Are You Ready for a Competency Based Interview?

Competency based (also known as behavioral) interviews are gaining popularity in hiring for federal positions. These are not the old fashioned questions we have run into in the past. Here are suggestions on how to prepare.

Competency based (also known as behavioral) interviews are gaining popularity for federal positions. These are not the old fashioned questions we have run into in the past.  In an interview ten or fifteen years ago we might have expected questions like the following:
  • “Tell me about yourself.”
  • “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
  • “What would you consider your greatest strength?”
You might still run across some questions like these, but you are more likely than ever to be asked to describe examples of how you used a specific skill, or to tell how you dealt with an issue that is common in the job for which you are applying. 
For example, a candidate applying for a customer service job might hear, “Tell me about a time you dealt with an irate customer.  What techniques did you use to solve their problem?” 
When you are asked a competency based question, the interviewer will be expecting a concrete example as part of your answer.  Interview training videos that are used to prepare managers for conducting competency based interviews commonly advise managers to continue asking the same question until they get a specific example.
You could conceivably be asked a question about any part of the job for which you are interviewing.  This makes preparation a little bit different from preparing for an old-fashioned interview. 
The good part is that you will have less chance of being asked some of the more difficult questions, such as “Describe your biggest weakness.” or “how would your supervisor describe you?”  You may, however, get a similar competency based question, such as “Tell me about a time you failed at a work related task.  How did you deal with it and what did you learn?”
How do you prepare for competency based questions? 
You must be prepared with examples for the questions you expect to be asked.  This leads to the question: What competency based questions is the interviewer likely to ask?  There are several places you can look to come up with a pretty good idea of what will be asked.
The starting point is the job announcement.  First read the section that describes the duties and responsibilities of the job.  Then ask yourself what experience you have in performing those duties.  From that point, develop examples that you will use if you are asked questions about the specific duties and responsibilities.
Still in the job announcement, look and see if the knowledges, skills and abilities (KSAs) of the job are listed.  Most job announcements will list the KSAs somewhere.  Again, ask yourself about your experience in those areas and develop examples to use in your answers.
If you are applying for a job where you must complete an occupational questionnaire, the drill is similar.  Study the questionnaire and develop examples of the different areas of knowledge and responsibility that are listed there.
You might also want to review your résumé. A good résumé should have numerous examples of results you have achieved, skills you have used and duties you have performed.
Do not expect the interviewer to ask questions about every single duty, responsibility or KSA. It is likely that the questions will revolve around the major duties of the job. 

When you have finished developing examples, you should have more than enough information to answer any competency based questions you are asked.   

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About the Author

John Grobe is President of Federal Career Experts, a firm that provides pre-retirement training and seminars to a wide variety of federal agencies. FCE’s instructors are all retired federal retirement specialists who educate class participants on the ins and outs of federal retirement and benefits; there is never an attempt to influence participants to invest a certain way, or to purchase any financial products. John and FCE specialize in retirement for special category employees, such as law enforcement officers.