Competency-Based Interviews

I both hate and love interviews (but more hate). I love the fact that most answers can be pre-planned so you don’t get flustered and can confidently let the interviewer know exactly what you’ve been doing since you left school or university. But then again, I hate the fact that most answers can be pre-planned. You may as well just hand the interviewer a sheet of paper with them on.

I’m talking here about the non-technical interviews or competency-based interviews where you are asked questions that relate to your CV as well as the usual ‘When did you have to deal with a difficult client or colleague and how did you resolve the situation?’. These type of interviews generally last for 40 minutes to an hour, and you’ll be doing most of the talking.

The Interviewer Should Help You Out

My biggest fear is of not being able to think of a suitable answer for a question and sitting in silence while your brain racks and turns itself into mush while it whirls around trying to think. The show of a good interviewer is if they help you through these blank periods by either rephrasing the question or by making the question a little more specific so that you have one thing to focus on again.

Bad interviewers tend to talk more than the candidate, telling you how great the company is and you’ll end up wondering if they got any impression of your capabilities at all. If this does happen, you could politely interrupt at choice moments and input your strengths and suitability for the position; for example by asking “What characteristics would the ideal candidate have?” and then shape your next comments towards why you have those characteristics.

Common Questions

Here are some questions that I have been asked in recent interviews. At the bottom I have included a few links to other websites offering even more sample questions that should help.

1. Tell me what you’ve found out about our company.
This is all about research and it shows how interested you are in the company. Look at the ‘About’ page on their website, this should tell you facts such as when a company was created, what it’s core business is, how many employees it has, etc. Also look for any recent news stories such as recently signing up a large investor or releasing a new product version. I tend to memorise about 5 such facts, the worst thing you can do here (i.e. you won’t get asked back) is to say you don’t know anything.
2. What do you think our company’s biggest challenge will be during the next 12 months?
When I was asked this question it completely threw me. I sat there in what seemed like 5 minutes silence, trying to think of (make up) a suitable answer. Think in terms of them increasing their client list or readership, encouraging more people to use a new product. If they’ve just realeased a product, they might struggle to get people to buy and use it.
3. What makes you want to come to work each day?
Be enthusiastic! I say that I like being able to do a job where I can see the results of my work immediately, seeing that small changes can make a big difference to the user’s experience. It’s basically asking why you like certain aspects of your job.
4. What made you apply for this particular position?
Don’t say the money, even if that was the reason! I have been applying for jobs that will allow me to use the skills I’ve learnt or learning and where there will be room for personal development. I used to apply for positions just so I’d have a job and money, now I need a job I’m going to enjoy, be able to use all my skills and where I spend all my time doing front-end development – currently I am also involved in back-end Java coding which is not the direction I want my career to go in.
5. What is your biggest achievement to date?
When I was asked this question, I had already explained the bigger projects that I’d worked on so didn’t feel it was worth going over these again. I asked if it had to be work related. Then answered that the biggest achievment for me was to work in London as I didn’t think I would have the confidence to do it. She asked what I found different about working in a small town than in a city so I just said how everyone seems much more confident and determined in their careers and that it was nice to be able to have so much choice.
6. When have you had to communicate with other departments?
They’ll be looking for communication between colleagues as well as clients, not just face-to-face but on the telephone and even email. I mention requirements gathering that I had to do for department intranet work and external clients as well as technical and general application support for our product.
7. How do you ensure your skills stay up to date?
Think of what you do in your spare time to improve your skills. For me it’s mainly reading the various web standards, usability and accessibility blogs which keep you practically up to the second for new information. I also subscribe to css-discuss and try to read any books I can get hold of. I also mention that I try to use any new skills on my personal website before inflicting them upon a live product.
8. How do you go about testing a site and it’s usability?
Tell them what processes you go through before saying something you’ve created is complete and ready for a client. I test in 4 browsers on the PC (Firefox, Opera, IE and Netscape – latest versions) and would like to also test in Mac browsers, but as I don’t have access to it I rely either on the css-discuss forum or friends to point out any inconsistencies. For usability, I said I didn’t have any set procedures in place but made sure things were logical for myself and if I got any client feedback that I would factor that into future releases.
9. When have you had to work in a team?
They’ll want to see if you are capable of working with others, including colleagues, managers and clients. Say how many people are in the team and that you communicate regularly by talking to colleagues or via email for more complicated matters. Weekly team meetings help keep a project’s focus, perhaps you were occasionally involved in chairing these meetings.
10. How do you go about organising your work and ensuring you keep to deadlines?
Personally, I’ve always found it easy to keep track of what I’m doing and how much I’ve got lef to do. If I have too much then I’ll start making lists I can cross off, which gives you satisfaction that you’re getting a lot done. Prioritising is easy really, it all depends on who’s asking for it (i.e. stuff from Directors and CEOs should usually be done quick smart), also updates for legal reasons should be done ASAP. Anything else should be ordered depending upon how quickly or easily it can be done in relation to the deadline – i.e. don’t leave something really complex until the last minute!

Other Resources

Monster’s interview centre is an excellent place to find all sorts of interview advice.

From a medical sales website but the sample questions are relevant for all first stage interviews.

Some common interview questions.

More questions – not answered.

I hope this helps others that are nervous about interviews, as I used to be. All they want is to know, initially, is what you’ve done and how you’ve got there, whether you are capable and if you would fit into their team.

My biggest tip is to be enthusiastic. Good luck!

2 comments on “Competency-Based Interviews”

  1. I used to fear 2 questions in an interview – What are your weaknesses and Where do you see yourself in x number of years. The weakness question I feared because, well, to put it bluntly, I don’t have any :) or it could be I don’t want to say what they are. The other question was a pain because I simply didn’t know and if you can’t say then they assume you have no ambition. I now answer it with a simple “It all depends on the opportunities available to me.”

    Oh and if you get “Why do you want to leave your current role?” Try something like – I feel there are no longer any challenges (give examples of what you’ve acheived) and then say you’re now looking forwarding to meeting fresh challanges.

    And they’re my tips. Wish me luck for my interview tomorrow, which, I haven’t planned for (I don’t believe in it as it makes the whole thing sound too scripted).

  2. Preparing for interviews is such an important task, but no mater how much I prepare, it is always such a nerve wracking experience. Some great questions here that might help to reduce my stress if I were able to answer them with ease.
    I’ll have to bookmark and come back to this post prior to my next interview.

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