This article is an addendum to an article discussing how a college degree isn’t enough to impress employers. To compete in the current economy you need differentiators. You need something that makes you stand out from the crowd.
I’ve done some hiring myself. I’ve forgotten most of the people that applied. There are a handful that are hard to forget.
Sometimes they’re hard to forget for bad reasons. They spell stuff wrong. They interview poorly. They make a bit of a fool of themself. You know… stuff we all do sometimes but are still quite embarrassing.
Sometimes they’re hard to forget because they stand out from the crowd.
Throughout the article I tried to stay on point to keep from dashing too far off into the weeds.
In this article, I’m going to wander off and hope I’m not covered in deer ticks by the end of the article.
I’m going to be going over 24 potential differentiators you can use to stand out from the crowd. Take note though, you don’t need all 24 to stand out. In fact, if you attempt to do all of them then you’ll inevitably fail. Focus hard on getting 2 or 3 strong differentiators and then sell those individual points based on the individual employment opportunity.
So… to dig into the weeds:
1. Extraordinary Grades
If you have extraordinary grades then you can impress employers. This should be obvious but it’s not as simple as that.
Extraordinary is not a 3.7 GPA.
Certainly that’s an impressive GPA in many fields. It’s just not going to make you stand out.
An extraordinary GPA is a 4.0 or a 3.9 in a super challenging field. Maybe… Maybe you’ll be a little impressive with a slightly lower GPA in a super challenging field but the impressiveness drops off fast. If you aren’t making a 3.9 then don’t count on your grades making you stand out. Find an alternative.
2. Extraordinary Sports
What do sports have to do with getting a job?
Surprisingly… a lot. This is particularly true if you’re staying local to your college after graduation. If local employers with graduates from your college recognize your name (for good reasons) then you’re instantly differentiated.
At the very least, you may have a good story or two to tell about getting scouted (or actual offers.)
This may seem unrelated to your future employer but it shows commitment. More important, it just kind of makes you cool.
3. Friends In The Industry
Ring Ring Ring Ring Ring
May I have your attention?
This one is important!
If you know people in the industry you’re trying to enter then your college degree becomes dramatically more valuable. You instantly have contacts that can help you get entry level jobs or opportunities.
Employers love hiring people they already know they can count on. If you get a recommendation from a current employee at the company the employer knows two things: 1. You have a positive reputation with at least one person. 2. You will feel guilty screwing the company because your friend vouched for you.
4. Highly Relevant Internship
Experience is big and internships are one of the best ways for the average student to get that experience.
Take note of the words “highly relevant.”
Focus your internship opportunities because many of them aren’t nearly worth the time you put in. You’d be better off reading a book than spending hours a week getting coffee for people in a field that won’t hire you in the future.
5. Experience In The Field
Experience doesn’t have to come from an internship. In fact, it can help if it doesn’t.
Most of your friends will be trying to get internships. If you can get an actual job at a relevant company then you can get your foot in the door. Even basic administrative jobs can give you awesome related experience if you leverage them right.
6. Extraordinary Appearance
I was interviewing for an entry level position when one applicant walked in wearing a suit. He interviewed just okay. There was a ton of debate. Eventually though, he got the job.
The damn suit made it hard to say he wouldn’t put an effort in.
(And that bit us in the ass… but he did get the damn job.)
7. Extraordinary Charisma
This should be obvious but it’s not so easy to implement.
Convince them you’re unique and special and they’ll treat you that way.
8. Insider Knowledge
How well do you understand the field you’re applying into?
If you can toss out some fancy lingo and make it sound natural then everyone will assume you know what you’re talking about. If you toss it in out of context then it may hurt your chances.
Use the terminology and always seek to learn more of it (and not just the stuff they teach you in a textbook.)
9. Unlimited Options/ The Numbers Game
I was hesitant to consider this a differentiator but it is.
One in ten (or one in one-hundred, if you’re like me) interviews you’ll just kill it because it’s the perfect environment. Something will click and you will win big.
One way to ensure this happens is to go crazy with the applications (and try not to sacrifice quality.) Yes… you’ll be rejected repeatedly. Eventually, it will work if you can maintain the quality.
I don’t approve of this method but it can work.
10. Low Expectations
This is another tough to add differentiator but I’ve found it particularly useful for entry level opportunities.
Go into the interview and dramatically undersell your salary.
Tell them you’re willing to work for peanuts and the occasional trip to the zoo to meet the elephants. Sell yourself for cheaper than a high school dropout if you have to.
This is just a get your foot in the door strategy.
Once you have that foot in the door you can impress them. But… once you impress them, make sure you’re willing to ask for a dramatic increase in your current salary. (It’s actually really fun.)
11. Relatable Experience
If you can’t get experience in the field then try to get (or sell your current) experience related to the field.
If you can’t get experience as a nurse then get experience as a hospital administrator. You’ll get used to the paperwork and be able to get fancy in the interview talk.
If you can’t get experience in architecture then get experience swinging a hammer.
