You’ve got a job interview. You really want the job, so you do your best to prepare. And in doing so you think about that killer of a question:
What makes you unique?
Interviewers in all kinds of industries ask this, or a variation of it. It rolls off the tongue, and many interviewers ask it without giving much thought to why it’s important.
But this question is far from simple. It’s an entire cultural philosophy packed into one short sentence. If you don’t answer it with confidence you could miss out on the job of your dreams—because whether they’re aware of it or not, it tells your interviewer whether you fit into their ingrained, even unconscious cultural and social values.
This article is partly a critique of the question itself (because surely there are more useful, less loaded questions that interviewers could be asking) and partly a guide on how to answer it successfully.
Read on to find out what the question really means, and how to answer it with just the right level of honesty and…uniqueness. Stick with me to the end and you’ll find some real-life answers from interviewees who got the job they were after.
A history of the question: why do interviewers ask what makes you unique?
*Full disclosure: this is a speculative and slightly made-up history because I couldn’t find a specific history of this particular question. But… isn’t most of what’s written in history books slightly made up?
A cultural analysis by H. Kim and H.R. Markus, social researchers at Stanford University, compared perspectives on uniqueness in the US and East Asia. The study found that in American culture, uniqueness is associated with freedom, independence, and success. In East Asian culture, however, conformity is valued above uniqueness as it supports harmony and connectedness. A huge number of other sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists have explained this same difference, and it’s tied with deeper cultural values.
It’s all about context. Traditionally in East Asia, cooperation and harmony are important cultural values. Children are brought up to understand that they have a responsibility towards their social group and that the collective needs come before their individual needs.
Striving for independence and “uniqueness” may be viewed as immature and deviant, and following social norms improve everyone’s wellbeing. Each person’s sense of self is rooted in these shared values—so the desire to be unique, and to express that individuality for the world to see, is unusual. This is changing as the world changes, and new studies are exploring the ways that uniqueness is becoming more important in some Asian cultures, such as in China.
And then there’s the US. Modern American cultural values are built on (perceived) freedom and the rights of the individual, as written in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Not everyone in America right now is free, or benefitting from equal rights. But the idea that everyone should be able to exercise their own freedom is a cornerstone of cultural attitude. And in America, freedom is widely defined as “being able to choose for oneself,” according to anthropologist Anna Wierzbicka.
There’s an ongoing debate about where ‘American individualism’ started. Until recently, most scholars accepted the theory written by Seymour Martin Lipset, that the focus on uniqueness grew out of the circumstances and events of the American Revolution between 1765 and 1783. Some elements of Lipset’s explanation are still accepted, and some current social researchers agree that a certain kind of individualism is rooted in the revolution. That kind of individualism has been called ‘liberal individualism’, and is basically the idea that every person should have the right to “think and act in a way that is free from communitarian or collective restrictions.”
The cultural media that most Americans (and lots of Europeans, Canadians, Australians…) consume every day is packed full of messages that reinforce the importance of personal choice and individuality. We’re told that we should follow our instincts; do what’s right for us; and decide what kind of life we’re going to have. These messages feed into work culture all the time—pushing us to be better than our colleagues and competitors, to talk the most in meetings, and to bring the freshest, most dazzling ideas to the table.
And when it comes to a job interview, all of those messages and lifelong micro-influences come together in one charged question: what makes you unique?
All the contradiction
Thing is, employers want you to be an individual — but not too much. This reflects the idea of individuality as a whole; it’s respected and celebrated as long as it fits within the parameters of social acceptance.
Cultures that value individuality tend to imply that it’s down to you whether you’re successful or not. Although seemingly, it’s not always down to you to decide what ‘success’ looks like.
This is confusing because at the same time as being told we should be different, we’re also told that we have to buy that new moisturizer to look as beautiful as the guy on the advert so that people will be attracted to us. As well as being told to stand out and be innovative in our careers, we’re warned not to say or do anything controversial because that could get us into trouble—until that controversial thing makes us or our cause successful, and then it can be celebrated in hindsight.
So how can you be just unique enough without striking, into the heart of your interviewer, the fear that you might turn their office into a sanctuary for baby goats or something?
A cultural advantage
If you grew up in a culture that shares the value of individuality, this stuff will come relatively easily to you. Generally speaking, you’ll know how to differentiate yourself and stand out from the crowd without coming across as too weird. You will understand, inherently, what kind of uniqueness an employer is looking for. And that understanding is deep enough that you’ll also be able to tone down the unique aspects of yourself that an employer probably doesn’t want. Like the tattoo of a poodle’s face on your neck (hello, turtleneck sweater).
But what if you grew up in a culture that values collectivity over uniqueness, and now you’re trying to get a job in a place where individuality beats everything? You could be at a disadvantage.
Firstly, you might look ‘too different’ from the moment you walk in the door. A number of studies have highlighted racism in employment processes, showing that interviewers discriminate based on skin color. And sociologists have found that your accent can also influence your chances of getting the job you want. In America for example, having a British accent could be an advantage, especially if you want a managerial position. But if you speak English with a Hispanic, Chinese, or Indian accent you’re less likely to get a client-facing role.
