What Makes You Special: How to Stand Out in a Job Interview, with Lena Sernoff

Listen On:

Are you getting interviews but no offers? Maybe it’s time to change tactics and figure out how to differentiate yourself from other candidates. Find Your Dream Job guest Lena Sernoff says it’s crucial to show what sets you apart. Others may have similar skills, but you have unique passions and experiences. Do your research to discover which of your experiences best speak to the employer’s needs. And get comfortable sharing them by practicing with others or in front of a mirror. 

About Our Guest:

Lena Sernoff is the host of the podcast  Girl, You’re Hired. Her show gives you the interview tips you need to land your dream job.

Resources in This Episode:

  • If you’re ready to learn how to interview like a pro, check out Lena’s podcast, Girl, You’re Hired, wherever you listen to Find Your Dream Job!
  • From our Sponsor: Find Your Dream Job is brought to you by TopResume TopResume has helped more than 400,000 professionals land more interviews and get hired faster. Get a free review of your resume today from one of TopResume’s expert writers. 


Find Your Dream Job, Episode 398:

What Makes You Special: How to Stand Out in a Job Interview, with Lena Sernoff

Airdate: May 10, 2023

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.

I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.

Every Wednesday, I talk to a different expert about the tools you need to get the work you want.

Find Your Dream Job is brought to you by TopResume. TopResume has helped more than 400,000 professionals land more interviews and get hired faster.

Get a free review of your resume today.

Go to macslist.org/topresume.

You’ve been invited to talk to a hiring manager.


Your odds of getting the job have improved.

But you’re still competing against three to five other candidates.

Perhaps even more.

How can you make sure you get the offer?

Lena Sernoff is here to talk about what makes you special and how to stand out in a job interview.

She’s the host of the podcast Girl, You’re Hired.

Her show gives you the interview tips you need to land your dream job.

Previously, Lena worked at Wix, Google, and LinkedIn.

And she joins us from New York City.

Well, let’s jump right into it, Lena. What are common reasons candidates don’t understand what makes them special so that they can stand out in a job interview?

Lena Sernoff:

Yeah, such a great question. Really to dive a little bit further into this question of what makes you special, the reason the interviewer is asking this is because they want to know really what makes you different. It’s another way of saying that.

But where people sometimes fall short is just pulling on and mentioning things that are very, I would say, basic. Meaning like, oh, I’m a very hard worker, or I have x, y, z, skill that just might be the most commonly needed skill in the job description. But what you don’t want to do is you don’t want to go for that low-hanging fruit. You want to go that extra mile.

So, when we’re thinking about what makes you special, this is where you can do a lot of preparation in advance and think about your X factor; think about your unique selling points. And when we can do that, you’re going to be giving them a much more special, unique kind of answer to what they’re really looking for and helping them make it clear that you’re that perfect candidate for them.

Mac Prichard:

You mentioned preparation, Lena. I meet so many candidates, and I expect you do, as well, who think they can wing it in an interview, and even when they’re trying to show what makes them special. What’s your advice there? Is that a good idea?

Lena Sernoff:

I would say winging it is never a great idea. Of course, you want to sound natural and not like you’re reading a script that you’ve memorized. But it’s really good to know yourself like the back of your hand, and you can do that by practicing, even, obviously, listening to podcasts like this and reading blog posts. And that’s all really great things to do.

But, I think the number one best way to practice is to record yourself and listen to it later. And that specifically also comes to understanding really well the job description. And ideally, you can even understand from someone internally working at the company what it is that this company is currently looking for, what their mission is, their values, their challenges.

So, I would say, for preparation, those are all gonna be key, and they’re gonna help you answer that ultimate question of what makes you stand out. What makes you special? And I could talk a little bit more about the job description and how that will help answer what makes you special. But yeah, let me know if that helped answer your question.

Mac Prichard:

It does, and I do want to talk about the job description and how you can use it to prepare your answer to that question, what makes you special, and also stand out in an interview. But, before we get there, Lena, what’s been your experience about what happens in a job interview if you don’t understand what makes you special? What happens in the room if you don’t have that insight?

