Interviewing  like a STAR

How to shine in a competency-based interview

Here you are about to start your interview. You know that everything you say and do will be observed and judged. Your career depends on what will happen in the next hour, and you think you have little to no control over it.

The good news is that the latter is untrue.

As recruiters, we match people to jobs and companies. As part of that task, we also prepare people for interviews (both candidates and clients) which is by far the most challenging part of recruitment. Below are further explanations on how to master the art of interviewing.

Competency-based Interviews

Whether you’re applying for a job in PR & Communications, Television, Broadcast, Media, Market Research, Client Services or even Translation Project Management, the most common type of interview our clients use is competency-based. You may also have heard ‘situational questions’, ‘experience-based interview’ or ‘targeted selection’. They all consist of the same principle – questions designed to elicit information on know-how as well as behavioural competencies, and you don’t need to do anything other than be yourself.

Depending on the role you are interviewing for, this type of interview is specifically relevant at the early stages of a hiring process. It allows the interviewer to get an insight into your values, personality traits and general ability to get the job done. The further you go into the process, the more targeted (and sometimes technical) the questions will be.

Young woman being interviewed

Every role requires some key competencies and, as much as employers can provide technical training, it’s the softer skills that managers struggle to find (or spot). The following sample questions will give you an idea of which skills they are probing and how:

• Tell me about a time when you were required to produce something to a high standard in a limited amount of time (Organisational Ability)

• Tell me about a situation where language and cultural sensitivity was critical to your success (Cultural Sensitivity and Judgement Ability)

• Tell me about a disagreement you and your manager had (Interpersonal Skills)

• Describe a situation in which the cause of a problem was not initially clear (Problem-Solving Skills)

• Tell me about a decision you had made objectively despite your personal bias (Judgement Ability)

• Tell me about a time when your creative ideas were ignored (Innovative thinking as well as the ability to deal with frustration)

• When was the last time you had to do something you disagreed with? (Integrity and Ethics)

You may wonder why things need to get that deep during an interview and why companies use this technique. There are three main reasons:

Behaviour

The idea is that your past behaviour is a key indicator in predicting your future conduct. It’s a legally defensible process that can also be customised. Not only has it been proven to work well but also it doesn’t leave space for evasive unstructured questions (which leads to waste of time for both interviewers and interviewees).

Skills & Potential for Growth

This format of questioning is ideal for hiring managers who are not often involved in recruitment and may not have the necessary emotional intelligence to spot values or personality traits. These questions are designed to identify existing skills as well as the potential for growth and talent.

Cultural Match

The last reason is that companies consist of values, and the secret to a successful hire is when a candidate’s personality matches with these. These targeted questions help to gather the necessary information to ensure the cultural match is strong enough to keep this person happy on an everyday basis, ideally for as long as possible.

Now, the difficulty with this type of interview is how to answer the questions – it is where candidates often fail. However, do not fear, there is a well-known process to follow when answering the above questions: STAR. This acronym will help you to structure your answers correctly and ensure you don’t omit key information or become distracted by details.

Pencil laying over a job description

S for Situation – Simple description of the overall situation and context:

For example: During my last year at university, I conducted a quantitative research project on consumer brand loyalty and customer satisfaction in Spain. My project received an undergraduate research grant from an external organisation of which I carried out my research in.

T for Task – What was your specific responsibility:

For example: To provide valuable information to the organisation financing my research project, I was required to conduct high-quality research, within the project deadline of 4 months, and achieve a grade result of 70% or above. Simultaneously, I was required to continue with my part-time job, volunteering activities and extra assignments.

A for Action – What did YOU do to achieve your objective:

For example: To ensure the production of a high-quality project before the deadline, I first attended additional training on quantitative research methodologies. After this, a short course in academic writing business enabled me to conduct a pilot study before my main projects to gain preliminary data.

Note: Here, it’s essential to be clear on your specific involvements within a team effort and make sure you use the first person when talking about a task fully completed by yourself.

R for Result – What was the exact outcome of your actions (and how would you approach the task again, looking back)

For example: Despite a heavy workload and significant pressure, my undergraduate project received a grade of 75% and was published in the Journal of Consumer Marketing. The organisation which provided the research grant incorporated my findings into their overall marketing strategy and offered me a 7-week paid internship.

Lastly, we must point out that the above will be of little use if you can’t spot the competency the interviewer is probing. Ensure you give accurate answers by checking for hints and facts on these before and during the interview. To help you, we suggest the following:

Before the interview

Yourself

Review your key competencies and skills and link them to specific examples from your professional experience.

The Job Description

Please make sure you are clear on the key responsibilities of the job itself. You can usually find these listed on the job description, and they will give you a good idea on what types of skills the role requires – these will be the ones probed during the interview.

Companies’ Values

By reviewing the company website, you will find some keywords or values that reflect the company culture. These are excellent indicators of soft skills your future employer is expecting you to have or show but fail to mention on a job description – for example, Diversity, Curiosity, Commitment, Consumer-focused, Fearless.

Talking to Past or Recent Employees

This is another excellent way of finding out extra information as well as giving you a better idea of what the company is seeking. Check out your network. LinkedIn is a brilliant source of information; you can see peoples’ backgrounds, get an idea of the turnover of employees, and see how active the brand is overall on social media. You can also go the extra mile and drop a quick ‘How was it?’ message to anyone you know who has worked directly or indirectly for that firm. It may surprise you how open people are about their past employers even if they don’t know you personally. However, please be careful with this information; it’s not fact and is open to interpretation, so you shouldn’t take it too seriously.

Bear in mind that if you work with a recruiter, they should provide you with the above information as part of your interview preparation. It can make your life so much easier in these situations!

During the interview

• Listen to the full question carefully (don’t interrupt)
• Take a few seconds to compose your thoughts before answering or even mention to the interviewer that you need a minute to think about your answer
• If in any doubt, ask for clarifications (do not assume!)
• Speak clearly and don’t use slang
• Try to vary the examples you are referring to
• Use the STAR approach
• Ask questions yourself

By following all of the above, you will gain clarity on whether or not a job is right for you. You will also re-align your existing skills with your professional goals. As stressful as an interview can be, good preparation is the only key to a successful one – not necessarily because you get the job, but because it leads you to the right decision.

Good luck!