These little related experiences can be big selling points.
12. Distinct Personality
This is a tough one to make objective. This could just be my gut leading me astray.
Unique people are instantly differentiated.
If you’re Steve Jobs then you don’t need much to be differentiated. He had the kind of personality that regularly made people around him cry. He was aggressive. This may or may not be a good thing. The important point is that he didn’t fool anyone into thinking he’s boring and normal.
Boring people aren’t differentiated.
Don’t try to polish away your personality.
Sometimes it will hurt you but it will always make you stand out.
13. Connections To Connections
If you can’t have friends in the industry then at least find friends of friends in the industry.
You know… know a guy that knows a guy.
This is a common way to get an interview. It is a little less useful than having friends in the industry but it can give you a slight advantage. (At least you’re not a complete crazy that no one likes or trusts.)
14. Family Ties
Those connections can be family in the industry. Simple enough?
15. Impressive Story
Have you ever overcome any adversity that would have crushed the average mere mortal?
Well… that doesn’t really matter. What matters is if it sounds like you did.
If you can tell an impressive story about your life then you will instantly differentiate yourself. Interviewers will look at your resume and think “this son of gun has kicked some butt in life.”
16. Related Volunteer Work
If you can’t sell your work then you might as well try to give it away.
Internships and employment are ideal but volunteer work can provide similar experience. It can also be a good tool for being braggadocious. It makes you sound like a good person.
(Fun unrelated story, some of the biggest money I’ve ever made was working for a non-profit. Imagine me pompously describing “yes… I work at a non-profit.” What I’m really saying is “kaching!” Oh boy…. This is why I get in trouble.)
If you can’t get job experience then force that work experience through entrepreneurship.
Find a way to start doing what you’re going to be doing before you even graduate. Poke around randomly until you get some great opportunities. You don’t even have to make a profit to make your experience sound impressive.
Working on your own business shows employers that you’re a badass. It shows you can get things done. It also shows your employer that you’ve already got the entrepreneurial bug out of your system. This is good.
18. Leadership Roles
Leadership roles are usually at least a little impressive.
This isn’t the ideal differentiator but it can work when you’re in a pinch.
Lead a club. Lead an organization. Lead your own business. Lead a group of baby ducklings. Leadership is leadership.
If you can show your employer that you know how to get people to work for you then you’re at a big advantage. At the very least, it shows you know how not to get hated by everyone and thrown on your butt.
An award is proof that someone actually thinks you’re good at something.
No… dean’s list doesn’t count. Countless students make that. I’m talking about seriously exclusive (or exclusive sounding) awards.
Plop it on your resume and be prepared to discuss how impressive your accomplishment was while still sounding humble.
An award is usually better but if you don’t get awarded then at least have a specific accomplishment.
What have you done that not everyone can do? Ideally, make it about the job you’re applying for.
This is another one of those sneak your foot in the door tools.
How similar are you to the other people in your field?
If you’re applying for a programming job but have never played a videogame then you might just be at a distinct disadvantage. (I didn’t check the demographics on this one. It’s just a guess based on experience.)
When people see people similar to them they’re more likely to like them.
Is this powerful? Yes.
Is this as good as most opportunities in this least? No.
It is valuable though.
22. Killer Portfolio
Don’t explain achievements when you can show achievements.
An award is one way to show an achievement. Another way is with a pretty portfolio to show off to potential employers.
When they start asking about what you’ve done you can just pull it out and show them.
The proof is in the portfolio… but if you don’t have that…
I hope you get this point by now…
Every applicant says they’re the belle of the ball. Everyone thinks they’re hard-working self-starters. This means nothing.
Proof means something.
How can you prove that you’re not just a tool smooth talking them? If they have any doubt about you then you’re not going to be easy for them to hire. When you can show proof you become the guy or gal they’re wondering if they can afford.
24. Any Leg Up
Okay… this is a broad one but I think it’s worth mentioning.
Anything can be a differentiator if you use it right.
The key is to look at what the company needs and fill that gap.
Are you a veteran? That’s a leg up. Mention it and milk it. (Government contracts often go to companies with veterans.)
If you have a leg up (or even a leg down) then find the right opportunities to use it.
CAUTION! Don’t Let This Happen To You
This is an absolutely essential read for anyone on this blog.
R. is a college graduate that I know. He went to one of the best colleges in his field. He worked hard. He scored high. He did everything he was supposed to do…
He’s a smart guy.
Now R. has the degree… but not much else except tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt.
He lives at home with his parents barely able to get by paying his loans off… He blew it because he wasn’t ready despite the high scores.
It can give you the fast-track in life…
But it’s not everything.
You need more than just good scores. You need:
- Efficient learning strategies (you can use through life)
- High-scoring testing strategies (to prove you know your stuff)
- Pareto-esque prioritization systems (to use your time better)
- An enjoyable life WHILE learning and scoring high (because if it’s not enjoyable, you won’t keep doing it.)
Welcome to Smart Student Secrets. I’m Aaron.
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