Lena Sernoff:

I feel that you probably just end up blending in with some of the other candidates, or the other ones will just stand out more. Because, at the end of the day, this is your chance to really point out things that otherwise don’t come up. This is your chance to be creative. They will probably ask you a lot of questions that are very much explicitly making sure you can do the job.

But, they kind of want to know about your character, your personality. What have you experienced in your life that no one else has? Why would you be somebody fun to talk to in the breakroom? Why would you be that cool, excited person that brings passion? And things that just go beyond something that looks good on paper.

And by having this type of answer ready and showing more things, you can really bring more color. You can go from being a black-and-white picture- sure, they can probably do this job, but will they go above and beyond? Will they be someone that will stay and grow at the company? And will they be somebody that’s fun to work with? Those are all things that, ideally, you can kind of help answer, at least give a taste of, in this type of question that you will have to prepare strategically for.

Mac Prichard:

Sometimes we’re our own worst critics, and even when we prepare to answer that question, what makes you special, and we’ve thought about ways that we can stand out in the interview room, we’re not sure what actually happened. What are signs, Lena, in your experience, that you’ve aced the interview and you’ve persuaded the interviewer that you’re special? What are you gonna see or feel when you leave that interview room?

Lena Sernoff:

Really interesting question. I feel that nowadays, because of making sure hiring is done fairly, I’ve understood that hiring managers are more and more told not to mirror smiling or nodding or saying, “Yeah, I agree”, or even saying, “Good answer.” So I think today, just to let listeners know, it’s more difficult to know. But we’re all humans, and at the end of the day, we show emotions; we can pick up on non-verbal cues.

I would say it’d be great to start having things feel like a conversation. That’s how you really know that you did well, is if that person wants to stay in that room a few minutes longer, continue a conversation, talk about something maybe that wasn’t just related to the role or the company. And that shows your skills if you can get that person talking. If you can take some time off of you and get the interests and the point to go back to them and their experience, that’s when you know that they’ve connected with you.

Because us humans, like you had said, it’s natural for us to feel like people care about what we have to say. We love when people listen to us. So if you can make your hiring manager be the one talking and even just kind of going off-topic of the job interview itself, maybe just something more general about their passions, their interests, what got them into the field. That’s always a really good sign.

But, like I said in the beginning of this answer is that, don’t be discouraged if you’re not feeling that, you know, stomach feeling- oh wow, I got the job. Because they’re trying to make sure it’s not making other people at an advantage and giving them more confidence throughout the interview.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, well, let’s talk about how to get ready for that question, what makes you special, and so that you can stand out. You mentioned job descriptions, I want to get there. But I also want to start with one of your tips which is to begin with a personal inventory. What do you have in mind here, Lena? And how is it gonna help?

Lena Sernoff:

Of course, by personal inventory, what I’m really trying to say is for someone to look back and think, from the day I was born all the way til today, what have I done? And sure, some people think, no, my life is boring. I’m just a boring person. But, that is definitely not true.

Think about, which clubs did you join from an early age that really interested you? What major did you choose in college? What did you do? Did you do a summer abroad? Did you take a gap year? Did you go anywhere? Did you participate at certain types of competitions or hackathons? Did you start your own company? Think about like meaning company as a side passion project or a volunteer.

So take a personal inventory of yourself just means, like, what else am I outside of the jobs I’ve had in the past? It’s so easy to always reflect back to your resume and have it in front of you in an interview and just tell them things that they already know. But, to really make yourself stand out and be special, think about what it is that actually makes you special, and it doesn’t have to be something like super extra, extra, extraordinary.

Sometimes, like you said, we undermine ourselves. But, just think about even something as little as going to a slightly different school, maybe it’s a historical women’s college, or maybe you did something really, really cool in one of your projects where you got to travel somewhere and present something abroad, or work in a new field. Those are all small things that bringing up in an interview will show that you stretch yourself or that you have a certain interest in something, or even, further, showing that you’re so passionate about this industry beyond just working in a day-to-day job for it.

