The secret to cracking competency questions on job application forms… from a former recruiter

The secret to cracking competency questions on job application forms… from a former recruiter

Competency questions are common on both job application forms and at interview stage. Examples of this type of question include: 

“Tell us about a time you demonstrated leadership”

“How have you demonstrated your ability to be adaptable?”

“How have you successfully dealt with a major challenge?”

Gradvance chatted to Hannah Salton, former graduate recruiter and author of "Graduate Careers Uncovered: Tools and insights from a former recruiter to demystify your job search", to find some insider tips on how to tackle these questions on application forms.

Here are Hannah's top 5 tips: 

1. Research exactly what the company looks for

It’s OK to feel confused or overwhelmed when researching what different companies look for from their hires. Spend time looking into how employers describe the details of the qualities or skills they look for.

Look on a company’s careers/recruitment-specific website (and the job description) to learn more about their own definition of the skills they seek. See if they give you any examples or more detailed explanations as to how you can demonstrate these. 

It’s also a good idea to follow the careers/recruitment-specific social media channels of the companies you want to apply to. Sometimes companies will have videos or blogs from grads or recruiters talking about what they look for in their hires in more detail.

2. Don’t panic about your work experience (or lack of!)

You can demonstrate your skills through a wide range of different experiences. You don’t need to have done an internship or other industry work experience.

Reflect and brainstorm potential competency answers from all the experience listed on your CV. You can use examples from:

  • Charity or other voluntary experience.
  • Any part time or summer jobs.
  • Internships.
  • Any other work experience or shadowing.
  • Leading societies, clubs or networks.
  • Participating in societies, clubs or networks.
  • Sports, hobbies and other extra-curricular activities.
  • University activities including group projects.
  • A side hustle or passion project.

Remember that your examples can be both big and small. For example, during an internship one of your examples might be “delivering X project to client on time” it may also be “having a difficult conversation with my colleague about their behavior” or “presenting my research project in a large team meeting.”

Be sure to think about the impact and the result of the example too - did it save time, make money, improve a relationship, or something else.

3. Use examples from a wide range of experiences 

Try and avoid using stories from just one part of your CV, and remember that all your experiences can be used to demonstrate your skills. Sometimes examples from your personal life can work well for competency answers, as long as they aren’t a personal overshare and they are answering the specific question being asked.

For example, if asked about a time you have successfully persuaded someone round to your point of view, you could use an example of when you convinced a friend they should vote in the general election when they had previously not bothered to register. This is likely to form a stronger answer than sharing an example of a time you convinced a friend to attend a party you really wanted them to go to!

Another example from your personal life could be effectively managing and resolving a payment issue with a landlord, or navigating logistical challenges whilst travelling abroad.

4. Plan your structure

You may want to structure your answer using STAR (situation, task, action result) or CAR (context, action, result). However, you choose to structure your answer, remember that it’s there as a guide, you don’t need to worry about following it rigidly.

At interview stage, it’s best not to script out potential answers word for word. This could come across as robotic and rehearsed – meaning you don’t demonstrate your enthusiasm and motivation for the role.

The most important part of your answer is usually the A (action) – so don’t forget to clearly state your contribution, and what YOU specifically did, even if you were working as part of a wider team. When focusing on the R (result) try and make this quantifiable (if you can) to show your credibility and impact. For example, this resulted in a 33% increase in social media followers within 6 months, or this resulted in 60% more members engaging with our society.

5. Check your final wording 

Avoid copying and pasting previous answers you wrote on other application forms. It’s really important you answer the exact question being asked on the form, so pay attention to the exact wording, rather than thinking “I’ll just use my ‘teamworking’ example from another application”. 

Aim to write in short, concise sentences. If you waffle, or write very long sentences that combine multiple points, you risk recruiters losing interest by the end of the sentence. It’s also important to double and triple check your spelling and grammar, and ensure you don’t call the company by the name of their competitor (I have seen this before on applications!). 

It can be tempting to drop in as many ‘impressive sounding’ skills or competencies wherever you can (for example, “during this I developed leadership, teamworking, and problem-solving skills”), but simply listing skills in a competency answer doesn’t add value.  Focus on answering the specific question you are being asked, and don’t worry about adding in a long list of additional skills if that’s not part of the question.

Want more advice on how to tackle tricky questions at application and interview stage?

Hannah Salton’s first book, "Graduate Careers Uncovered: Tools and insights from a former recruiter to demystify your job search" is available to buy now. 

Blog - Career Coach & Consultant | Hannah Salton | Create a career you love

The book takes all the learnings from Hannah’s 13-year career in recruitment and careers and puts them into one book that enables you to:

  • Identify your skills, strengths, values and preferences 
  • Create and manage your personal brand 
  • Explore different career paths without getting overwhelmed 
  • Demystify networking and learn how to use it to aid your job search
  • Learn what recruiters really look for in applications and job interviews
  • Grow your confidence and resilience, and overcome imposter syndrome

You can find out more about the book, including a sneak peek at the first few pages, here. 

For more information, visit or connect with her on LinkedIn.