My team and I have recently reviewed over 480 application forms submitted for graduate analyst and summer intern positions in the financial services sector. These 480 had met the minimum standard required in numerical and verbal reasoning tests. Whether or not these tests are the best way to pre-screen applications is another question, but in this post I wanted to focus on competency-based questions on application forms. On each application form of the 480, there were 4 competency-based questions with a word limit of 250 words per answer – a total of 480,000 words of competency-based answers from which I have drawn these observations.

It’s very quick to scan a candidate’s academic and work experience and formulate an initial opinion of their suitability. This may well turn out to be a good guideline but, with a 2.i from one university denoting a completely different skill set and level of achievement from the ‘same’ 2.i at another, and the training and exposure so varied from one internship to the next, these indicators simply aren’t enough to separate the most able candidates for the job from those better utilised elsewhere.

Of course, competency-based interview questions are commonplace on application forms and in face-to-face interviews as an additional tool to match the right candidate to the right job. They are often broken down into sub-questions to help candidates structure their answers to meet the criteria of the mark scheme and clear word limits are given. They are also usually told which competency is being assessed. However, in my experience, the answers given to these questions are too often extremely bland and poorly phrased. This is particularly disappointing considering how much advice there is available on answering these questions by simply searching ‘competency-based interview questions’ on Google.

It is true that when most responses are not inspired, those that do hold your attention – the ones that actually answer the question asked, in the format requested, within the word limit, draw on different frames of experience for each separate answer, talk about what ‘I’ did rather than what ‘we’ did, and haven’t just been obviously copied and pasted from the previous application form filled in – stand out in a league of their own and are obvious choices to be invited to face-to-face interview.

It is also true that some of the most dreadful answers are very entertaining to read. For example, my personal favourite this year was a particular response to a question testing candidates’ propensity to focus on the quality of their work even under immense time pressure. The answer given (which was both grammatically flawless and within the word limit, both of which should be commended) was a story about a recent ‘high-pressure’ situation whereby the candidate in question had needed to get an essay finished for a university deadline AND paint his parents’ spare room in time for his aunt’s visit at the weekend… It was difficult to mark him down since he did outline how he set himself a schedule of when he was going to work on each of the projects; he would work on his essay in particular, whilst the most recent coat of paint was drying, and he did make reference to painting the skirting boards with particular care and precision to avoid spoiling the new carpet, but this wasn’t quite the type of answer we were looking for.

The point is, as is true of so many things in life, to find those select few future stars you have to plough through a lot of the night sky in-between. This is fine when the number of hires you make is low but I don’t envy the huge organisations who hire hundreds of graduates a year. Admittedly, they may have different screening processes, but 480,000 words of ‘I was doing a team project and one of the other members of the team didn’t do their part of the work…’ was more than enough for one recruitment cycle.