Mac Prichard:

What’s your best advice, Lena, for figuring out, after you do that inventory, the two or three things that do indeed make you special? How do you determine that?

Lena Sernoff:

I think that you should be strategic and make sure that you’re aligning the things that make you special with the employer’s interests. So, this is a little bit where the job description comes back in. At the end of the day, your key goal is to get hired for that job, so you should be presenting yourself and the things that make you special in a way that will still authentically mirror the company’s needs.

So, it’s in your best interest to think about the things that make you special that also are really, really good for what the hiring manager is looking for and other people don’t have. So, for instance, if you maybe are in a sales role or an engineer role, or a marketing role, you need to start thinking about what skills is required for someone to be really, really great at this job beyond the minimum or preferred qualifications and start thinking how you might possess those and bringing it up with storytelling.

It’s not enough to just say, oh, and I have this skill. It’s about storytelling and saying, oh, and a time that I really was able to build on this skill or develop this was the time that I went and did x, y, z. Interviewing is about storytelling, so that’s another thing that I really encourage listeners to practice is to really be able to use, maybe the STAR method; the situation, the task, the actions you took, and the results of it, to bring your interview to life. Because people will otherwise start zoning out, tuning out what you’re saying, and that’s not what you want at all in an interview.

So, to stay engaging and to tell the story of what makes you special, use that strategic way to tell stories about yourself and bring the same skills to life that you think that are gonna go beyond what’s on the paper of the job description.

Mac Prichard:

Alright, well, we’re gonna take a break. Lena, this is terrific. When we come back, I want to talk about skills, and I want to get more of your advice about how to show what makes you special and how to stand out in a job interview. Stay with us.

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Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Lena Sernoff.

She’s the host of the podcast Girl, You’re Hired.

Her show gives you the interview tips you need to land your dream job.

Previously, Lena worked at Wix, Google, and LinkedIn.

And she joins us from New York City.

Well, Lena, before the break, we were talking about what makes you special and how to answer that question, what makes you special, and how to stand out in a job interview. You mentioned skills, the importance of talking about your skill set and thinking about it as you prepare for that answer, and think about your plan for standing out in a job interview. What’s the best way to reflect on your skills and highlight them when you’re in that conversation with a hiring manager?

Lena Sernoff:

Yeah, absolutely. So, the best way to highlight your skills, I would say, is by thinking about specific times that you’ve used them and also showing the impact of having used those skills. So, you don’t just want to say, oh, I was building marketing plans. You want to say, I used organizational skills, creativity, and good listening when I met with a client several times, got coaching and feedback from them, went back to the drawing board, and used my skills of passion and hard work to produce a really amazing campaign that they launched, they saw twice as much of the returns they were looking for, and they’re still one of our biggest clients today.

So that was just a little bit of role play that I was improvising on showing that you want to show your skills. But if they’re not brought to life with stories and impact and value, then they just sound like words, and they’re not really as credible and also not so interesting for the hiring manager to listen to. We talked about earlier that storytelling is a crucial skill for successfully landing a job and acing the interview. So, think about what stories you can tell around your skills.

Mac Prichard:

So tell stories. How do you make the strategic choice, Lena, about which skills to highlight? Because everybody has a broad range of skills. How do you figure out which ones are gonna matter to the people that you’re meeting in the interview room so that you do stand out?

Lena Sernoff:

Yeah, I think it would really play in your advantage to have had more than one interview to start understanding and ask questions at the end of those interviews to be more strategic with what you share in your next interview. So, I can give some examples of what I mean.

You talk to the recruiter, and before they set you up with the hiring manager, you can ask the recruiter at the end, what do you think are the key characteristics and skills someone would need to succeed in this role? And write those down, and sometimes they’ll be surprised. They’ll be a little bit more detailed than what’s online on the job description.

Then, let’s say you have a peer interview before you talk to your boss’s boss. Right? Then ask them a little bit more. What’s the biggest challenge your team is facing right now? And maybe that’s, let’s say it’s a blog. They’re writing a blog; oh, we’re having a hard time promoting the blog and advertising it.

