There are not many interview questions that inspire as much anxiety as tell me what makes you unique.
After getting past the laundry list of qualifications on a typical job description, job seekers may feel exasperated to then be expected to show why they are unique on top of being qualified.
Like every aspect of the job search, with a little practice you can ace this question. You may see this question asked in different formats. Sometimes it's the straightforward ‘tell us what makes you unique’, but other times they may ask ‘why should we hire you’ or ‘what makes you stand out from other candidates’, which essentially gets at the same thing.
The power of transferable skills
For my current position as Associate Director of University of Pennsylvania Career Services, I encountered this type of question during the interview process.
From being on search committees at previous universities, I understood that at least 200 candidates had probably applied for the role and I knew I had to differentiate myself. I summarized my success stories based not only on my direct relevant experience at other career centers like Vanderbilt and Drexel, but I also highlighted my transferable skills from being a recruiter and even as a victim advocate at the State Attorney’s Office.
Transferable skills are the competencies you gain in one job that can help you be successful in other roles, such as communication skills.
On the surface, being an advocate for childhood abuse victims has nothing to do with career counseling, yet I held a leadership role supervising 13 people and learned to think on my feet under highly stressful circumstances. These are skills that bolster my efficacy as a career advisor when working with students feeling anxiety of a job search and when I am coordinating logistics for large scale career fairs with many moving parts.
Sometimes the tangents in our careers (times when we go seemingly off course, whether due to family responsibilities, world events or other reasons), lead us to gain amazing experiences that when brought together are much more than the sum of their individual parts.
Get inside the mind of a recruiter – Why do they want to know ‘what makes you unique’
When recruiters ask, ‘tell us what makes you unique’ even the most qualified candidates may feel a sense of panic. The good news is that they are not trying to trip you up or make you sweat, rather they are on a mission to find the candidate that will best serve the needs of the position.
I did not fully appreciate this until I became a recruiter myself. Oftentimes, candidates will do interview prep in a way that makes them deliver standardized answers that all sound the same. They read the same type of advice and deliver answers a little too close to the samples.
When asking candidates this question, I genuinely wanted to understand the unique elements of each applicant’s background and how they could come together to take this position to the next level.
Asking this question shows that the recruiter or hiring manager is trying to learn more about you beyond the page. It's your chance to bring your resume to life and show that you are more than just the sum of your past experiences. It's really an opportunity to show why you're the best person for the job.
Now that we focused on why the question is asked, let's turn to strategies you can use to make the most of this interview question.
How to answer ‘what makes you unique’
1 - Choose relevant skills and qualities
While there are many unique and wonderful traits about you, it's important to focus on one or two things that are most relevant to this job description. That's what matters to the recruiter.
Ultimately, they need somebody who can ease the pain points both for the company itself and the client accounts. Their time is limited, so you must edit yourself and only mention the skills or personality traits of yours that will lead to your success in this particular role.
Need help thinking of what you’re good at? Check out this article with exercises to help you answer that question.
2 - Know the job description inside/out and do in depth research about the company
This is huge! On the surface, the ‘what makes you unique’ question sounds like it’s all about you, but it’s about you in the context of the role and the company. The greater your understanding of the job description and company values, the better prepared you will be to select unique qualities that resonate with this employer.
Review the employer website, About Us page, Mission statement, press releases, social media accounts to develop a firm grasp on the key qualities they are seeking in a candidate. Most job descriptions will ask for 50 different things, but you can usually group these into 3 to 5 major skill areas (hard and soft skills).
3 - Include examples
That used to be a pet peeve of mine as a recruiter. Candidates would rattle off this amazing list of skills and qualities that sounded amazing, except there was no proof.
Writers are told to show, don't tell and the advice applies in this context as well.
It’s important to paint a picture of your abilities with success stories. That's why behavioral interviews are so common where employers ask questions like tell me about a time when or give me an example of ________. The hiring manager is trying to visualize how you could be successful in this job based on how you used the skills that are needed in prior jobs.
4 - Be Yourself
It’s tempting to say what you think the recruiter wants to hear, but if you embellish, it’s easy enough for employers to discover this and you lose credibility. Plus, you will not have success stories to back up your claims.