Secondly—regardless of the way you look and sound—if you haven’t had much exposure to individualistic values it could be more difficult for you to express uniqueness in a way that appeals to the average interviewer. Your cultural background might be the very thing that has allowed you to cultivate the perfect skills for your job, but that won’t help you if your interviewer doesn’t understand how your ‘difference’ could be their advantage.
This is stupid — they’re not really asking what makes you unique, it’s just a way of asking what you can bring to their company that no one else can.
Yes. What they really want to know is why you’re a better fit for the job than anyone else. So why not ask that, after giving interviewees a clear briefing on what the job entails—rather than asking them what makes them special and different and magical?
Also, the truth is that it’s very unlikely you’re the only person who could do this job, or that no one else could possibly do it better than you. Your interviewer knows that, too.
By asking what makes you unique, they are asking you to make their decision easier. The chances are they’re trying to choose between a selection of candidates who are pretty evenly matched in terms of qualifications and experience. And they don’t want to make a decision they’ll regret (or that their bosses won’t be happy with). So they want you to give them a definitive reason why YOU are the right choice.
With that in mind you can tailor your answer to their needs. They ask what makes you unique. Then you answer by turning the question around and outlining specific traits, skills or experience you have that perfectly match the particular requirements of the job and the company. It’s not really about you.
The purpose of the question: what they really want to know
OK. Enough picking apart. Employers really do use this question in interviews all the time, and they don’t want you to answer with a list of reasons why their question is irrelevant.
So it’s time to get practical: here are a few things your interviewer really wants you to give them when they ask this question.
- Something to make them remember you. Make it easy for them when they’re talking through the 15 interviews they did that day; preferably in a good way.
- Evidence that you can give them what they want, and do the job well. Evidence in this context is either past experiences, qualifications, or references from other people. So use any or all of those to back up your answer. “I’ve done X and I’m certified in Y, so I can approach Z from a unique perspective.”
- Something that shows you’re different, within relevant parameters. If they’re interviewing ten fully qualified veterinarians for a job as a veterinarian, it could be useful to know that you also have a diploma in grief counseling so you can sensitively manage pet owners’ distress, for example.
- That you’ve read the job description. If you can’t answer this question with some reference to the job’s requirements, you probably haven’t.
- Reassurance that you’re going to be a nice person to work with. Make your answer concise and honest, and don’t big yourself up by talking about other people’s failures. It’s important that you can speak positively about yourself; but not for a solid 45 minutes.
Think beyond what’s obviously relevant for your role, and draw on other experiences that enrich your understanding, skills and sensitivity. Start there.
Real life successful answers
I asked five people how they answered this question — or variations of it — in an interview. All of them got the job. If you need some inspiration for an upcoming interview, use these answers* as a starting point for building your own.
What makes you unique?
- “I did dance training when I was younger which gave me finely tuned communication skills, so I can build positive and supportive relationships with colleagues very quickly.”
Why is this good? They took a skill that the interviewee cared about a lot (communication) and explained why dance training, which involved working closely and collaboratively with other dancers, enhanced that skill to a greater level.
- “I was home educated, so I’ve always directed my own learning and work, and know how to motivate myself without someone there to tell me what to do.”
Why is this good? Again, they focused on a skill that mattered to the employer: self-direction and motivation, because this was for a remote-working position. Instead of just saying they were good at those things, they provided evidence (home education) of a time when they had to use those skills every day.
- “I’ve been involved in setting up my own community project, so I know how hard it can be to get a social enterprise off the ground and I’ve already encountered some of the challenges that are likely to come up in the early days.”
Why is this good? Evidence. The interview was for a job with a new social enterprise, so past experience of setting something up (even though it was a small voluntary project) and an understanding of the potential challenges gave the interviewer confidence that this person was up to the task. This one is great because it taps into the fact that the employer is probably anxious about whether their business will work, and reassures them.
- “I can say “hi, how are you?” in 14 different languages.”
Why is this good? The job was in a bar at a youth hostel, and this answer not only described a genuine skill, but highlighted important, relevant personality traits: confidence, humor, and an interest in connecting with others. Actually, learning to say “hi, how are you?” in 14 languages is pretty easy, so it could be a handy skill to add to your portfolio.
- “My books at home are organized alphabetically and by cover color, and my paperwork is filed by date and topic in a physical filing cabinet and digitally on my computer.”
Why is this good? Interviewing for a studio manager role, this person wanted to get across that their organizational skills were on point. Instead of saying “I’m really organized and love admin,” they made it personal and gave real examples of their organization in action.
*These answers have been shortened to their core points. It’s usually a good idea to give a more detailed explanation after your sharp and snappy intro.
Answer the question and get the job
I don’t love this question. You might have guessed. But even if, like me, you think it’s a bit silly; you’ll still have to answer it if it comes up in an interview.
Rephrase it in your head to make it relevant to the job. And instead of going with a generic answer like “I love a challenge and I”m not afraid of failure,” make it personal. Draw in your experience and a little of your character without forgetting that it really isn’t about you. It’s about how you could fit into the job or the business.
And don’t lie. That’ll always come back to bite.