The Secret to Acing Competency Interviews

The number one tip for those preparing for interviews is to put yourself in the position of your interviewer. Most candidates focus on themselves and this tends to increase feelings of stress or nervousness. Candidates who focus on helping the interviewer discover what they need, perform far better. Adopt the position that your interviewer will know very little about you (other than what is on your CV) and that they may have spoken to several other good candidates prior to you. Good preparation will help you to stand out and make their job of assessing you easier.

Some of the most important questions to prepare for are those that ask you to demonstrate your skills or competence by recounting how you performed in a previous, comparable situation. This preparation can be achieved in 4 simple steps:

Step 1: Identify the skills the role you are applying for will require.

This is done by referring to the description of the role. Descriptions list the essential skills, qualifications and potentially some desirable additional skills which would make an ideal candidate. Start a new Word document, and list out every skill the client is looking for. Ideally 1 skill per page.

Step 2: Find your best examples of each of these skills from your CV and experience.

Next, find your best examples of each identified skill from your previous roles. More recent experience should be prioritised, but do list examples from further back if they are particularly relevant. Your CV may be the best place to find such examples, but think wider, most people find multiple examples when they give this task extra thought. Try to list at least 2 strong examples for each required skill.

Step 3: Develop a “C.A.R.” story for each example.

This is the ‘secret sauce’ in this method. It’s the part most candidates don’t do and therefore it’s a chance to really stand out. It takes some time, but it enables you to bring your experience to life in a way that will be easy for your interviewer to understand.

“C.A.R.” is an acronym for Context, Actions, Results. This is the sequence in which you should explain your examples. It will convert each into a simple story. Simple stories work because they are easy for you to recall and deliver under interview pressure as well as being easy for your interviewer to follow.

Let’s consider the example competency question: “Can you tell me about a time you’ve led a team to turnaround a difficult situation?”

Each section of the “C.A.R.” model is important in your reply. Here’s why.

The Context is the most overlooked part of the answer. But it’s critical to the impact you’ll achieve. Context is your opportunity to grab the attention and interest of your interviewer. You can do this in just a couple of sentences by telling them:

  • When your example took place
  • What role you were in at the time
  • Why it was a challenging situation

The secret here is to paint a mental picture of a difficult time. The more vividly you can paint that picture in the mind of your interviewer, the better you’ll grab their attention and the more impressive the next part of your answer will sound.
So, don’t say, “I was asked to lead the team by my boss while I was at ABC Co.”

That’s not going to impress anyone.

Instead, say, “It was 2008 and I was at ABC Co., we were in significant commercial trouble at the height of the fallout from the global financial crisis. Customer confidence was at an all-time low and our customers had virtually stopped buying. I suggested a meeting with my boss to suggest how I could improve the situation.”

Having gained attention and set the scene with your “Context”, move to the “Action” section. This is where you list the key actions YOU took. Limit this to the 3-4 headline actions that you led, or took personally, to make a difference. The secret here is to be specific. Keep painting the picture.

Use your language carefully to guide your interviewer through the journey: “I began by…”, “Next I…”, “Finally I…” will make your answer easier to follow. 

Whilst you should look to provide examples of your skills in the best light, be careful not to exaggerate or over-state your role and input to the overall solution and outcome. Keep the answer simple, relatively short and factual.

Wrap your answer up with a 2-part Results statement. Initially, describe the detail of the outstanding result and the positive impact that you made. Detail is best delivered with numbers, percentage changes, or specific new outcomes. Then, where possible and relevant, link that result to how you could make a similar difference in the new role you’re interviewing for.

Step 4: Practice your “C.A.R.” answers out loud.

This is the most overlooked part of preparation.  People will often find that getting their words out under interview scrutiny a challenge. Your interview delivery will benefit from practice. Say your answers out loud to the mirror, or practice with a friend or family member. It will feel awkward, but it’s better to make the mistakes in practice than when it really matters.

A Final Confidence Boosting Tip:

Even with thorough preparation, it’s not possible to predict every question. If your interviewer surprises you with a question you’ve not prepared for, keep “C.A.R.” in mind as you answer. It will guide you through a structured response. Ending with a detailed result will give you the best impact.