Set Yourself Apart
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Set Yourself Apart: Differentiation Strategy for Job Interviews

Standing out from a crowd of qualified applicants may be the toughest challenge in your job search. But there are ways you can shine and snag your dream job, says Patrick Snyder, executive director of the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. In this interview with Association CareerHQ, he shares a slew of smart differentiation strategies.

By Rebecca Hawk

First things first: Can you give us a brief overview of differentiation strategy?

Differentiation starts long before the interview. The idea of differentiating yourself is not only finding ways to make yourself different than other people looking for a job, but also working harder. In the end, it all comes down to the hard work.

You want to work smart, though. You want every effort that you make to put you closer to your goal. You want to be spending your time doing things that are “brag-able” and getting you closer to getting that job.

When you’re trying to get an interview, it can be hard to stand out on a piece of paper. What can you do to differentiate yourself immediately in your resume and cover letter?

You want to make your objective very specific, and it needs to be pointed toward the position description.

Your resume should never look the same with any job application. If you really want the job, then your resume for that particular job—your dream job!—should look probably 60 to 70 percent different than it did for the job you applied for two weeks ago.

Your resume should mirror the position description as closely as possible. You can have a kind of shell or an outline of what your resume should look like, but the individual components should be different based on the position you’re applying for.

If you really want the job, then your resume for that particular job should look probably 60 to 70 percent different than it did for the job you applied for two weeks ago.

If you don’t know much about an organization, how do you speak to its brand—whether it’s your tie or your language or something else?

I like the idea of the language. If your interviewers call the conference room you’re meeting in “S425,” or you happen to hear that it’s S425, then I would refer to it as S425 from then on. If they refer to your resume as a source document, then I would forever refer to it as a source document.

As you’re walking into an organization’s space, you’ll find that companies reveal themselves fairly quickly. So if they have a safety initiative or just had a big win, they’re going to have posters for it. And they’ll have language on those posters that reveals the way that they talk.

Go in having done your homework. Show them you’ve done it, whether that means wearing the color of the organization with your tie or being able to slip something into a conversation about a big win for them—like if you heard they just named a new exec or got a great recruit. You need to be looking for all those things before the interview so that you sound knowledgeable during the interview.

How long would you recommend people spend preparing for an interview?

When you get the call that says, “Would you like to do a phone interview?,” I would schedule two days between the time that initial planning call happens and the interview call. I would spend four hours researching the organization and writing questions based on the research. Spend part of that four hours formulating your questions about how things are going at the organization.

Also, you don’t just want to look at their information—the material the organization puts out. You want to know what’s been written about them. I would look for community papers they’re in. If anything has been written in the local papers, you’ll know what that is, and you’ll be able to chat with them about it.

I would also try to find vendors who work for them on LinkedIn. A good vendor knows exactly what the organization wants; their main focus is taking care of its objectives.

What are some subtle ways that candidates slip up during an interview?

People should start to realize they’re making a mistake when the interview becomes only the interviewer asking questions, and the candidate answering questions. It really needs to be a conversation.

An interviewee should come into the interview with so much excitement and so much enthusiasm for the position that they should be asking 60 percent of the questions. How do you intend to grow this department? How can I make a difference my first three months in this position? What are your three biggest objectives for this hire? What’s the current person in this position doing right now that you consider successful? What are some of the position’s shortfalls right now that you’d like to see shored up?

You should just be hammering them with questions about what they want in a good employee. And believe me, the person sitting on the other side of the desk is freaking out that you’re so interested in how to make it a good place.

Another part in this process is, as the interviewers answer these questions, you’re writing down all those answers. Then, in your follow-up letter, you’re repeating their objective and telling how you can cover that. That will get you a call back.

An interviewee should come into the interview with so much enthusiasm for the position that they should be asking 60 percent of the questions.

Let’s say you’ve had a great interview. How can you differentiate yourself in that follow-up period?

The follow-up has to be close to immediate. I’m very big on letting the organization know that you’re excited about the position—not overly, because you’re going need to posture as far as the salary goes. I wouldn’t do it an hour after, but follow up between four and 24 hours later.

If you did the interview right and you were asking the right questions, you should have a real sense of what they expect from the position, what their overall objectives are in making that position better, and how you can make a difference within that organization. In your follow-up letter, let a little bit of your personality out in those first couple sentences, but then get down to business: You understand that these are the overall objectives of the position, and you see yourself covering the overall objectives in these ways.

Rebecca Hawk is a marketing specialist at Association CareerHQ. Email: [email protected]

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