Most of you will undoubtedly be familiar with competency or behaviour-based interviews during which candidates are asked questions to test what skills they’ve gained to make them suitable for a role (competency) and/or to determine how their past behaviour may shape their future actions (behavioural). Interviews using this method typically include questions like ‘can you tell me about a time when you worked well as part of a team’ or ‘can you recall a time when you missed a deadline and how you handled it?’ Sound familiar?

Historically, competency-based interviews were the most common assessment methods used by employers, especially in the legal sector where I spent many years working in graduate recruitment. But in recent years employers have become wise to the fact that with so many resources available online it’s a little bit too easy to memorise stock answers, resulting in candidates often coming across as over-prepared or worse still –  fake. This in turn makes it tricky for interviewers to know if answers are authentic or indeed drawn from genuine real life experiences. What’s more, just because you have a particular skill it doesn’t necessarily mean you love using it, or that you’ll go over and above to succeed in your new role. You may be capable but are you highly motivated?

Enter the strengths-based interview. More employers across a range of industries are now turning to this new screening method. I’ve been a freelance graduate recruiter for almost five years now and have worked with employers in the legal, not for profit and professional service sectors who all use this approach.

So, what’s the thinking behind the strengths-based interview and how can you prepare for one?

As well as testing whether you’re good at something, a strength-based approach will look at how often you engage in a behaviour or activity an employer is looking for and whether you have a genuine passion for it. In other words – what really energises you? The theory being that the more motivated and engaged employees are at work the greater the likelihood of them excelling. This in turn will lead to a far happier (and productive) workforce.

For an interviewer, this method can offer a deeper insight into candidates – what they’re passionate about, what motivates them and whether their values and beliefs align with those of the hiring organisation. But from the candidate’s perspective, some questions may feel quite unfamiliar when compared to the ones used in the past as will the areas being tested and observed.

So in terms of how you can prepare for  strengths-based interviews, here are my top tips:

  • The premise behind the strengths-based approach is that questions are designed to elicit your natural responses – they should be hard to prepare for. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t still do some prep. Think carefully about the values and culture of the organisation you’re interviewing with. Consider what the role will involve – where have you shown the skills required and what relevant recent examples can you provide? Think about what specific parts of your current or past roles you have really enjoyed and what you’re good at – how do these translate to the role you’re interviewing for? If you know one of the company’s key values is teamwork and relationship building and they ask what role you usually play in a team, as well as providing an explanation bring in a couple of specific examples to illustrate your points. The interviewers will want to see that you have genuine enthusiasm and motivation to work with others.


  • Leading on from my first point, wherever possible try and provide specific examples from your past experiences as you’re answering each question. The interview is designed to test your natural strengths and enthusiasm and in my experience there’s very little or no probing from the interviewer. Further questioning, or probing, as often happens in a competency-based interview, could run the risk of guiding you to the ‘right’ answer. Little or no probing allows the question to draw out your natural strengths. Think about it: when talking about something you’re good at and energised by, your demeanor and language is likely to be very different than when discussing something you find dull, draining or have little experience of. Don’t force your answers, but at the same time remember to give specific examples where possible and avoid generic responses.


  • The strengths interview also encourages self-reflection. You’ll be tested on areas including, what you might put off until last on your ‘to do’ list or how you might deal with issues and challenges, such as delivering bad news to your team or client. Additionally, be prepared to discuss areas you need to develop or improve on. If you can explain how you’re tackling the issue, and continually learning it demonstrates your flexibility and an interest in self-development. However, avoid bland, predictable answers like “I’m a perfectionist.” Think carefully about your motivations – only by being authentic and providing honest answers can you and the interviewers determine if a role and an organisation are right for you.


  • It may sound obvious but listen carefully to the questions! They may be more quick-fire and subtle than you were first anticipating. Don’t be afraid to ask your interviewer to repeat the question if needs be. I was often asked by candidates to repeat a question. I couldn’t interpret it for them but there was certainly no issue with repeating it, sometimes numerous times!

By Jane Drew, associate careers consultant