Answering this question during a job interview requires more than knowing why you are unique as an individual. Yes, the true scientific answer is made up of two main components: your biology and the very specific set of experiences that have affected you throughout your existence up to this point. However, potential employers are unlikely to be interested in your 23andme results or in hearing the elevator pitch for your Dungeons & Dragons podcast. It is obvious that while momentarily interesting, trivia items such as these would have no lasting impact and would be weak in the context at hand. And yet, if we are caught off guard, these are the types of responses that may come to mind. So how should one deliver an answer that has the desired effect? Further, what exactly is the desired effect?
The first step is to recognize that for a question like this and for interviewing in general, significant preparation is required to hit the figurative ball out of the park. You are already taking an important step by taking the time to read this article and pick out suggestions and ideas that may be useful to you. The difficult part, though, will be making use of these suggestions. Do not let anyone convince you that you are “overpreparing” – there is no such thing. Though it may not be possible to know every question you will be asked, working hard to refine the language of your talking points around the evidence at your disposal so as to convey yourself in the most honest-but-flattering light will pay off no matter what you are asked.
The desired effect of your response to the question “What makes you unique?” is for your interviewer to be made to believe that you will be a good fit for the company and for the position. For a candidate to be a good fit from the standpoint of a potential employer means one of two things: the candidate can reasonably be expected to either make them money or save them money. Understanding the nuance involved in how you, your skills, and your performance in the position for which you are interviewing can do either will help you to answer the question in a way that lets the interviewer know that you are capable of aligning with company's goals and that your presence will add value to the team.
Know your resume
In order to prepare an answer that you feel great about, it is important to first know what you bring to the table as a candidate. You've tailored your resume to highlight them, but it is equally important to be able to articulate your key qualifications conversationally. What are your professional strengths? How do you know – what experiences have you had that demonstrated these strengths? Statements like “I'm dedicated” or “I'm a hard worker” fall flat against anecdotal evidence. I once interviewed an engineering student that told me that she'd worked for her firm for two summers, through four semesters of school, and for two additional months without pay because her contract had ended but one of her major projects had not, and she wanted to see it through. As an interviewer, it was easy to gather from that story that she is both dedicated and a hard worker.
Likely, you have some similar stories. Think of times in your professional life when you surprised yourself, impressed yourself, called your mom to tell her about what you'd done so she could pat you on the back. If nothing immediately comes to mind, why not ask for help? There's nothing wrong with getting a trusted friend or family member on the phone and asking them if they have a few minutes to assist you in preparing for a job interview. This is a great opportunity to practice talking about yourself with someone around whom you feel comfortable. It can be extremely affirming, even surprising, perhaps, to have a respected friend or family member tell you why they believe you are unique. They are unlikely to provide an answer that is ready-to-use in a job interview, but they may give you a seed that can be fleshed out into a strong response. They may even remember an impressive accomplishment or an outstanding experience that you've forgotten about.
Maybe you have one or two, or maybe a few. Make a note of the key points and strong lines of them all so that they can be ready at hand. These experiences can be a good backbone for your answer and can usually lead up to a strong claim somewhere along the lines of, “I learned during [job, project, challenge] that I'm really committed to [pursuit, quality, ideal]. Because of this, I'm [willing/able] to [perform in some desirable and outstanding way].” You may consider this a professional Madlib, of sorts. The question then becomes: How should you select the best options to use in the specific interview for which you are now preparing?
Know the position
Selecting the correct skills or qualities to emphasize will require knowledge of the position. You need to have an idea of what the job you are interviewing for will require of you in order to provide a response that is relevant. Positions that are technical, commercial, customer-facing, or labor intensive will all have different skillsets. Will the position be specific and project based, or more routine-focused? Some job descriptions will explicitly state specific programs, languages, or skills that are required. If you are interviewing for your first job in a certain industry, or changing industries altogether, get an idea of what to expect by watching videos of people who have entered the industry recently or made a similar switch. They will often share some of the things that they would have found useful when they started that may be useful to you now.
It has been said that it takes a year to fully understand the requirements of a position that is new to you, and two years to feel that you are “good” at the job. This claim is mostly subjective and is not to be taken as assuredly factual. That said, it is valuable in that you shouldn't expect to get a complete picture of what a position will require before or even during the interview. It does take time to get a good understanding of what is within your scope of responsibility, what is outside of it, and how to navigate this boundary effectively. Some of the requirements may be fuzzy for a long time even after you have been hired. This is normal. However, before the interview, you should still do your best to get the most complete possible understanding of what is included in the listing in all of the standard ways. After you've gone through the listing point by point, make sure to look up anything mentioned in the job description that isn't immediately familiar to you.
