Differentiate Yourself: How to Gain the Competitive Edge in Your Job Search


The most effective job seekers know that standing out from the crowd goes a long way toward job search and career success. Less well-known is exactly how to differentiate oneself and gain that competitive advantage. This article offers suggestions for standing out.

First, understand the factors that truly differentiate – and those that don’t. Michael Kaplan, a sales professional who donates large chunks of his time to advising job seekers, describes asking a room full of business students how many could convince him to interview them based on their elevator pitch. All 50 in the room said they believed they could do so. But then Kaplan asked them to list 12 things they had in common with each other. Afterwards, Kaplan said, “Look around. The people in this room, the people who have 12 things in common with you, these people are your competition for internships and post-graduation jobs. Their elevator pitch ... how different is it from yours?" This time, no students raised their hands when asked if they could give an interview-enticing pitch.

Similarly, when I used to conduct mock interviews with business students, the most common response to “Please describe your top accomplishment,” was “graduating college.” Clearly, that accomplishment did not distinguish them from the many other college grads applying for the same position, especially for any job that requires a college degree. Thus, the first step in differentiation is to analyze all the aspects of yourself that don’t distinguish you from others likely to compete for the same jobs.

Prove your superpowers. In conducting a deep dive into what makes you special, you can likely identify a few things you do better than most others. Your next step is to substantiate those distinguishing abilities. As Kaplan says, “You think you are a hard worker? Give me an example. Great communicator? Prove it. Strong project manager? Tell me about the last project and why it was a success.” Learn more about identifying accomplishments and proving them by describing them in story form.

Become a subject matter expert. Most of us have been part of a workplace in which, when you have asked how to execute a certain process, project, or task, you’ve been told to consult with the workplace’s resident expert in what you want to learn. “Oh, you need to talk with Sally; she’s the office expert on Excel spreadsheets.” Whether it’s a laboratory process, a technique for closing sales or something else, find a niche that makes you the go-to person in a particular facet of your work. It’s especially helpful if your expertise is on the cutting edge. You’ll stand out; co-workers will recognize your expertise; and you’ll have differentiating expertise you can sell when seeking your next job.

Find the value-added in every bullet point on your resume. This suggestion comes from Career Expert, Cheryl Simpson, who advises “sifting through your resume one sentence at a time and identifying additional things you can say about each adjective, statement, or achievement.” Determine how every point demonstrates the return on investment the employer will enjoy by hiring you. Be sure you can substantiate every point with details and results. This technique is also terrific for preparing you for interviews as it reminds you of all your best-selling points.

Become an “employee-needs whisperer.” Most job seekers are focused on selling themselves and their skills, strengths, talents and experience to employers. But job seekers can differentiate themselves by connecting the dots for the employer: Describing exactly how your skills, strengths, talents or experience will help the employer meet a particular need. To make that connection, you must research the needs. Talk to people in the company (especially via informational interviews) and look up news stories about it. Your research will enable you to approach the employer with needs-fulfillment communication that other job seekers are unlikely to deploy. Example:

“For my current employer, I’ve developed a highly effective scheduling system; we have not missed a deadline in seven years. I’d really like to bring the scheduling success to your firm to address the scheduling issues you described in our recent meeting.”


Get the referral stamp of approval. Because employers value candidates referred by trusted employees more than any other candidates, getting referred is a highly effective way to distinguish yourself. The best way to get referred is to network with people working for your targeted employer. Network contacts who know you are a solid performer will likely mention you when the boss starts asking around the workplace if anyone knows good candidates for a vacancy that’s in the pipeline.

Portray yourself as part of the team before you are ever hired. By preparing and researching more than anyone else is likely to, you can create the illusion of already belonging. Career practitioner Amy Knapp describes just such a candidate, “a designer who came in and blew everyone away. She did so much research on the company, the role, and the gaps she could see filling, and she asked really smart questions. She also did her research on the interviewers, so she knew her audience and connected with each of them in a personal way. It was almost like she was already part of the team.”

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