Then you go into that hiring manager interview, the most important one, I would say. And you say, you know what’s funny enough? I’m a writer, but I also worked in advertising in the past, and I really feel like this unique skill set will help us promote these blog posts once I join your team.

So, what I’ve done there is I’ve collected information about skills that are gonna be necessary, and if they’re factually true, you can bring them on and make the hiring manager think, wow, that makes you very unique. You have the exact skill set I didn’t even know I was gonna be hiring for because these are like those missing extra above-and-beyond skills that would make you the ideal candidate.

Mac Prichard:

I love your suggestion about doing research and asking the people you’re meeting with about their challenges and their needs. A lot of candidates don’t do that, do they?

Lena Sernoff:

Yeah, it’s definitely something that I’ve used in the past, and I’ve told people that I’ve worked with to do and it works like magic because it goes back to the human trait where we don’t mind people asking us questions. So, at the end of a call, you should use those last five minutes with everyone you speak to along your interview process to get smarter. There’s a reason they say, “Any questions for me?”

My number one advice on that, which I know is a whole ‘nother episode for you, probably. But it should never be something that you can find online. Nothing that you can Google. Nothing that’s already on the job description. It should always be things that are extremely unique and questions that maybe are like, oh wow, that’s a good question. I wonder why she asked that. That’s another way to look unique, another way to be special, another way to stand out, is by asking really good questions at the end.

Mac Prichard:

Another recommendation you have for determining what makes you special so that you can stand out in a job interview is to have conversations with family, partners, and friends to understand that and to ask them directly what makes you special. Why do you recommend doing that, Lena? And how do you suggest taking what you learn and using it in the interview room?

Lena Sernoff:

I think sometimes we don’t see ourselves as others see us, and I think that by having others almost hold up a mirror against you, like holding it up for you, you can really open your eyes and really see truly how amazing you are and give you that extra confidence that you often need before an interview.

I mean, there’s a reason the people that are closest to you can cheer you up on your birthday or if you’re having a bad day. Sometimes it’s someone writes you a sweet card, you’re like, “Oh my God, that’s so sweet. I can’t believe you think those things about me.” But that’s exactly the type of energy that you should fuel on before an interview because you’re exactly showing back to those hiring managers that would be working with you on a regular basis what it is that you bring, and that’s different, and your friends and family, they see so many different people every day, they see their coworkers, they see their neighbors, they see many, many other people.

But if they’re able to tell you, look, I think that you’re an extremely good listener and you are so creative at coming up with ideas if I’m ever stuck in a rut, I call you. You have like fifty solutions, and I thought all day about just finding one way to solve this issue.

So, then you go into your interview, and you’re very confident because someone else told you that. You’re like, yeah, I think my biggest strengths are ideation, and I feel like I’m extremely good at listening, which is key for this type of relationship management role, because you should be listening to the client’s needs and mirroring back to them the type of solution they need to work with us longer term.

So, do you see how those are just two skills that could be very much coming up in your personal life but actually make you a really good professional? And you will sound much more confident talking about them because you will know it’s based on truth. People are scared that interviews are all about kind of BSing your way through, and they’re not comfortable with that. People don’t like upselling themselves. But, if you’ve asked these people around you that you love and trust, you’re just repeating other information, and that will give you a lot more confidence.

Mac Prichard:

How do you analyze the feedback that you get from family, friends, and your partner? What patterns should you look for when they’re sharing their feedback with you?

Lena Sernoff:

Sure, I would look to see if any of the characteristics that they brought up about you, a, you also value about yourself, and b, align with the role. So, maybe it doesn’t help that you are really good at painting because you want to be an engineer. But maybe think about the commonalities of certain characteristics that you think will help you, and also maybe skills that you can showcase in a professional setting.

Because if they say, “Great, can you tell me about a time where you did x, y, z?” Maybe you’ll still have some examples from past roles. So, ideally, it’s something that fits with your character, something that aligns with the role, and something that you have past work experience in. And that would be, in my opinion, the trifecta.

