Competency-based/structured interviews

A competency-based interview is a structured form of interview where you will be asked a series of standard questions relating to the role. Your responses will then be assessed and scored by the interviewers using a rating scale. They will have a list of points they are looking for you to cover and skills and competencies for you to demonstrate. Every candidate will be assessed in the same way, using the same criteria and the same rating scale. You can therefore be confident that the process is fair and you are being asked the same questions as all the other candidates in the process.

Unstructured interviews

An unstructured interview means that interviewers may ask you more open or broad ranging questions, depending on what particularly interests them about your CV or the experience you have. The questions they ask you may be different to those that are being asked of other candidates, depending on the particular areas the interviewer wishes to address with you. You could also be asked questions that look more in depth into your strengths or any development areas an employer may think you have. Some employers will use these as the final stage of the process, or smaller employers who don't have a standardised interview format may use them.

How to prepare for an interview

The company

You are likely to be asked what you know about the company and your motivations for working for them. Use the guidance in the assessment centre section to help you research the organisation.

You should prepare an answer for why you want to work for the company. This could consist of any of the following points:

  • The size of the company - for example, if working for a large company appeals to you, you could talk about your desire to be part of an international or well-recognised organisation.
  • Career prospects - have a look on their website at the training scheme and development opportunities that the company offers. Organisations often like you to emphasise your aspirations for a long-term career with the company.
  • Opportunities to work internationally - research these opportunities on their website if this is something which appeals to you.
  • Company achievements, success stories or new business wins - research these and emphasise your excitement at being part of a high-achieving company.
  • Any particular commitments or pledges on the company website - for example, many companies have Investors in People certification; this demonstrates that the company has a good track record in staff development.

The job

It is really important to familiarise yourself with your own CV and covering letter and know these really well. You need to make sure you are able to talk through the specifics of your experience in relation to the role. Take a copy of the job description and annotate it to show:

  • Tasks you can confidently say you have experience of.
  • Tasks you have limited experience of.
  • Tasks you have knowledge of but have never actually done.
  • Tasks which you have neither knowledge or experience of.

From this you can identify your key selling points, how you can add value to the company and what might make you stand out from other applicants. For those aspects of the job description where your knowledge and experience are weak, think about how you might deal with questions about those on the day. Any research you can do into processes or skills that you are less familiar with will be helpful. You will be able to say that, although you have not done 'xyz' before, you at least know a little about it.

You should now have a clear picture of how your skills and experience match the role you are applying for. You can now use this to answer the key question - 'why are you applying for this job?'

As well as showing how you match the job, show your interest in working for the company and doing the job. You need to convey enthusiasm and passion here, using phrases such as 'I would love to...' or 'I am fascinated by...' or 'I find...really exciting'.

You, your skills and experience

This is your opportunity to sell yourself. You need to convince the interviewer that you are the best person for the job. However unnatural or boastful this seems, competition for jobs is tough and you need to make sure you stand out from the other candidates. To sell yourself effectively emphasise your unique selling points; these are skills and attributes you have that set you apart from the competition. You have already identified your key selling points in relation to your experience so now think more broadly about your personality, work ethic and values.

Some examples of the qualities you might bring to a job include:

  • Attention to detail - a precise and methodical approach to work.
  • Organisational skills - being able to prioritise, multi task and manage time.
  • Problem solving skills - using your own initiative, trying to find solutions independently before seeking help.
  • Self-motivation - hard working, punctual, reliable, enthusiastic, and ambitious.

If you are going to claim to have any of these qualities, you must have an example ready of when you have demonstrated this.

You may also be asked what you consider to be your weaknesses or development areas. Be careful how you answer this question - it can be designed to catch you out. A good way to answer this is to think of a potential weakness that could also be a strength. For example, 'I am something of a perfectionist. I set very high standards for myself and others.' You then need to demonstrate how you have learned to manage this trait to positive effect. For example, 'I have learned through more effective prioritisation of my work to manage time effectively and focus on the most urgent things first.'

Competency-based questions

In a competency based interview you will be asked a series of questions that look at your skills in certain areas. Examples might include your ability to work as part of a team, your planning and organisational skills, or your attitude to customer service. These questions are likely to require you to look back at your past work experience and find examples of when you have demonstrated the skill they refer to. The interviewer might ask you 'Tell me about a time when you...'.

It's fine to stop and think about your answer here. The thing to remember is that there isn't necessarily a right answer. It is just as important to show how you went about addressing the problem, as it is to talk about the final outcome. Structure your answer like this:

  • Describe the situation or problem you were faced with.
  • Talk about the task you needed to perform to resolve the problem.
  • Outline the action you took to complete the task.
  • Describe the details of the end result and why the action was a success.

These are some examples of questions they may ask:

  • Give us an example of when you have achieved excellence.
  • Tell us about a situation where have you worked successfully as part of a team/or on a group project.
  • Give us an example of when have you used your initiative to solve a problem/develop a new way of working in a previous job role.
  • Give us an example of when you had to meet tight deadlines/work on a project with very strict timescales.
  • Tell us about a situation when you have resolved conflict at work.
  • What has been your biggest achievement in your career to date?

Follow up questions

It is important to have some questions prepared to ask at the end of the interview. This will demonstrate your enthusiasm and interest for the role and in the company.

Some questions you may like to ask would include:

  • What are the opportunities for training and development within the role?
  • Tell me about the training programme that might be available in my first year.
  • What opportunities are there for progression within the company?
  • Where does the organisation hope to be in five years' time? Are there any expansion plans?
  • Tell me about the team I would be working within, in terms of size and job roles.
  • What is the next stage in the interview process? When might I hear the outcome?

More top tips

To find out more top tips for the day, such as what to wear, planning your visit, etc, read our guidance on how to prepare for an assessment centre.