Once you have done this, if you have the time and opportunity, practice explaining the requirements of the position out loud. Perhaps to yourself first, maybe even at some point to a friend. Talking about a subject out loud is a good way to see how large the gap is between what you know and what you'd like to know, or between what you know and what you should know. Once you've identified the gap, do your utmost to close it to the best of your ability with the resources at your disposal. Repeat as needed as time and reason allow, or until you feel that you know the position.
What if the description in the listing is sparse? If the description for the job you are interviewing for is lacking in detail, it is not wrong to send an email back to your HR contact to ask for more information if it is available. If it is, you succeed in obtaining more information, and if it is not, you have still communicated real interest and demonstrated the extent to which you are willing to prepare. If you are not able to get more information, it may be worth it to look at similar job descriptions at other companies. These may have more specific requirements, softwares, programs, or skillsets that may not be listed in the description for your target job but may be relevant to it. You may notice some recurring requirements that are not listed and consider specifically asking your contact whether a certain program or skill is required, and if not, how the need it would generally fill is met. A note of caution: though it is good to ask questions about the position and to feel comfortable communicating with your contact prior to the interview, be respectful of their time as well. Limit your questions and requests to what is both reasonable and absolutely necessary. Even though you want to make it clear that you are interested in the position and the company, your interactions with your HR contact will also indicate whether or not you are a good communicator as well as whether you are easy to work with. Take the opportunity to show that you are both!
Know the company
Once you feel confident in your knowledge of the position, you can further your preparedness by getting to know the company. Your potential employer, whether it be a company or an individual, likely has a mission. Find out what that mission is as early as possible in your research. If it is a large enough company, this can probably be found on their website. Once you have found it, try to imagine what is involved in the company's day to day effort to achieve this mission. Think about this question on both a large and a small scale. Imagine the challenges that may be associated with meeting the company's goals. Keeping these in mind will give you the get opportunity to align your preparation with the values of the organization.
Depending on the company's marketing and social media strategies, it may also be possible to get a good feel for the current goings-on within the company prior to the interview. Perhaps there have been developments in the products or offerings they provide, or perhaps there has been a visible shift in the management of the social media pages themselves. Either of these observations may be useful depending on where in the organization you are hoping to be placed. Often, having done enough research to be able to reference current events that relate to the state of the department or team you are hoping to join will be very impressive to an interviewer. This is especially true if you are attending an event like a career fair, where the companies are aware that you are there to reach out to a number of potential employers. Company representatives at career fairs will spend a lot of time answering questions about their company, their position, their culture. Though these questions are valuable and not to be discouraged, they are more for the benefit of the candidate and do not leave a significant impression on the interviewer. With a little more preparation, it may be possible to get a few nuggets of knowledge prior to conversing with an interviewer that can give you some insight on where the company is going. Once you have found some, think of how you could use your existing skills, or ones you are in the process of developing, to contribute to getting there. Connecting the dots in this way can go a long way in conveying that you are unique and can give your response a little extra edge.
You may have already explored the Glassdoor reviews for the company with which you are interviewing. This can help you to get a sense of the company's culture, which can in some cases give you a conversational advantage as you endeavor to show that you are a good fit. However, reviews can be wildly varied, as work experiences are very subjective and very specific. If you've already found this to be of use, take it for what it is worth and incorporate what you have learned accordingly. However, if you are primarily seeing reviews that paint the company in a negative light, it may be best to table the Glassdoor browsing until after you have been offered the job.
So far, the subheadings of this article have been ordered by necessity. Meaning that if you read through this article prior to having anything prepared with respect to the titular question, you should start from the first section and work your way down as time allows. However, this subheading, if you have time for it, can really help you to get confident with identifying and presenting yourself as an individual in a way that is not often taught in traditional career development prior to entering the workforce out of school.
One feature of many strong internship programs is a personality assessment component designed to help individuals to identify the strengths they bring to the workplace based solely on their personality type. Commonly, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is used in these settings. (Read a good description of the MBTI, and a critique of personality tests in general, here.)
