If you are going for a job interview, they are generally made up of two types of questions; technical and competency-based questions. Generally in science I commonly find that candidates tend to be more comfortable with answering and preparing for the technical questions, they are more straightforward with right or wrong answers and so people know how to prepare for them better. However, when in comes to competency-based questions, the line can be blurry between a right or wrong answer and you might start thinking am I answering the question right or even at all?
So what are competency-based questions?
Competency-based questions can also be thought of as behavioural questions and are used to show certain skills, how a person behaves or how they handle certain situations in the workplace. These questions tend to ask for an example of when you perform a certain task or exhibit a certain behaviour. If you Google “Competency-based Questions” you find never-ending lists online of examples and it can be daunting reading through them all. However, it is possible to prepare for these types of questions and to learn the best way to approach them.
Remember, in an interview you will never be prepared for every single question you are asked, but by practicing competency-based questions you will learn to approach these questions with confidence.
The STAR Approach
When you are asked a competency-based question in an interview (regardless of the focus) you should always try and take the same approach when answering it; think of a specific example from your experience that applies to the question and talk through it in a logical order. Sound like common sense? That’s because it is! Once of the difficulties with this however is that if you aren’t prepared with some examples it can be hard to think about them on the spot, know when you should stop talking or to go off topic (and that’s what makes these questions tricky). The STAR approach is a simple, easy to remember model that you can use to structure your answers and it will ensure that you answer the questions logically and concisely and cover these following topics:
When asked a competency-based question start by setting the scene of your example by defining the situation. This will be where you were and what the problem or circumstances you had to deal with was. When starting your answer with this, make sure to be as specific as possible so the interviewer can clearly understand where you are speaking about. For example if you were asked about giving assistance to a colleague, an effective example would be “one example is while I was working in company X in the QC lab my colleague wasn’t sure how to calibrate the UV-Vis spectrometer” rather than the more vague “in one of my old jobs my colleague needed help with equipment.”
Once the situation is set up, the next step is to explain the task you were faced with and what you had to do. Again avoid being vague when describing this.
Once you mention the task at hand, describe what action you took in order to tackle the task and why you did it. If you came into difficulties during this you can also mentioned the challenges you faced, why they were happening and what you did you get around them (again specifics are key).
Finally, finish up your example with the results that came from your actions. This will bring your answer full circle and leave the interviewer with a clear understanding as to how you handled a certain situation. By finishing this way your answer will also come to a natural end and you will know when to finish speaking. The interviewer can progress to the next question.
Overall the best way to prepare for competency-based questions is practice! Take time before your interview to sit down and write down some specific examples from your experience that you feel you can apply to different situations. Depending on the examples you choose you may also be able to use them to cover a variety of questions you could be asked and this will lessen your preparation load. If you are faced with a question you haven’t prepared an example for, then at least from practicing the STAR model beforehand you will still be able to approach the question in a logical way and so you will feel more confident when thinking on the spot.
Good luck and remember that failing to prepare will prepare you to fail so practice, practice, practice!