How to Become a STAR at Competency Based Questions

Never fear a competency based question again with this game-changing technique.

6 minute read

Competency Based Questions STAR

Don’t Get Caught Out By Competency Based Questions

There’s nothing to fear but fear itself. This is quite clearly a phrase used by people who have never experienced the sheer terror of scrambling for an example when blindsided by a competency based question. 

There’s nothing quite like it.

Up until this point, your interview has gone swimmingly well. You greeted the interviewer with a warm, friendly smile and a firm, non-sweaty handshake. You’ve small-talked as smoothly as a well-seasoned barber and answered all questions put before you with ease. 

But just as you begin to envisage telling your friends and family that you’ve landed the job, you get hit with this: “tell me about a time when …” 

Time seems to stop and you wonder why your hands have suddenly become so sweaty? Try as you might, the answer just doesn’t appear. The interviewer takes a sip of water, awkwardly avoiding your gaze as you flounder in a sea of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’.

In the end, you piece together a rambling anecdote and, forgetting the original question, your voice peters out like a sputtering car engine grinding to a pitiful stop on the hard shoulder. 

You both sit there, silent. This hasn’t gone well. 

Sounds familiar? Welcome to the club! We’ve all got an interview horror story to tell and most of them sound a lot like this. But rest assured, after reading this article you’ll never again have to endure the competency based question scramble. 

How? Well, you simply need to pre-empt the competency based questions that you’ll be asked and structure your answers according to this handy acronym: STAR. Some people have added to it, making it STARRS, but we think the original is best. 

(If you’re here for questions you should ask, we’ve compiled the 9 killer questions you can use in a job interview as well).

The STAR Method Blows Competency Questions Out of the Water


When used well, the STAR method allows you to answer competency based questions seamlessly and it will be completely imperceptible to your listener. 

Your answer will appear simply as a well-crafted and thoughtful example of your past impact. It clearly structures your answer, meaning heart-stopping, meandering answers are a thing of the past. What’s more, you can use them in any context, whether it’s a face-to-face or telephone interview.

STAR stands for: 

Situation: Describe the context of the situation.

Task: Explain the task and what your role was. 

Action: Detail the action you personally took to complete the task. 

Result: Summarise with the impact your actions had. 

How to Prepare for Competency Based Questions Using the STAR Method

Shakespeare wrote quite a lot. If I’m honest, he probably didn’t have competency based questions in mind while penning his plays, but he did very shrewdly say that: “All things are ready if our mind be so”. Who said Shakespeare is outdated, eh? Adopting Will’s mantra, you can boost your chances of having a brilliant interview with a bit of preparation. 

Start by making a list of all the skills that are needed for this role, perhaps by taking a look at the job specification or by viewing similar jobs advertised elsewhere. 

Then you need to make a list of all of your relevant skills and experiences, matching them to the skills required by this employer. 

Once you’ve aligned your skills and experiences with the skills this job requires, practice answering some common competency based questions, making sure to structure your answers in accordance with the STAR method. 

For instance: 

  • Tell us about a situation in which your communication skills made a difference.
  • What is the biggest risk that you have taken? Explain your process. 
  • Describe a big decision you’ve made recently. What was the outcome?
  • Tell us about a time where you sacrificed quality in order to speed up a project.
  • Can you describe a time when you’ve been proactive in delivering a solution?

These are a very small selection of a seemingly endless list of competency based questions, but they should give you a good idea about the kinds of questions your examples should address. 

If you prepare detailed answers to some common competency based questions you gave wave goodbye to the panicked flustering and awkward silences forever!

Here’s an Example of How to Make the STAR Method Work for You

A candidate for a paralegal role might be asked at interview: “Tell me about a time when you had work to a tight deadline”. 

Situation: During my time at university, I was asked to prepare a group report and presentation for my family law module. We were given 4 days to prepare. But with 1 day left, a group member, Joe, fell ill and could not finish his work. Joe had been tasked with delivering our presentation and taking questions from our class afterwards. 

Task: It was my responsibility to re-delegate the workload among the group, ensuring that both the report and presentation were completed on time and to a good standard. 

Activity: I organised a meeting with my group where I re-assigned Joe’s work, making sure to prioritise the presentation material. I decided that Mary should introduce the presentation, Ami should deliver our argument, while I would take questions from the class. I set a deadline of the evening before the presentation to assess whether we had completed the work to a good enough standard so that it would be ready for the following day. 

Result: Joe couldn’t make it to the presentation, but I had been able to prepare the presentation so that his work was spread amongst the rest of the group. Despite the tight deadline, our diligent organisation meant that Ami had enough time to thoroughly learn her lines and the presentation was well-received. By evenly spreading out Joe’s work we didn’t have to compromise on the quality of the accompanying report, which was graded at 2.1.

Because You’re a STAR

Whatever example you choose to talk about, ask yourself: “Am I clearly demonstrating that I have the skills this employer wants to see?” 

By following the STAR method you can make sure that when you talk about your experiences you are really answering the competency based question: not only will you be able to describe a specific situation, but you’ll prove that you’re able to have an impact. 

So, next time you’re asked a competency based question you’ll have nothing to fear, except for fear itself. And maybe heights and sharks. 

If you want to keep improving your interview game why don’t you check out the 5 essential tips for standing out in an interview. Or, now you’ve perfected answering competency questions, discover the 9 best questions you should ask. Interview mistakes will be a thing of the past!

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