While tests like the MBTI are not based on exact science, they can be useful in identifying skills and traits that come naturally to you. Most importantly, they can give you language to describe your personality that you would be unlikely to develop on your own. If you've never taken this test before, there are several free versions online that you can take to get one of 16 personality types. Once you've gotten your results, read through the description of your type and see if it seems fitting for you. If you find it to be a good description of your personality, you may benefit from additional descriptors for your type found in the list below. If not, you may still find some of these adjectives to be useful. Again, these personality types are in no way based on exact science, so take what works for you and leave the rest.
Myers-Briggs Personality Types and Traits
ISTJ: Fact-oriented, analytical
ISTP: Empirical, systematic, judicious
ISFJ: Efficient, pragmatic, accountable
ISFP: Hands-on, enthusiastic, accommodating
INFJ: Astute, imaginative, methodical
INFP: Perceptive, innovative, observant
INTJ: Theoretical, inventive, knowledgeable
INTP: Unbiased, pattern-oriented, precise
ESTP: Versatile, enterprising, understanding
ESTJ: Discerning, detail-oriented, direct
ESFP: Eloquent, cooperative, constructive
ESFJ: Diligent, organized, reliable
ENFP: Animated, daring, motivating
ENFJ: Dependable, visionary, approachable
ENTP: Ingenious, predictive, goal-oriented
ENTJ: Authoritative, widespread, improvement-focused
Another personality typing system that is arguably trendier than the Myers-Briggs right now is the Enneagram. The Enneagram describes nine main personality types – how they relate to each other, how they react to stress, and what they look like at their healthiest. There are a few free tests that you can take if you haven't already been caught up in the trend. Again, I cannot stress this enough, personality typing is not an exact science, but you may find some aspects of your type description to be applicable to you. Here are some more professional adjectives based on the Enneagram type descriptions.
Enneagram Personality Types and Traits
1: Rational, principled, purposeful
2: Generous, demonstrative, interpersonal
3: Adaptive, driven, pragmatic
4: Expressive, creative, emotionally honest
5: Perceptive, innovative, cerebral
6: Committed, engaging, responsible
7: Versatile, enthusiastic. practical
8: Confident, decisive, resourceful
9: Easy-going, receptive, reassuring
This is the last of the steps to be covered here because it is the least valuable on its own. However, knowing and reading through a description of your personality type can add some extra power to the language you elect to use with reference to yourself. If you have time for it, see value in it, and recognize that it has limits, personality typing can be a good aid in learning to verbalize what you bring to the table professionally.
Make the match
So. What makes you unique? Ultimately, the point of this question is the same as the point of the interview itself. It is an opportunity to demonstrate that your skills, background, and experience make you a match for the company and for the position. Assuming that you've gathered the information you need, get prepared to show that you are that match. Start by putting your thoughts in writing to make sure you don't forget any key points as you are developing your answer. It may feel unnatural at first, but the idea is to be off script pretty quickly and to feel comfortable verbalizing these connections out loud. Having things in writing can help you to pick and choose the most powerful points and phrases. Feel free to audio record yourself practicing your response as well – this is another suggestion that may feel unnatural! Many people feel uncomfortable with listening to their own voice. However, this is a good way to confirm that you are preparing a response that you actually feel good about. Listen closely to your phrasing and vocal quality. When we are speaking off the cuff, we are likely to say things that make us cringe as we remember them later. Though you may still have moments in your interview that you look back on and think, “Why did I say that?”, the time to be picky about your phrasing is in the preparation stage. Use the tools at your disposal to assess your natural responses. To some extent, doing so will allow you to take control of any reactionary language and be intentional about your choice of words, even if the sound of your voice may make you a little bit uncomfortable at first.
Let's go back to the Madlib we mentioned before. Now that we have a better understanding of the parties and factors involved, it becomes easier to make the match. To refresh your memory, here's the outline again: “I learned during [job, project, challenge] that I'm really committed to [pursuit, quality, ideal]. Because of this, I'm [willing/able] to [perform in some desirable and outstanding way].” A very basic response can be developed based solely within this framework: let's work from an example we've already discussed. Though the engineering student mentioned previously was not answering this question, we can imagine that if she had, she might have said at the end of her story, “I learned while I was working on my solar business development project that I'm really committed to seeing a challenge through, especially when it is for a cause that I feel strongly about. Because of this, I'm willing to put forth as much effort as is required to achieve a successful outcome, even if it comes at a cost to myself.” As an unprepared response to a question that may easily catch someone off guard, this is a perfectly satisfactory answer. When compared to a well prepared response, though, we might call that a mid-to-low level answer. That said, we're going to look at some ways we can build on this structure using the information and data we've already gathered.
