Careers: Preparing for Competency Questions

“Tell me about a time when you saved the world whilst dancing on your head?”

There’s an example of a competency question, albeit a rather silly one. But they are often seen as the most difficult part of a job application process, and so they’re worth getting right. A competency question simply asks you to demonstrate your ability at a skill, or set of skills, using your own experiences. I’ve sat in on quite a few careers seminars which aim at helping with competency questions, so feel I can help you out a little.
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Here’s a few examples of competency questions. These are ones I have actually been asked in interviews or on application forms – but no, I’m not revealing by which company!

  • Please describe an example of when you have successfully completed a complex task or project. What was the task, what obstacles did you face, and what was the outcome?
  • Please describe an example of when you have built a successful relationship with a colleague or a customer. What did you do, why did you do it and what was the outcome?
  • Give an example of a time when you’ve been an effective team member.
  • Describe a time when you have challenged convention and found an opportunity to improve things. What did you do and how was it received?
  • Describe when you have built a strong collaborative relationship, how you achieved this, and what were the rewards?
  • Describe a difficult situation and how you have resolved it.
  • Please describe a time you’ve used analytical thinking to find a simple solution to a complex problem.
  • Tell me about a task that you have delivered under a tight time constraint. How did you plan your time to ensure you delivered what was required?

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The best bit of advice I ever heard was to create a grid detailing key skills, with examples next to it. This should be just short, just one page, so you can memorize the examples and the skills they gave, or use in a telephone interview.

I always have a spreadsheet which lists all the competency questions I have ever been asked, alongside full answers. I go through every couple of months and update answers if I feel like they need updating. This keeps things fresh in my mind and reading through before an interview means I should never be stuck for something to say!


You want to make sure your answer has a good structure. What you did. Why you did it. How you did it. How you demonstrated the skill in question. What was the outcome and how did you influence it. How would you improve next time.

Above all, make sure you answer the question. If you are asked one about teamwork, don’t talk about an individual project. Teamwork questions can be tricky as you want to make it all about your skills, whilst demonstrating how you worked as a team. A good answer might be something like ‘we worked on X, I suggested we split the work up and look the lead on Y, this meant we were on time and working in manageable chunks.’

Also ensure you use examples from your own experience – there’s nothing more awkward than being asked further details and not being able to provide them!

And my top tip?

Make sure you have examples for each of the skills you mention in your CV. Interviewers are bound to pick up on these, so if you have said you are skilled in a particular programming language, have an example of a project using it ready to wow!

Do you have any tips for dealing with these types of questions? What part of the job application process do you find the most difficult?