Job Interview Tips

Foolproof ways to answer the toughest competency-based interview questions

photo of a young woman in a video call with other young women
Written by Eric Titner

It’s no stretch to declare that today’s job market is more volatile—and competitive—than ever before. Across all industries, the number of people vying for a limited number of coveted positions continues to rise. Amidst the uncertainty one thing is abundantly clear—if you’re going to cut through the competition and get noticed by key industry gatekeepers and hiring personnel, your interview skills have to be absolutely on point and razor-sharp.

Today’s interviews bear little resemblance to those from just a few years ago, thanks in large part to the global pandemic and tidal wave of disruptive technological innovation that’s changing how companies operate at every level.

At least for now, gone are the days where you’d hustle to get ready and out the door to commute to an office for an interview, arrive early, sweat it out in the waiting room, and do your best to maintain appropriate eye contact, speak eloquently, and end things on a high note and a handshake with the hopes that you’ve made a positive and memorable face-to-face impression. These days, if you’re on the job hunt or thinking about getting back into the open market, you better make sure your video conferencing skills are strong and that you’re poised to present your best self remotely—and that you’re well versed in the types of interview questions commonly used today.

Chief among these are competency-based interview questions, which have been popular for a while but continue to grow in prominence. These typically adhere to the classic “situational” format, in which you’re tasked with a hypothetical work-based scenario or asked to give an example from your prior work history that is targeted to gauge your competency in key areas—things like decision making, creative problem solving, moderating conflict, handling a crisis, or managing a project or team.

Some people seem to handle these types of questions without breaking a sweat, but for others, they can pose a greater challenge. Read on for some effective strategies for tackling even the toughest questions you might face on interview day.

Know the role

Usually, the competencies being targeted in these types of interview questions are directly aligned with the type of position and role you’re vying for. Use this as a guide when preparing for an upcoming interview. If the job requires extensive personnel management or team leadership, then be ready for questions that test your people skills. If it’s a role with heavy project management, then your communication, organization, and teamwork skills will likely be in focus. You get the point—know the core skills the role requires to help you anticipate the type of competency-questions you may encounter on interview day, and be prepared to demonstrate how you more than fit the bill.

Come to interviews pre-loaded

Those of us who have been in the work world or on the job hunt for a while know that there are few things more awkward on an interview than complete silence—and competency-based questions tend to induce more silence than other question types. This unfortunate scenario usually occurs when unprepared or nervous candidates are asked to summon an example of how they handled a certain type of situation or deployed a certain set of skills in the past, but are unable to come up with one in the moment.

It can happen to the best of us—interviews are stressful , which can significantly affect your ability to think quickly on your feet. The best way to push past the awkwardness is to come to interviews equipped with a wide range of experiences from your past that touch upon your abilities in the areas you’ll likely be asked about, based on the position and skills it requires. Another great reason to prep scenarios in advance is that it gives you the opportunity to cherry pick the most memorable and resonant ones, which will help you stand out from the interview crowd.

Rely on trial and error

Effectively preparing for interviews means more than just showing up on time wearing a nice outfit and a smile. Today’s job market is so competitive that you really need to work hard to sell yourself as the best available candidate in a crowded field of qualified individuals. This means advance preparation to help you get ready to tackle the most challenging types of interview questions that you can expect to encounter.

A great way to get comfortable answering competency-based questions is to practice doing so before interview day. Enlist the services of a trusted colleague, friend, or family member and run mock interviews that focus on this question type. Ask for constructive feedback and examine your performance critically. See what works and what doesn’t, and retool accordingly. And don’t forget that when it comes to interviews, the old cliché that practice makes perfect still holds true.

About the author

Eric Titner

Eric is a NYC-based editor and writer, with years of experience in career-focused content development across a wide range of industries.