The hiring manager asks you the following in an interview: “Tell me, what makes you unique?”
Your mind immediately jumps to some random fun fact about yourself—like how you can eat a whole jar of pickles in one sitting or your passion for arm-knitting blankets.
No, that can’t be what they’re looking for, can it? (Spoiler: It’s not.)
This doozy of an interview question can throw off any skilled candidate—don’t let that be you! Here’s everything you need to know about why this question gets asked, and how you can totally nail your answer. Plus, what to do when you encounter this question in an online application (because it happens).
Why Hiring Managers Ask “What Makes You Unique?”
“Most times hiring managers are going to be looking at multiple candidates for a role, and generally speaking they’re probably going to...have to make some hard decisions,” he explains. “So being able to tease out what separates candidates is important.”
That means this is your prime opportunity to make yourself stand out from the pack—especially when the pack looks awfully similar on paper.
It’s also a simple test of your self-awareness and communication skills. “If a candidate can provide a very strong and compelling answer, it demonstrates to the hiring manager that the candidate…has done the thought and reflection that’s needed to understand what it would take for them to do the role and why they’re best positioned for it,” says Dea.
Basically, if you have no idea what makes you special—or you do but you can’t communicate it properly—how in the world is the hiring manager supposed to believe you’re a valuable hire?
How to Answer “What Makes You Unique?” in an Interview
You’ll need to figure out what your value proposition is and how to articulate it to the interviewer. Here’s how:
1. Consider the Company/Role/Hiring Manager
The most important thing to remember is when the hiring manager asks, “What makes you unique?” they actually want to know what makes you unique in the context of this job. So it’s important to “understand what that company, what that specific role, what that specific hiring manager is trying to optimize for,” says Dea.
The easiest place to start, he says, is the job description. What would you be doing in the role? What kind of person are they looking for? What skills or experiences do they emphasize as must-haves or would-love-to-haves?
“If you know what the company’s core values are, or the things that are true to them, you need to think about how you fit within that context,” he adds. You can easily pinpoint those by stalking their website or social media or doing a quick Google search (or researching them on The Muse!).
2. Get Outside Input
“Go out and ask five people what your strengths are, and tell them to give you a time where you exemplified that strength,” suggests Dea. You might find some answers more helpful than others, but this initial framework will help you parse together how others see you as unique or valuable.
If you don’t know if you can rely on your network, says Dea, instead ask yourself, “Why do people pick up the phone and call me?” or “What do people come to me for advice on, or help with?”
You can also look at your past performance evaluations. What kind of positive feedback do you consistently get? What are people saying about you at work? Use these as leverage as you move to the next step.
3. Reflect on Your Own
“There are different things that you bring to the job beyond your title and beyond your hard skills,” says Muse career coach Theresa Merrill, so consider what other experiences, soft skills, or expertise you have beyond your direct work history that could make you a good fit for the role or organization.
As an example, Merrill is a career coach who comes not from an HR background but one in sales and marketing. This is what she emphasizes when talking about what makes her unique because it allows her to differentiate herself from coaches that offer similar services in interview or LinkedIn coaching.
4. Gather Proof
“Any type of data point, qualitative or quantitative,” says Dea, takes your response from just OK to great.
For example, explains Merrill, you don’t just want to say “I’m persistent, which makes me great at sales.”
“Demonstrating your persistence is much more powerful than just using that adjective,” she says. So, you’d want to explain how you’ve been persistent in your career and the outcome of that. Did it help you exceed goal? Attract a pool of great clients? Motivate the rest of your team to increase revenue?
5. Put It All Together
Take what you know about the company or role and what you know your strengths are and compare the two: Are there one to two skills that overlap? Those should be the focal points of your answer. You don’t want to just rattle off a laundry list of things that are great about yourself.
Here are a couple good sample responses to show what this looks like in practice:
“What makes me unique is that I basically taught myself animation from scratch. I was immediately drawn to it in college, and with the limited resources available to me, I decided to take matters into my own hands—and that’s the approach I take in all aspects of my work as a video editor. I don’t just wait around for things to happen, and when I can, I’m always eager to step in and take on new projects, pick up new skills, or brainstorm new ideas.”
“I actually started a career in editorial after transitioning from a role in the health and wellness industry to an internship at an online publication. Because I came in as a career changer and ‘started over’ in a more entry-level role, I have direct experience that can easily be applied to writing career advice. I know what readers want, what questions they have, and how they want that advice to be delivered because I was in their shoes, and going through that transition taught me so much about the job search and ignited my passion for helping others find a career path they love like I was able to.”
“I’m uniquely qualified for this role because I’m incredibly organized. And I’m not just saying that—I live for my planner (and my Google Calendar). In my past role as an executive assistant, I was constantly answering calls and responding to hundreds of emails a day, and thanks to my diligence, the CEO never had a missed message or mistake in their schedule.”
6. Tighten It and Practice It
Chances are you won’t nail your pitch after a minute of reading this article and pondering your thoughts. Like any interview question, answering “What makes you unique?” requires some self-reflection, brainstorming, and reiterating.
Merrill recommends “writing it down, scripting it, tightening it, saying it out loud, [and] hearing how it sounds.” The more you practice your response, she states, the more natural (and less rambly) it will seem, and the less flustered you’ll be when the question comes up. Time yourself to make sure it’s no longer than, say, 30 or 60 seconds, and run it by a friend to see what they think.
And if you need a gut check on whether or not your final answer is any good? “If anyone else could say what you’re saying, that is probably a sign that you can strengthen your answer,” says Dea.
(Looking for more interview advice? Read this article on answering other common interview questions you might face.)
How to Answer “What Makes You Unique?” in 150 Characters
You’ll sometimes see in online applications a question like, “In 150 characters or fewer, tell us what makes you unique. Try to be creative and say something that will catch our eye!” Since you’ve only got a sentence or two to make your point, you’ll want to boil your answer down to the essentials: a single strength and how it makes you perfect for this job.
So taking the examples above, here’s how you could condense them to answer the prompt effectively:
I taught myself animation from scratch in college. I don’t just wait for things to happen at work—I proactively and eagerly pursue them.
I started a career in editorial after transitioning from the health industry. Because I was in their shoes, I know what career advice readers need.
I’m incredibly organized and live for my planner—and as a result my old boss never had a missed message or mistake in their schedule.
Photo of person in job interview courtesy of Westend61/Getty Images.
Previously an editor for The Muse, Alyse is proud to prove that yes, English majors can change the world. She’s written almost 500 articles for The Muse on anything from productivity tips to cover letters to bad bosses to cool career changers, many of which have been featured in Fast Company, Forbes, Inc., CNBC's Make It, USA Today College, Lifehacker, Mashable, and more. She calls many places home, including Illinois where she grew up and the small town of Hamilton where she attended Colgate University, but she was born to be a New Yorker. In addition to being an avid writer and reader, Alyse loves to dance, both professionally and while waiting for the subway.More from this Author