Describing your level of competence

Ever wondered how to describe the developmental level of your skills? This can be an important element of accurately reflecting competence levels in resumes and applications. While selection criteria may ask for ‘well developed’ or ‘highly developed’ skills, these are vague terms and constant repetition can dull good writing.

Distinguishing type of competence can be useful for applications. Three types that have been distinguished by Sandberg and Pinnington (2009), are:

  • Competence as a prerequisite, such as the initial education and training needed to enter a profession.
  • Competence as an outcome, such as maintaining professional competence through ongoing professional development.
  • Competence as a capability, which refers to the application of abilities in order to accomplish work-related tasks.

What I am describing in this article is how to describe competence as a capability in a particular area relevant to a role and which enables you to perform certain tasks.

Awareness of relevant scales can expand your writing repertoire. Here are five such scales to draw on that broadly range from fundamental to expert.

Four stages of learning model

This model suggest that people progress through four stages when learning a new skill.

  • Unconscious incompetence: People are initially unaware of what they don’t know and may not recognise they are deficient.
  • Conscious incompetence: A person recognises the deficit and is making mistakes as they learn the new skill.
  • Conscious competence: A person understands or knows how to do something but requires concentration when executing the skill.
  • Unconscious competence: The skill is now second nature, comes easily, doesn’t require much thought. A person many now be able to teach the skill to others.

Depending on the job, you may wish to describe yourself as consciously competent or unconsciously competent although it does sound a tad pretentious, certainly it smacks of jargon. You certainly would not want to describe yourself as unconsciously or even consciously incompetent.

Performance management terms

Performance management guidelines may use a three-part scale to assess how people are performing. This scale is illustrated with behaviours relating to learning and development.

  • Exceeds expectations: The ‘above and beyond’ level, this reflects the ‘nice to have’ behaviours that staff should aspire to. E.g. Removes obstacles and provides employees with the appropriate support and resources required for success.
  • Meets expectations: identifies behaviours that everyone is expected to demonstrate. E.g. supports learning and development opportunities for employees.
  • Does not meet expectations: This is the undesirable, ‘below par’ behaviour. E.g. actively discourages training and development.

If your performance appraisal mentions ‘Exceeds expectations’ then this would be worth mentioning in an application.

Progressive complexity/skill levels

The NSW Public Sector Capability Framework uses a five-part scale to describe the progressive increase in complexity and skill for each capability.

  • Foundational
  • Intermediate
  • Adept
  • Advanced
  • Highly advanced.

If your behaviours match ‘advanced’ or ‘highly advanced’ then these would be terms to use in an application.

Five stages of skill acquisition

The Dreyfus model of skill acquisition, developed for the US Air Force, identifies five stages of skill acquisition:

  • Novice: typically someone not yet fully trained who sticks to the rules with no discretion.
  • Advanced beginner: treats all aspects of work separately and of equal importance.
  • Competent: includes deliberate planning, formulating routines, some perception of actions in relation to goals.
  • Proficient: holistic view of situation, prioritises, perceives deviations from the normal pattern.
  • Expert: intuitive grasp of situations, transcends reliance on rules, uses analytical approaches in new situations.
Three-part progression

Similar to performance management levels, these levels may reflect length of time in a role.

  • Entry: the standard expected of a new staff member. Usually applied to staff who start at lower levels, there is usually an expectation that people move out of this phase fairly quickly.
  • Fully effective: the standard required of staff for their role.
  • Mastery: displayed by staff who have mastered their role. What they do is second-nature. These staff may be sought out by others to provide guidance or help.
Other terms

A range of terms found in the competence literature that could also be used in applications are:

  • Practical competence: you have demonstrated your ability to perform a task.
  • Foundational competence: you understand the what and why to carrying out a task.
  • Applied competence: you have demonstrated your ability to perform a set of tasks with understanding.

Other descriptors are:  apprentice, basic, intermediate, insightful.

 Using ‘expert’ or ‘mastery’

You may be reluctant to use the terms expert or mastery to describe your level of skill, preferring to err on the side of modesty. Sense-making is needed here, to be clear about what you mean and claim its rightful use.

If you use ‘expert’ to mean that you consistently perform a task to the required standard or higher, have an intuitive grasp of what is required, you look at ways of improving ways of working, have in-depth understanding of this area, and focus on building this strength, are the go-to person, have a reputation for this area, can apply existing skill and knowledge to new situations, then using the term is legitimate. If your point of comparison is with someone who has a PhD and has studied some narrow field for thirty years, then you are unlikely to call yourself an expert.

Terms that might be more comfortable are: Ace, maestro, guru, artist, authority, hotshot, maven, scholar, whiz, adept, savvy, veteran, specialist, scholar.

Rather than use the noun expert (I am an expert), you could use expertise (I applied my expertise in xxx to yyy).

Rather than claiming your mastery (I have achieved mastery in xxx) you could use the verb (I have mastered xxxx) or my mastery in negotiations was demonstrated when I negotiated settlement of a national agreement to establish one set of road rules.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.