Understanding and using competencies

Competencies are the knowledge, skills and attributes you can develop in every aspect of your life. More and more employers are focusing on competencies in the hiring process.

If you know your competencies and can describe your skills effectively, you'll have a better chance at landing the opportunities you want!

What's a competency?

A competency is made up of three elements: a skill, knowledge and attribute.

  • skill is about doing something well—your ability to choose and perform the right technique at the right time. It’s usually developed through training and practice. For example, you could become a skilled writer by practicing writing in a particular style. You can become skilled at being safe in the workplace by practicing techniques during classroom exercises or labs.
  • Knowledge is information you know, including theories, facts and procedures and the ability to apply this information in different situations. For example, you could have knowledge about different communication styles. You may know the key steps to plan a program or project and be well-versed in strategies for evaluating success.
  • An attribute is an inherent characteristic or quality and is often expressed through what you think, do and feel. For example, you could be known for staying positive and calm in challenging situations. You may also bring a 'can-do' attitude to your work (able to try new things, ask for new assignments and show initiative).

Competencies should be described in ways that are:

  • Observable
  • Measurable
  • Linked to the workplace, academic environment and other life experiences
  • Transferable
  • Based on performance

Download: What's a competency?

Why competencies are useful

Understand your skills

Assessing your competencies helps you identify your own competency level and employability, notice any skill gaps you can fill with relevant experience, measure progress and improve the quality of your work.

Express your value to employers

Most employers are hiring employees based on competencies, so if you can market your competencies effectively, you’ll have an advantage as you apply for a wide range of opportunities. You can describe your competencies in applications, résumés, cover letters and interviews. Employers often ask competency-based or behavioural questions during the interview process, like:

  • Tell me about a time when you had a communication breakdown with a co-worker
  • Give me an example of how you’ve used teamwork to solve problems
  • Describe an experience that demonstrates your strengths in research and analysis

Connect your academic and workplace learning

You can use your competencies to draw links between what you're learning in school, work and other experiences. Thinking about the competencies you’ve developed can help bring your learning to life. You’ll bring your workplace competencies back into the classroom and apply them to your coursework (and vice versa).

Download: Why competencies are useful

Where to develop competencies

Develop and practice your competencies through different types of experiences

  • Education (university, college or continuing studies)
  • Work experience (paid employment, contracts, volunteer work, co-op work terms, internships, etc.)
  • Volunteer experience
  • Training (workshops, seminars, certificates, professional training, etc.)
  • Life experiences (travel, recreational activities, interests, hobbies, community involvement, family commitments and more)


  • Develop personal management by making a schedule of academic due dates and identifying strategies to complete assignments well and on time
  • Develop social responsibility through volunteer work
  • Build teamwork by contributing to a group assignment

Applying your competencies in different situations helps you learn faster and gain concrete examples of how you’ve applied your competencies in diverse scenarios (helpful for answering interview questions!)

Download: Where to develop competencies

How to assess your competencies

Follow these steps

You can assess your competencies before, during and after your work, life and school experiences. Here's how:

  1. Consider some of the work, school and life experiences you’ve had to date. Think about the competencies you developed through these experiences.
  2. Review the definition and behavioural examples of the competency you’d like to assess (see definitions of the core, program-specific, Cultural Intelligence (CQ) and professional competencies)
  3. Complete the competency assessment worksheet to reflect on your competency development (you can see a sample assessment here)

The competency assessment scale

Use this scale to rate your level of achievement:

  • No demonstrated achievement: You are aware of information, ideas and situations related to this competency but have not yet had an opportunity to practice it.
  • Beginning: You’ve just started to find opportunities to work on this competency. You make initial assessments of what is expected of your role. Your understanding of the impact of your actions is limited. Your actions meet some performance expectations but you know that you could improve.
  • Developing: You’ve demonstrated this competency and think about how to develop it further. You engage in conversations with others about how you can best contribute and how this competency is important. Your actions usually meet the expectations of yourself and others. You look for opportunities to apply this competency in other areas of your life.
  • Accomplishing: You’ve reached your overall goals and often think about opportunities to use and practice this competency. You consistently meet the expectations of yourself and others. You consider your learning and appreciate the significance of this competency in relationship to your experiences. You demonstrate high quality work that has a positive impact.
  • Exemplary: You have an overall mastery of this competency. You understand and demonstrate it in all areas of your life. You are considered to be a role model by others and regularly exceed expectations. Your work is of a very high or exceptional quality and has significant impact.

Once you’ve chosen a rating, include two to three examples of how and when you’ve demonstrated competence.

How to describe your competencies

Understanding your strengths and skills can help you market yourself to employers. Here's a step-by-step guide (PDF version).

Step 1: Identify an experience

Choose one experience at a time to work on. Pick an experience that has allowed you to develop your competencies. Note down relevant information about the experience.

Step 2: Identify relevant competencies

Think about what you’ve learned from your experience. Which competencies did you most strongly develop or demonstrate through this experience? Choose three or more of the 10 core competencies and consider including two or more program-specific competencies, Cultural Intelligence (CQ) competencies or professional competencies.

Step 3: Write competency statements

Write a set of statements that describe the competencies you’ve developed and demonstrated through this experience. Remember that a competency includes skills, knowledge and attributes. Competency statements are best expressed in terms of visible behaviours and often begin with an action verb. Give specific examples (avoid vague statements like “I’m experienced in sales”, “I wrote reports” or “I provided customer service”).

Sample competency statements:

  • Communication – Listened effectively to an average of 40 technical support customers a day to better understand their needs and successfully implement solutions
  • Research and analysis – Synthesized findings from 12 research studies on organic blueberry farming to identify best agricultural practices and prepare an information sheet for BC farmers
  • Project and task management – Used customized project management software to coordinate recruitment and training for 32 new employees over a six-month period
  • Teamwork – Collaborated effectively on a cross-functional team of five individuals in the daily operations of a small, independent insurance agency 
  • Customer service – Built customer relationships and satisfaction by seeking out in-depth knowledge about paint products and their uses to provide helpful tips and recommendations.

Step 4: Reflect on your learning

Review your competency statements and think about what you’ve learned. Which competencies did you develop the most? Where are the gaps in your competency development? Which competencies do you feel most confident and motivated to use? Which are you most interested in developing further?

Step 5: Use your competency statements in the "real world"

Use your competency statements in résumés, cover letters, and ‘briefing notes’ to help you prepare for interviews, informational meetings, performance reviews and other professional conversations.

Step 6: Complete these worksheets