Imagine that you are scheduled to interview for a position in development that will require you to work with the business system JD Edwards. You found an article where the CFO of the company was interviewed, and during the interview he mentioned the company's recent switch to Salesforce for customer relationship management. You have experience with JD Edwards, but none with Salesforce. Having already done your research on the front end as well as having taken some time to think about your wording, you may come up with the following: “I've worked with JD Edwards for two years, and I've been able create solutions to meet a variety of internal and external needs using my development training combined with my growing knowledge of commercial and financial systems. I have personally seen how a good CRM system can contribute to the growth of a business, and I also know that there can be growing pains involved with integrating a new platform with the existing business system. I read the article from last month where your CFO, John Doe, spoke about the switch to Salesforce as your main CRM platform. With my user experience training, I feel confident that I can provide a fresh perspective on the development team as well as contribute to a smooth implementation of Salesforce and any future tools that can contribute to a better experience for our internal and external customers.”
What makes this a stronger response? Put simply, it shows exactly how you as a candidate fit into the existing framework of the team you are hoping to join. It also indicates that you are aware of the direction in which the company is moving and that you have thought about how you can support the current endeavors of the team as well as continue to move it forward. By mentioning your skill in user experience, which may be outside of the requirements of the position, you have also shown that you are drawing from all of your available skills to consider what you can bring to the company. Even though these skills may not be specifically necessary, they may still make you a better fit for the position.
Another thing to note is that your response does not need to be terribly long or rambling. During an interview, it can at times be very difficult to know when to stop talking. In your preparation, give attention to your communication style to make sure you are speaking in complete sentences and ending on a strong note. Avoid run-on sentences and the tendency to trail off at the end of a thought.
What about for a different type of position? Let's imagine that you are interviewing for a position in project management. The job description states that the key functions of the position will include maintaining project schedules and managing a cross-functional team. You have never worked professionally as a project manager before, but you have worked on many team projects and you have served on the executive board for a professional organization at your university. You estimate that you spent over 150 hours in your last semester of school working on and managing these projects. Additionally, prior to getting more involved on campus, you spent the first two years of college working in retail part-time. Your response to the question might look something like this: “I've managed teams both at an executive level and in assumed leadership roles, and spent over 150 hours outside of the classroom on project management this past semester alone. I have worked hard to develop the organizational skills required to keep many projects on track simultaneously, but I also held a customer-service position for a couple of years that helped me to realize that I am naturally mediating, motivating, and accommodating. For me, this has translated into virtually conflict-free project management techniques that come both from having developed a methodical approach to problem-solving, and having seen what drives people in a team setting. This helps me to ensure that the teams I'm involved with consistently make the best possible use of their time, as well as handle the occasional problems that inevitably arise without falling behind schedule.”
Similarly, this is a strong response because it conveys what in your specific background has suited you for the position. It's a good example of how job experience that may seem to be entirely outside of your target industry can make you an appealing and, dare we say, unique candidate. Additionally, it is important, if you can find one, to have a real data point that you can reference to quantify your experience. A time-based milestone is a good start. Improvement metrics are especially powerful: let's say your executive board planned and coordinated ten events each semester last year over the previous board's one or two. This would be a great comparative metric to include in your response, as well as mentioning what tools were involved in making this improvement. Connect the dots by mentioning how you could see similar tools being effective in the position you're applying for. If you haven't been intentionally gathering it, numerical evidence can be hard to find. If you have past peer performance reviews, mine these to see if they might contain data points you can use to describe the scope and magnitude of your past work. Even if they are not numerically specific, a strong testimony from someone else about the quality of your work or the value of your presence on a team can be powerful.
Do the work! What Makes You Unique? Final interview preparation
We've covered a broad range of tools and techniques that you can use to prepare your best possible answer to the interview question “What makes you unique?”. Answering this question can seem daunting at first, but is simply about making it clear that you will be a great fit for the position. This does not require that you paint yourself as extraordinarily special, nor does it require any knowledge of the other candidates with whom you are competing. It can be answered effectively simply by knowing what your strengths and skills are, and connecting these to the needs of the position and the needs of the company in a clear, logical, and specific way. Now that you know how and what to prepare, go and do the work! Your future self will thank you.