roadblocks you hit along the way? How did you lead the team past those?
- Looking back now, what would you have done differently as team leader?
- So based on this experience, what do you think is the difference between a leader and a manager?
How to respond… and stay on track
As a student or graduate, you may have a limited source of work-related experience to draw from (e.g. part-time positions), but it doesn’t mean that you’re doomed!
Examples from any extra-curricular activities, assignments, or voluntary positions that you’ve participated in before are just as relevant.
That said, focus only on significant instances that best represent your ability.
Many applicants have made the error of going off topic while describing their experience or providing too much information about the task when it’s the detail about their involvement that interviewers are looking for.
It may be helpful to use the STAR method to organise your reply:
- Situation: Provide context by describing the situation
- Task: Lay out the primary objectives of your task
- Action: Elaborate on the specific steps you took to achieve your goals. This is the part that recruiters want to hear the most!
- Result: Describe the result of your task, but do your best to depict yourself positively even if the overall situation didn’t turn out well.
Now let's see how you can perform like a STAR!
Question: Describe a situation where you had to inspire your team.
I had to manage a company event with four other interns during my marketing internship with Company X, but we ran into several obstacles that dampened the morale of the team.
We were working on a small-scale product launch that involved organising a press conference for one of the company’s clients, including studying the brand and identifying their target audience, and devising an event concept that suited the image of the brand.
The team felt demotivated after a week into the project because our supervisor kept turning down all of our proposals.
I encouraged the team to “restart” by listing down what we understood about the client’s brand, and the image that they were trying to build for the client.
I also did an impromptu brand-awareness survey on a small sample of respondents so that we could obtain actual feedback regarding the existing brand image.
That gave us some important insights that we never noticed before, and we started thinking about how we could tie those in to the image we wanted to convey.
I also proposed a new structure for our team’s discussions. Instead of merely brainstorming, I suggested that we take down minutes and assign members to act on individual items.
Seeing our ideas in black and white not only encouraged a sense of urgency, accountability, and enthusiasm among the team – it also helped us to focus, which improved our work quality and team dynamics.
We finally produced an event concept that our supervisor was satisfied with, and that the client approved. We were also involved in organising the launch event, and got 10 different media outlets to attend.
Our client praised us for the concept and its execution after it was over. On a personal level, I learned that a leader can motivate others just by promoting mutual understanding and communication between team members.
What if you are faced with a hypothetical situation?
During a competence-based interview, some employers may deviate from the usual behavioural questions and ask hypothetical questions instead.
In these instances, they will give you a problem where you have to spell out the steps that you plan to take to solve the situation.
When faced with such questions, don’t just focus on describing how you will tackle or solve the problem. Whenever possible, highlight skills that you have by comparing the hypothetical situation with a similar situation that you’ve faced before.
Be sure to include specific examples as proof to back your claims!