Studio 29

Candidates - The #1 Thing That Sets You Apart in an Interview by Katie McConnell, CPA, PHR

Posted on 20 August 2017

This article was found on LinkedIn.  Written by Katie McConnell, CPA, PHR - Hiring & Consulting Practice Leader at CliftonLarsonAllen

I get asked all the time about what a candidate can do to stand out. I get frequent requests to review resumes and provide input on how a candidate can make themselves stand out. So much emphasis is placed on a document that is reviewed for a total of maybe five minutes (three minutes by your typical recruiter and maybe another two during the interview process). Of course, the resume is important. It is your roadmap. It tells the story of what you know, where you have come from and allows me to make an initial determination on if I think you could be a fit for the job.

But your time to really shine? The interview.

The Basics

What do I notice during an interview? First, the basics.

Did you show up on time or were you late? Or worse, were you 20 minutes early, putting a monkey wrench in my interview schedule? Did you shake my hand firmly or did you break a few small bones over-doing it or give me the classic “limp fish” maneuver? Did you smell? (Yes, ladies, strong perfume counts as a smell.) Sweat excessively? Did you grind your teeth, pick at your skin, swear or otherwise just creep me out?

These are not opportunities to stand out – they are things to be aware of and not screw up.

Culture and Personality Fit

Outside of the basics, what is the #1 thing that sets you apart as a potential hire?

During the interview, I am looking for culture fit and personality fit. I have conducted a resume review, phone screen and some follow-up correspondence with you. By the interview stage, I have already decided that you have the qualifications for the job. I might ask you a few questions about your background and some specific questions related to the technical nuances of my business, but for the most part, I am going to assume that, at this point, you understand the job duties and you and I have both decided you are capable. Likely, I have also already spoken with your references, or will as the next step.

Your goal is to set yourself apart, and also to use the interview to establish your personality and fit with the company culture – two things that a resume doesn’t tell me.

You can’t force a fit. I cannot say this enough. You do not want to go to work every day for a company that is an awkward fit for your personality and what matters to you. It would be like being forced into a pair of 3-inch heels when you want to be wearing Crocs. If, during the interview, you discover that you are a stiletto in a Birkenstock world, don’t be afraid to say so and part ways mutually.

Set Yourself Apart

How do I gauge if you are a culture and personality fit? Simply, I ask. I ask what you think makes a good fit. I ask what is important to you and what motivates you as a person.

I know you have the tools in your box to do the job, but will you do it with vigor? Are you a balanced person that has aspirations and hopes and dreams beyond the spreadsheets and the paycheck? I have met very few recruiters that chase after the candidate who only wants to fill out forms all day. That candidate is not going to connect with the team or the customers. The candidate that lacks passion and interest for what he does is also not going to stick around in the job very long before he gets bored, uninspired and quits.

How do you set yourself apart with conversation that highlights keys to culture and personality fit?

One word: Passion. Knowing your “why”, and sharing that during the interview.


Think of someone in your life that knows their passion. The first things that come to mind are characteristics like energy, inspiration, phrases like “the time flies”, and a genuine smile.

Seeing your eyes light up about something during the interview shows me that you are a multi-dimensional person and you love what you do. It also sets you apart as someone who has a career, not someone who is looking for a job.

There are many different ways to demonstrate passion during an interview. Let me be clear by saying that I do not expect everyone I interview to be passionate about their day-to-day tasks (who really loves spreadsheets that much?!). That said, chances are, there is an aspect to your career that you are passionate about that really drives you. When you talk about whatever that is, your passion undoubtedly shines through. Maybe you really love helping businesses grow. You really love connecting with people, helping customers or solving problems. Figure out your “why” and let it shine.

Great opportunities to let your passion show are questions like:

“Why do you want this job?”

“Why are you interested in this company?”

“What are your greatest strengths?”

“What do you like to do outside of work?”

What if your primary passion isn’t your work? That is okay!

Anything that shows you have a spark insight of you that can be ignited is a stand-out. If I see that spark, there is always a way it is translated over into your work. These answers also tend to initiate follow-up conversation and connection with the interviewer, which is the BEST way to deliver a positive interview experience. (Disclaimer – if you are interviewing for a professional job and your passion is illegal, not work appropriate or potentially controversial, refrain from sharing. And consider if that company is the right fit.)

Let me give you some quick examples:


Interviewer: “Why do you want this job?”

Candidate: “I am very excited for the opportunity to move into a more customer-centric role where I can add value to other businesses with my skillset. I also know ABC Company is very involved with the community and volunteerism, which is near and dear to my heart as I have also volunteered with X for many years.”

Interviewer: “What do you like to do outside of work?”

Candidate: “I am a long-distance marathon and relay runner. It is a lot of hard work, but the feeling of working hard for something and crossing the finish line is unbeatable. I also love the team aspect of the relays.”


Interviewer: “Why do you want this job?”