Mac Prichard:

Finally, Lena, one of the steps that you recommend for standing out in a job interview is to know your three-minute biography. What do you mean by a three-minute biography? And why is it important? And how is it gonna help you when you’re talking to interviewers?

Lena Sernoff:

Yeah, I feel like the question, tell me about yourself, is another way to ask what makes you special, in a way. Because tell me about yourself is a question for you to give a really quick summary of everything you’ve done, meaning what you studied, how you got started in your field, maybe you did a career change, so talk quickly about that, and then talk about how you’re qualified for the role.

So, when I say, know your three-minute biography, is mix in there a few things that you think make you really special. Because otherwise, you’re just giving them a laundry list, or you’re just showing them exactly what they had read about you already. So, add some color, add a few things that make you unique.

So, for instance, if it’s another language that you speak, or if it’s some type of other initiative you took on or recently won an award and it just didn’t fit onto your one-page resume, add that into that three-minute bio because that’s gonna keep people listening. It’s gonna make them surprised of learning new things about you, and it’s gonna make you sound very confident that you can just so easily jump in and get them caught up to speed, and the best thing to do is at the very end of that bio is to mention why it is you are here today applying for this job, and why at this company.

That’s the perfect way to end your bio. Because, otherwise, it just stops at the last job, and then it’s like, great. So why are we here now? It has to be, and that lead me to want to seek my next opportunity, which I knew it should be in this field because I’m passionate about it for these reasons, and your company does it best for these reasons. So, I’m so excited to be here today and speaking to you about this role. And then hand it over to them.

Mac Prichard:

Well, it’s been a terrific conversation, Lena. Now, tell us, what’s next for you?

Lena Sernoff:

Yeah, what’s next for me? I am currently studying journalism. I want to go further into communications, podcasting, media, and I am finishing up my Master’s program. And I also am continually growing my podcast, Girl, Your Hired, Job Interview Tips Podcast. So, feel free to tune in. It’s on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and feel free to send me a message on LinkedIn with any ideas for new episodes, or I’m always open to bring on new exciting guests. So, feel free to check me out on LinkedIn.

Mac Prichard:

Well, it’s a terrific show, and I hope listeners do check it out, and I know you also invite listeners to connect with you on LinkedIn, and if they do reach out to you there, I hope they’ll mention that they heard you on Find Your Dream Job.

Now, Lena, given all the great advice you’ve shared today, what’s the one thing you want a listener to remember about how to show what makes you special and stand out in a job interview?

Lena Sernoff:

Yeah, I would say the one thing is to really show that you are passionate and that you have rich experience that’s a little bit different than the norm, and the reason I say passion is because you will essentially be having some of the same skills as everyone else because you should be qualified to do the job, but passion and a few rare things that you did that no one else did is what’s gonna stand you apart. No one is you, and that is your power. That is a famous quote someone once said, and that stuck to me because you just should remember that no one is you, and if you can be confident and build on that, that will bring you super, super far, in my opinion. Because you can train people for missing some skill set, but you can’t change someone’s personality and lack of enthusiasm for a certain job. So, if you can do that, I feel you’ll definitely be hired for that role.

Mac Prichard:

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Next week, our guest will be Mark Allred.

He’s the director of talent development and growth for the recruiting firm Reveal Global Intelligence.

Mark also hosts the Career PROgressions Podcast.

You might believe the best way to start a job search is to apply everywhere.

And do it every day.

Think again, says Mark.

Your first step should be to ask yourself what you want and what you offer.

Join us next Wednesday when Mark Allred and I talk about how a great job search begins with you knowing yourself.

Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.

This show is produced by Mac’s List.

Susan Thornton-Hough schedules our guests and writes our newsletter. Lisa Kislingbury Anderson manages our social media.

Our sound engineer is Matt Fiorillo. Ryan Morrison at Podfly Productions edits the show. Dawn Mole creates our transcripts. And our music is by Freddy Trujillo.

This is Mac Prichard. See you next week.