Cracking competency questions

apply_now_190It’s the season (again) where many of you are frantically completing application forms for jobs and internships. Charlie and Ioanna, our job search advisers, have taken time out from their busy schedule to give you a potted guide to competency-based questions. Master the technique and you stand a much better chance of beating the application odds….

Application forms – and certainly those for graduate positions – include some competency based questions. Employers use this type of question to see how well you can describe your actions (and the results of your actions) when it comes to certain ‘competencies’ such as team working, problem solving and leadership. A typical question might be, “Give me an example of a time when you have demonstrated initiative?” Or you may be asked about “a time when you had to support an idea you did not agree with for the good of the team.”

Put yourself in the employer’s shoes

As with many of the elements of the job application process, success depends on looking at things from the employer’s perspective.

  1. First up, what does the employer want from you? It’s crucial you check the job spec. Highlight the key words (e.g. ‘initiative’, ‘motivated’) and try to infer other competencies the job may require. For instance, a project management role will look for evidence of organisation, communication and problem solving. Some recruiters are explicit about the skills and competencies they’re looking for, whereas others may simply offer clues and expect you to fill in the blanks. If you see a job description that mentions ‘brand champion’, it’s safe to conclude that marketing experience and communication skills will be paramount.
  2. Reflect on situations where you have demonstrated these key skills. Remember, they don’t all have to be in the workplace. Employers like to see examples drawn from a range of activities and experiences. Try not to be too daunted by your peers: yes, there will always be some students that have managed to acquire a seriously impressive portfolio of work experience whilst leading two societies, volunteering every week, working part time and scaling K2…but they’re not the majority. Inject some of your personality by choosing an example that demonstrates your passion and commitment. This can set you apart from the crowd. I once listened to a student describe how he had built a drum kit from parts he bought on eBay – he demonstrated initiative, problem solving and persistence. I was completely drawn in by his passion for each element of the building process.

Show you ‘CARE’

Employers like answers to be concise, clear and focussed on ‘you’. Nothing frustrates employers more than candidates who invoke the royal ‘we’! A good way to practise is by following the CARE model:

Context – What was the context of the situation? 10-15% of your answer.

Action – What exactly did you do and how? 60-70% of your answer.

Result – What was the result of your actions? 10% of your answer.

Evaluation – What did you learn from the experience? 10% of your answer.

Ultimately, be guided by the structure suggested in the wording of the question. Some questions have more than one part and you must address each and every one in your answer.

* You may also have come across the STAR framework, which is very similar: Situation, Task, Action, Result

And finally…

  • Be clear, concise and specific – avoid generalisations and skirting around the issue.
  • Be detailed as to what you did and how you did it. Remember, employers are assessing whether you are adequately skilled in the particular competency.
  • Use the maximum available word allowance but don’t exceed it.
  • Tailor each application to the specific organisation. Employers will spot where you fail to do this. Don’t be tempted to copy and paste – it will show!

Check deadlines and give yourself plenty of time to draft well considered answers. And remember, try to adopt the sniper, not scattergun approach to your applications. Use feedback from our job search advisers and recruiters (where possible) to update and refine your applications. Time invested at the application stage is time well spent.

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