Candidate: “My mom made me apply / It is a condition of my parole / It pays a lot and I have gambling debt.”

Interviewer: “What do you like to do outside of work?”

Candidate: “Drink beer / smoke hookah / get tattoos / attend extremist political rallies.”

The take-away here is to be appropriate, inspire conversation and provide answers that are representative of who you are.

The Opportunity to Talk About It

What if you aren’t meeting with an interviewer that asks questions like “what do you like to do for fun” and “what are you passionate about”? How do you insert your passion into the conversation without it coming across out-of-place and boorish (see aforementioned paragraph about not doing things that creep me out)?

If the conversation is free-flowing and you are engaging in a healthy dialogue with the interviewer, your passions generally float to the surface during a half-hour interview. If the interview is a very structured set of questions and you just couldn’t find the chance to slip it in, fear not.

Generally, at the end of every interview, the last question is something to the effect of “do you have any questions?” or “is there anything else we should know?”. This is the perfect time for you to close with a conversation about your passions. Close by saying something like “I really want to thank you for this opportunity. I am so excited about the opportunity to [fill in the blank with what you are super stoked about] here and really look forward to hearing back.” Not ideal, but better than nothing.

The Bottom Line:

Figure out what your passion is (you really should already know, so figure out how to package and deliver it in multiple ways).

If you don’t have a passion, go get one. You need that more than you need a job.

7 Weird Psychological Tricks to Help Nail Your Next Job Interview

1. Wear Business Attire in Neutral Colors

The Balance specifies “business casual” if you’re applying for an entry-level position. If you’re a woman reading this, the most suitable options are a dress or skirt at knee-length or longer, dress slacks, blouse, blazer or sweater, and closed-toe shoes.

If you’re applying for a managerial position, wear “business professional” attire. The dress code for women is a pantsuit or skirt with a tailored blazer and low heels.

Did you know that colors portray certain traits? Base your choice on the image you wish to project. According to, here are the best colors to consider:

  • Blue – Dark shades of blue like navy suggest you’re a team player. A recruiter will view you as calm, stable, and trustworthy.
  • Gray – This color signifies you’re logical, focused, and analytical. It hints of sophistication.
  • Brown – Wearing this color symbolizes you’re dependable, honest, and committed.
  • White – A white blouse or shirt depicts you as organized, accurate, and respectable.
  • Black – Use caution with this color. Since it connotes authority, avoid basing your entire wardrobe on it. 

It’s best to avoid red since it broadcasts passion, aggression, and power. 

Also, you should make sure to employ a minimalist style. By dressing simply, you’ll appear grounded and sensible. Go light on makeup and accessories.

2. Address The Recruiter by Their Name

Can you recall an instance when you first met someone, and they referred to you by name? Didn’t you instantly warm up to them? Subsequently, you probably had more interest in what they were saying. This same approach will work for you. 

After being introduced to the interviewer, immediately repeat their name in your first sentence. You might say, “I appreciate your meeting with me, Mr. or Ms. ________________.” Launching dialogue with this tactic helps you to quickly establish rapport. It starts the evaluation on a sincere and respectful note.

During the meeting, use the interviewer’s name a few times. Also, incorporate it into your parting words when saying good-bye.

3. Mimic The Recruiter’s Mannerisms.

Mirror the hiring manager’s posture, gestures, body language, vocal pitch, and tone. By reflecting their behavior, the similarities establish a bond. This approach puts the interviewer at ease, promoting trust. People feel relaxed with others who are like them.

First, note the recruiter’s communication style. You can tell by their speech whether they’re formal or casual. Also, observe their personality. Do they appear introverted or outgoing? Once you discern their nature, align your expression with theirs. 

For example, if the interviewer clasps their hands together, wait about 30 seconds, and place your hands in your lap. If they lean forward, likewise adjust your posture. Furthermore, echoing their voice tone and volume is another great psychological trick that you can employ in your next job interview.

Bear in mind four caveats:

  • Mirroring doesn’t mean parroting. It’s a subtle reflection. If you’re too much of a chameleon, copying every nuance, you’ll alienate the recruiter. Approximate their behavior, preceded by a pause.
  • Only adopt the positive. For instance, copying a complaining attitude will make you sound negative.
  • Don’t get obsessed. You don’t want to become distracted to the point of losing the thread of conversation.
  • Practice this skill with several people until you’re fluent, rehearsing with family and friends.

4. Remember The Four Concerns All Recruiters Have

Approach the meeting knowing what the interviewer is seeking. This awareness helps you fine-tune replies. Every hiring manager evaluates a candidate with four questions in mind: 

1. Why does this applicant want to work here? 2. Can they do the job? 3. Will they fit our company culture? 4. What qualities set them apart from the rest?

For this purpose, you will need to do extensive research on the company and on the position that you are interested in before the actual interview day. If you were looking to nail an interview at Target, for instance, you should have a clear image on their retail business and prepare suitable answers that showcase your suitability for the job.