4 job interview differentiators to make you the preferred candidate

By Scot Herrick | Job Search

May 17

After conducting my last job interview — where I was interviewing a candidate — I reflected on what differentiated a job candidate from others. After all, I’ve done a ton of job interviews over the past year. I’ve provided specific poor job interview practices — talking too long, we we we instead of I, and not answering the question. Those are bad things.

What about the good things?

Once you get past job skills (can you do the job) and your accomplishments, what can differentiate you in an interview compared to other candidates? It turns out, there are patterns.

You display energy through high engagement

This isn’t jumping up and down energy. It isn’t nervous energy.

Instead, this is more about highly engaged. You look at the person or people conducting the interview. You actively listen to what is being asked and said. You appropriately gesture to make your points.

And, to be clear, this isn’t about introverts and extroverts. If you’re an introvert (and, interestingly, I am), highly engaged in a conversation with another person should be in your wheelhouse. And if you’re an extrovert, engagement should also be relatively easy.

But sitting back passively, answering questions in a monotone, and not looking at people will make it harder for the hiring manager to hire you.

You provide organized answers to questions

This means you take a couple of seconds to organize your thoughts before you provide an answer.

Being organized in your answer will force you to not drag out the answer with trivial data or fill-ins. By organizing your answer, you’ll be more likely to directly answer the question (which, honestly, most people do not do).

A subtle thing here as well: organized answers allows your hiring manager to ask pertinent follow-up questions. When you give a too-long answer or a wandering response, the reaction of the interviewer is to move on to a different question and chalk it up to you just not getting it.

I’ve done enough interviews now where I don’t have niceties: if you don’t answer the question, I’ll say you didn’t answer the question. If you drag out your answer, I’ll interrupt you and ask something different.

But organized answers usually bring out follow-up questions because it is more like — wait for it — a conversation and not an interview.

Clearly describe what YOU did, not what the assignment was about

This is similar to the introduction where most people talk we we we we the team the team the team and never “here’s what I did” for the particular assignment or project.

An interview is one of the few times in your career where it is imperative you talk about what YOU did to get the accomplishment. Think about it: the hiring manager isn’t hiring “we” or “the team.” No, the hiring manager is hiring YOU to get stuff done.

It’s fine to talk about what you did to get the accomplishment and THEN talk about how the team helped. That approach demonstrates leadership. But the majority of the time and importance in the answer is what YOU did to get the accomplishment.

Trust me on this one: you need to talk about what you did to accomplish stuff. Very, very few people do in an interview.

Unless you’re a narcissist, of course. If you are, don’t be one.

Demonstrate curiousity

If you look at my “Strengths Finder” results, “learning” is number one. If I’m not learning, I’m dying. And if I stop learning in a position, I get bored — and that is the first sign it is time to leave.

In an interview, this type of curiosity comes across.

You have to know your shit, of course. You can’t just continually say you want to learn new things — because if you do, no one will believe you can do the job.

This is more about having confidence in your abilities, but that you are also a student of what you do. For example, I’m a project manager. So I’ve forgotten more about project management than most people know. But what I’m curious about is how to make a team work. How to bend the culture to get things done.

In a poor sports analogy, I’m very curious how bad teams become good teams. And how good teams stay good teams. Yes, I like the wins and (not so much) the losses, but the overall interest is how teams are built.

Whether your a nurse and are curious about what motivates people to get better, or an accountant and curious about what gets some people to save for retirement, or an engineer who wonders why some buildings stay up in a storm while others are damaged, being curious comes across in an interview.

It’s rare when it happens and is a differentiator to other job candidates.

This is a mindset shift

Most people won’t make this shift in their heads. What happens when you don’t in an interview means all fully qualified job candidates look the same. They all passed the HR screen. They all passed the phone interview. That means they all should have the job skills and accomplishments to get the job. And then they all hit the face-to-face interviews and turn into the same, bland job candidates.

As a person who interviews job candidates, I can’t tell you how much you want to just hire the candidate that demonstrates these job interview differentiators. That is not the position I’m in with my current job. But when I interview a candidate that’s hitting on these differentiators, I’ll advocate for that job candidate to the hiring manager. And hiring managers will move up timelines, cut off other interviews, and make faster decisions when they see the same thing.

Job interviews using these differentiators is a Master Cubicle Warrior skill.

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