It's important to be yourself and not feel the need to exaggerate and say that you speak six languages, can juggle and were a child TV star to stand out. You don't have to have an answer that they have never heard before.
Instead, focus on your unique combination of skills even if you're talking about communication (check out these tips for effective communication), account management and business development. Sometimes having a solid grasp and track record of success with common skills is exactly what they're looking for in a candidate.
It’s your unique experience in developing these common skills that matters.
5 - Look to your F4S motivations
By reviewing your F4S assessment, you can gain valuable insights about your unique motivations and formulate success stories that show those motivations in action.
4 things not to do when explaining what makes you unique
1 - Don't fall into the please love me trap
When candidates get nervous during an interview, they are often tempted to rattle on – hoping if they keep talking the interviewer will find some nugget of experience they love that will compel them to extend an offer.
While I understand the inclination, this is frustrating for the recruiter and it makes them question whether you would do this with clients. Time is valuable and it’s important to practice getting to the point.
Edit yourself by keeping your answers between 90 seconds and 2 minutes long. It’s fine if the interviewer asks a follow up question.
Remember, monologues are for theater, not job interviewers. If you feel yourself rambling, wrap it up!
2 - Don't pick anything completely unrelated to the job
While you want to demonstrate how you are unique and let your personality shine through, you want to remember this is a professional setting. Avoid anything too personal and think of how your answer will reflect your capabilities on the job.
3 - Don't be negative or self-deprecating
Be sure that your unique quality is something positive. Perhaps you appeared on a reality show and were voted as the best villain on the series. It’s certainly unique, but you want the interviewer to remember for the right reasons and not have any doubt about your abilities or history of working well with others.
4 - Avoid being generic
The whole point of the question asking what makes you unique is to differentiate you from others in a positive way. This goes back to the show, don’t tell adage. It's fine to pick a common skill like leadership, but you must paint them a picture with words and explain your unique leadership experience – perhaps mentoring a team while studying abroad or your volunteer experience with a nonprofit.
The most important skill you need when answering any interview question
Before getting back to the ‘what makes you unique’ question, let’s focus on a skill essential to any interview:
The ability to articulate your experience in a way that is meaningful to this particular employer.
The employer already has a vague notion that you can do the job or else they would not bring you in for an interview. Now, they need you to inspire confidence in them that will confirm their initial instincts about you were on point.
Specifically, the interview process needs to assure the employer that …
- You have the specific knowledge, skills (soft and hard), and abilities to perform the job duties,
- You have the motivation/initiative to do the job,
- You will work well with the team/clients and demonstrate emotional intelligence (check out this article on 5 characteristics of emotional intelligence (that make you great to work with),
- You have problem solving skills and can offer solutions to company pain points.
The secret to preparing for an interview – The Greatest Hits Exercise
Success stories are the secret sauce of a great interview and this question ‘what makes you unique’ is no exception.
Understand Yourself and Be Able to Tell Your Story
This is an exercise I call “Your Greatest Hits.” This will give you a quick visual depiction of approximately 30 success stories across skills areas and is a great prompt for those behavioral, “Tell me about a time when” questions. They are based on the premise that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.
On one sheet of paper write 10-15 skill areas - for example:
- Cultivating Client Relationships,
- Demonstrating Initiative,
- Customer Service,
- Project Management,
- Problem Solving,
- Data Analysis,
- Persuasive Communication,
- Delivering Presentations,
- Product Management,
- and other technical and non-technical skills.
Select those 5 skill areas represented in the job description plus soft skills and other skills applicable to your field or industry.
For each of these skill areas, write 2 – 3 CAR stories meaning
Challenge - what was the challenge you encountered?
Action - what were the specific actions you took to address the challenge?
Results - what were the positive results?
The answers to these should be 90 seconds to 2 minutes long and demonstrate you using that skill. Pull examples from every area of your resume including jobs, volunteer work, research, hobbies, consulting work, etc., but focus the majority of your stories on your relevant past experience.
When doing this exercise, don’t write out long answers. You know your experience and should not memorize the answers – rather use the keywords and phrases to trigger your memory.
