Many candidates are afraid of the Competency Based Interview in the Assessment Centre, while others approach it as "just another job interview". Both can be misleading and dangerous for your scores and the optimal performance: the Competency Based Interview is one of the most important parts of the AC and you need to "nail it" to prove you have the right competencies the EU career office is looking for.
Based on more than 100 personal coaching sessions and candidate feedbacks, I collected a list of tips which, if candidates knew, would lead to a much better performance at the EPSO structured interview. Here it goes:
1. Competency vs You: EU career assessors are only interested in your achievements and your background to the extent that you can convey whether you have (or don't have) the sufficient level of the competencies they are testing. In the structured interview, you will not be asked about your CV, work experience or even your hobbies but the questions will center around the 4 competencies that are evaluated: working with others, learning and development, leadership and resilience (note: Specialists and Assistants may have different or more competencies tested too).
2. Hand gesture awareness: a seemingly unimportant detail but your hand gestures are fundamental to your success. Body language must always complement and never contradict your words: if it does, everybody (including the EPSO assessors) will believe the former. If your hands are closed and you sit in a "praying" position, it will convey anxiety which certainly does not help your score. Make sure to speak with your hands, and without exaggeration, use it to reinforce the message you wish to convey. Record yourself with a camera and analyse your body language - I guarantee you will see improvements.
3. Using "I" sentences: one of the most common mistakes I keep encountering is the overly limited use of "I" sentences. When you are asked about a situation ("Tell me about a time when you had a conflict with your superior"), the assessors want to hear about your role in the situation. Their interest in what your superior, colleague, friend or anyone else did is limited to understanding your actions, and they could not care less how Mr. Smith looked at you from the other end of the office. Hence, make sure to underline your own actions, thoughts, considerations and contribution to the outcome.
4. Specific always beats the general: mentioning a general experience when "you had to undergo a lot of stress" or you "decided to learn a new language" will never be sufficient for the assessors to understand whether or not you possess a satisfactory level of "resilience" or "learning and development" skills. Always pick a specific event, story, experience or decision and never stay at the level of general descriptions.
5. External motivation or inner drive: when describing your motivation or the reason behind your decision, be very careful of saying "my boss required me to take that course" or "my partner was insisting I should really discuss that conflict with my colleague", because external pressure will not go down well when it comes to assessing your willingness to take action or open a dialogue. Always tell a true story, but it doesn't mean you cannot provide a more nuanced picture of your inner, personal motives.
6. Finish what you started: many candidates tend to start a "story" and go into details which, at one point, remind them of another event or a consequent event so they jump to the new one. Don't fall for this trap as you should always cover your story from the beginning to the end (according to the 4-step model discussed in detail at our methodology webinar), with the proper lessons and conclusions in the end.
7. Tell them "why" : another common mistake is when candidates forget to share with the assessors the underlying reason why they decided to initiate a certain project, or the reason behind your decision to convince your superior about your point of view. It's easy to skip this point but you will get a big reward if you keep the "why" in mind. ("Because it is there" - was the famous answer given by George Mallory when asked why he had decided to climb the Mount Everest, but you can be a bit more detailed than that.)
8. Learn from Hollywood: you may or may not like Hollywood movies but one thing we can certainly agree on is that they produce entertainment that keeps the attention level high...because they add a lot of drama into it! You can use this method (with moderation, of course) by outlining your "shock" or "initial block" when you were faced with a totally unexpected situation (think of "resilience" topics), e.g. when the travel department in your organisation informed you that your plane ticket for the official presentation was not approved in time...but you kept a clear head and overcame the hurdle. NEVER lie - but you are fully entitled to colour the story a bit.
9. Pass some wisdom: after outlining the story and your contribution to the outcome, you are entitled to sharing some insights or wisdom with the assessors. For example, you can say "After this experience I learned that...", or "This wasn't a very positive outcome for me but I did realise that..." and finish it with some lessons, (just make sure it doesn't sound too much like Yoda from Star Wars). At the same time, your conclusions should not reflect on the specific story you recited but aim for a higher, "conceptual" or "methodology" level with some abstraction without sounding too cliché-d.
10. Keep your eye on the ball : one of the most easily overlooked piece of advice is to keep in mind which competency you are being tested on. As the EPSO assessors will always tell you beforehand which competency they are going to ask questions about, you should keep reminding yourself to frame your answer and highlight certain points according to the competency in question. You do not want to speak about "how your boss resisted your idea when you decided to do an MBA in your free time" (which is close to the "working with others" competency) when you are asked about a learning situation in the "learning and development" competency.
11. Leave speculation for the stock brokers: especially in the "working with others" competency it is so easy to include unfounded assumptions in your answer. For instance, if you say "my colleague was very frustrated and quite jealous that I got the assignment" will not yield a lot of positive points for you. On the other hand, if you clearly state that "I had the feeling that my colleague was a bit jealous, so I tried to clarify the issue. As it turned out, he was simply overwhelmed with work and could not care less about my involvement" will clarify what is speculation and what is a checked fact.
12. What's not important for you may be crucial for them: many candidates have hard time grasping which pieces of information are important for the EU career assessors and which ones should they skip. My advice is to add a lot of detail when it comes to the "heart" of the issue you are describing. For instance, when you talk about doing an MBA in your free time, make sure to provide details about which part of the day did you allocate time to study, what specific sacrifices did you have to do to advance, how did you commute to the school despite not having a car etc. This gives more credibility to the story and also helps in demonstrating the specific steps you took to achieve your goal.
I hope the above tips and tricks are useful in your preparation for the EPSO Assessment Centre, and more specifically, the structured interview. If you wish to practice these live and get instant, detailed feedback, along with group exercise simulation and oral presentation practice, sign up to one of our classroom courses, online training webinars or feel free to join my EPSO coaching sessions!