When I wrote the LinkedIn post that inspired this blog, I was fairly sure most of the questions I would get would be on commercial awareness. Oh boy, was I wrong! Almost everyone asked me about competencies. So I’m going to write this post as though I was talking to myself 4 years ago, before I knew anything about anything. Feel free to skip to the end if you’re finding it too basic, but I don’t want to miss anything out.
What is a competency question?
A competency question is one that asks you to demonstrate certain skills- for example, team work, resilience, problem solving. They can be obvious- “Tell me about a time when you worked in a team” or they can be sneaky “Why would you be a good solicitor?” Or, they might not even be questions- “Describe your last role.”
Why do people keep asking me these questions?
The theory is your past behaviour is an indication of how you will behave in the future. I’m not sure I quite buy this, but it’s better than the alternative – ‘if you were an animal, what would you be?’
What is a good competency answer?
A good answer is structured, detailed and polished. And by polished, I mean it is as eloquent and as clear as possible.
So let’s start with structure. You’ve probably heard of the STAR technique – if not, there are a lot of great resources on it. (Here’s my favourite article and Youtube video– sadly I get absolutely no money from endorsing either of these).
Now, following the STAR structure is not enough to write an excellent answer. If only it were that simple! I’m going to show you two different answers, as I think everything is easier with examples.
I am a very determined person. I regularly go to my local gym and take part in the courses. Recently, I finished a rock climbing course. I had to climb five walls, which were very difficult. I persevered, and by the end of the course I had climbed all the walls. I was very proud of that.
Last month I completed an intensive rock climbing course. Due to my upper-limb deficiency, the climbs were especially difficult as the walls were designed for two-handed people. I had to devise new routes up the walls, which took hours of trial and error. I worked with my partner on the ground, and we discussed different techniques for negotiating particularly challenging sections. Although progress often felt painfully slow, by exercising determination and resilience I managed to reach the top of all the walls.
Hopefully you can see that example two is better than example one. (Just FYI it is one of my genuine answers – it’s nice to share with you guys). But what makes it better? They both stick to the STAR structure. Let’s break it down further.
Example 1 : I am a very determined person. I regularly go to my local gym and take part in the courses. Recently, I finished a rock climbing course.
Example 2 : Last month I completed an intensive rock climbing course. Due to my upper-limb deficiency, the climbs were especially difficult as the walls were designed for two-handed people.
So the first mistake is example 1 tells the recruiter something, rather than showing them. If they have asked you to tell them about a time you showed determination, you don’t need to waste words re-phrasing the question. And if they haven’t asked you about that quality specifically, your example should be so good they pick it up regardless.
Example 1 is also vague. I think sales assistants fall into this trap quite frequently, because it is so easy to talk about helping customers, rather than helping one specific customer with one specific problem.
Ex. 1 :I had to climb five walls, which were very difficult.
Ex. 2 : I had to devise new routes up the walls,
This pretty much just comes down to making it sound more exciting. You don’t want to bore the recruiter to death after all.
Ex. 1 : I persevered.
Ex. 2 …[this] took hours of trial and error. I worked with my partner on the ground, and we discussed different techniques for negotiating particularly challenging sections.
This section is perhaps one of the most important. You need to demonstrate the competency, talk in detail about what you did and frame it in a way that makes it easy for the recruiter to see the transferrable skills. Being able to climb walls is not inherently necessary to being a good solicitor (which is a relief as I’m actually terrible at it). However, the second answer focusses on trial and error, team work and communication.
Here is another example. This one was sent to me and the author has kindly given me her permission to use it.
“I noticed that customers were not satisfied with the sandwich selection. To address this, I talked to the shop owner and designed a new lunch menu with a number of different sandwich fillings and some new side dishes”
But that’s not all she did, is it?
She conducted market research by visiting cafes in the local area- the shop’s key competitors.
She talked to the clients to find out what they liked and disliked about the food- identifying the cafe’s unique selling points.
Then, she compiled this information into a document, analysed it, and came up with a solution. She then pitched this solution to the business owners, highlighting the potential revenue increase it could create.
Ok so the meme isn’t funny, but think of it every time you get to the ‘action’ section of your answer.
Ex. 1 : By the end of the course I had climbed all the walls. I was very proud of that.
Ex. 2 : Although progress often felt painfully slow, by exercising determination and resilience I managed to reach the top of all the walls.
This is the second most important section, and the section people often forget to include all together. And, somewhat embarrassingly, neither example is very good in this regard. (Look, I never said I was perfect).
To improve the ‘result’ section I should have given some statistics and facts- used some numbers. In a different example, I’d include the percentage increase of sales. Or the increased readership of a publication I was promoting. Or the number of additional rooms that got hoovered after I invented the Better-Than-Dyson vacuum. You get the idea.
Ask yourself this: what wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t do what I did?
After writing a competency scenario, go through my common mistakes check list. Is there any way you can improve it?
- Not specific – does not refer to a specific example, with a specific person and specific actions.
- Teamwork – it doesn’t say what your vital contribution was.
- It tells the recruiter something, rather than showing them.
- Omits the ‘result’ section.
- Uses no quantitative data – there are no percentage increases, number of sales, time saved.
- Includes irrelevant information that doesn’t add to the narrative.
- The first line does not grab the reader (a phrase coined from GCSE English.)
- Transferrable skills (the relevant skills to be a solicitor) are not emphasised.
Activity point #2: (Gosh I’m being harsh on you today!)
Take your perfected competency answer…. And write it in half the number of words.
Why? Because you can always write something more efficiently. And you will probably need two versions of it anyway, as different applications will have different word-lengths.