- C: Wedding Planner for outdoor ceremony/reception in FL in July; forecast called for showers
- A: Encouraged couple to consider party tent; called frequently used vendor and secured tent days before the ceremony; worked with other vendors to adjust to new configuration for reception. Ordered umbrellas.
- R: Sunny for the ceremony, but it rained most of the reception. Tent in place, dry guests, good time had by all. Bride and groom were happy and guests commented on the beautiful event in spite of the weather.
Practice saying these success stories aloud
It will help you smooth out the flow (get rid of ums, pauses, likes), identify areas where you need to come up with a better example, and in the process increase your confidence. You are showing this employer how you could jump in and contribute right away to their organizational objectives.
Which skills and abilities should you pick?
Now that you know how to tell compelling success stories in an interview, which ones should you select for the ‘what makes you unique’ question?
- Let the job description be your guide – which 2-3 skills represent the very essence of the job – is it teamwork and data analysis? It may be a mix of hard and soft skills.
- When deciding which one, think about feedback from your manager and peers? Which skills or personality traits have consistently stood out as strengths for you?
- What’s your role in most teams? Perhaps, this hints at what makes you unique. Maybe you are the mediator and conflict management is your differentiator. Here are conflict resolution tips.
- Accomplishment of which you are most proud – what helped you make that happen – themes in your career and personal life.
Sample answers for ‘What makes you unique’
1 - From the wedding planner example above
My adaptability makes me unique and I have honed that over the past five years as a wedding planner. It's such an important day for people and I am the one managing last-minute details and ensuring that everything flows smoothly just like a project manager.
For example, last month a bride had her heart set on an outdoor ceremony, but about a week before the forecast called for showers. As soon as I saw that, I immediately called the couple and asked them to consider a party tent and they agreed.
Since it was last minute, I called some vendors with whom I have long standing relationships and they were able to help me secure a tent at the last minute in the peak of the wedding season. I also ordered umbrellas and made contingency plans for valets to get people closer to the tent entrance.
Thankfully, it was sunny for the ceremony, but rained most of the reception. Because of the tent, everyone stayed dry and had a great time. The guests commented on the beautiful event in spite of the weather. The bride and groom were really happy, left a great Yelp review for me and have already referred me to one of their friends who just got engaged.
This ability to remain calm, think on my feet and communicate with clients throughout the process will allow me to thrive as a corporate event planner.
2 - When you’ve worked in many jobs over the past ten years - Flipping your liabilities into potential strengths
My experience across industries makes me unique because I've had the opportunity to work on several cross functional teams and learn best practices with each role. Making the leap from a tech startup with 10 people where no two days were alike, and we were wearing different hats depending on what was needed in any given moment, to a large hospitality company was really eye opening.
At the startup we were focused on survival, aggressive business development and securing investors, whereas at the hotel company, I worked in account management for longer term projects. Before that, I spent time in customer service for a telecom company. I’m grateful to have had these different experiences because it has helped me understand the environment I like best and allowed me to work with diverse teams on projects of all sizes.
3 - When the new job is a stretch or you are making a transition
My ability to quickly learn new things and be self-directed makes me unique. For example, in my last role as a data analyst, I was working closely with the account management team when they had a member leave mid project. I spent extra time outside of work getting up to speed on that person’s workload and the history of the account, so I could help with the client side as well.
Early in my career, I spent several years in retail, so I have that customer service background. While I have enjoyed the data side, this experience allowed me to see that an account management role would be a great fit for me and serve as the cross section of my data and customer service experience. I’m happy to say that the project was a success and I have been invited to collaborate on future projects to help with both data and client management.
By jumping in and going above and beyond my normal workload to dive into the role, I showed the team they could depend on me. That’s how I approach all my projects and why I would make a great account manager with ABC company.
When interviewers ask what makes you unique, it’s a great opportunity to highlight your strengths and provide supporting examples. By preparing in advance and thinking strategically about your answer, you can take this chance to shine and reinforce why you would be a great addition to this company’s team.
Remember, when you send your thank you email immediately following the interview, it’s a good time to allude to that unique quality and remind them what makes you the best candidate for this particular role.
In the end, the biggest differentiator in interviews is being able to articulate your abilities. Have confidence in your past experience and your future potential!