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Developing Soft Skills as a Student or Recent Graduate

Leaning into your soft skills can make you a more attractive job candidate and co-worker.

In most—if not all—jobs, you'll need to utilize a combination of hard skills and soft skills to succeed. Hard skills are specific technical knowledge and training, while soft skills are personality traits that you're most likely born with or acquire through interpersonal interactions.

Hard skills are teachable: learning to code, mastering Microsoft Excel, using a point-of-sale system—these are all examples of hard skills that can be taught through school or on the job.

Soft skills, often called transferable or interpersonal skills, are not so easily acquired. They're skills accumulated over a lifetime—things like empathy, time management, adaptability, and clear communication. Soft skills are not specific to a seniority level, role, or industry, which makes them hard to screen for in a resume or interview. However, they remain imperative to business success.

"You come out of college knowing technical skills, but what makes you stand out to employers are your soft skills," says Di Ann Sanchez, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, and founder of DAS HR Consulting LLC. "What really sets applicants apart are their competencies in things you cannot teach."

The Business Case

According to a 2017 Deloitte briefing, soft-skill intensive occupations are expected to account for two-thirds of all jobs by 2030, and the number of jobs in these occupations is expected to grow at 2.5 times the rate of other jobs. Nicole Belyna, SHRM-SCP, Manager of Talent Acquisition and Inclusion at The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), says organizations such as SHRM are even shifting their talent acquisition mindset to focus more on transferable, harder-to-teach skills.

Why the shift? As more new technologies such as artificial intelligence, automation and robotics alter how we work and replace some jobs altogether, there is less focus on hiring for hard skills. Hard skills can sometimes be automated, whereas soft skills cannot. Hard skills can also be taught, whereas soft skills are generally more innate.

This shift—from less of a focus on hard skills to a greater emphasis on soft skills—means that when you're looking for a job, your soft skills may be your most important qualification. According to a 2022 iCIMS report, when asked what key candidate attributes they look for, HR and recruiting professionals said soft skills are at the top of the list at 49% (hard skills were next at 48%, and previous work or internship experience was desired by 47%).

Employers are increasingly hiring for soft skills, because they realize that building a workforce with strong soft skills can help to reduce turnover. As a college student or entry-level employee, you can improve your attractiveness as a job candidate (and be someone people want to work with!) by identifying and highlighting these abilities on your resume and in your interview.

Common Soft Skills

There are many soft skills that may be required at work, which you can develop over time. Some of the most common include:

  • Empathy. Empathy is the ability to easily understand and share the feelings of your co-workers. Understanding where others are coming from is crucial in both the working world and in everyday life. Having the ability to empathize when your co-worker is passed up for a promotion or your boss is frustrated with client feedback can help make you an excellent co-worker, employee and work friend.
  • Integrity. At its core, having integrity means being honest, doing what's right and taking accountability. If you misquote a finding in a presentation, forget to turn in your expense report, or are caught gossiping about another co-worker, being honest about your mistake or lapse in judgement shows strength of character, and can earn you trust over time.
  • Adaptability. Adaptability at work means you can easily manage changes and roll with the punches. Being adaptable can even make you more productive, since you spend less time stressing about change, and often must be resourceful. The COVID-19 pandemic is a great example of something that made almost everyone display adaptability, given a rapidly changing work landscape.
  • Dependability. Simply put, being dependable means doing what you say you're going to do. Showing up on time, being responsive, taking accountability, meeting deadlines—these are all ways to show you're a dependable employee.
  • Team player. A good team player contributes to and collaborates with their colleagues to complete tasks and meet goals. Listening to your co-workers, offering to help, being positive and celebrating others' successes are vital to being a good team player.
  • Good time manager. Good time-management skills help you accomplish tasks at work, which makes your day-to-day job easier and can even advance your career. Quality time managers are organized, complete tasks on time, set realistic goals and priorities, plan out their time, and delegate effectively. For instance, employees who are successful at managing their time may know to prioritize an important client-facing deliverable over smaller administrative tasks, even if the latter is more time sensitive.
  • Strong communicator. The ability to speak and listen effectively is an essential work skill across all industries. Good communication skills include actively listening, reading body language, knowing when to send an e-mail versus pick up the phone, being concise and clear when you speak, and being able to give and receive feedback.
  • Strong work ethic. Someone with a strong work ethic shows a high level of passion, commitment and professionalism in their work. For example, someone with a strong work ethic may go above and beyond when faced with a task they can't complete—learning a new skill, reaching out to ask questions, or finding a creative work-around to complete the task.
  • Leadership. Having strong leadership skills means you can guide your co-workers to success, whether by inspiring them, motivating them, setting a good example, or by listening and providing advice. Being a good leader early in your career can be as simple as owning up to your mistakes with co-workers, cheering on a teammate after a big presentation, or including everyone in office lunches.

Identifying Your Soft-Skill Strengths and Weaknesses

Hands down, the best way to identify your soft-skill strengths and weaknesses is to ask for feedback. Former managers, internship supervisors, co-workers, friends, classmates, professors, and teammates can all provide valuable feedback, if you accept it constructively.

"In HR, we call that a 360 assessment," says Christy Spilka, Global Head of Talent Acquisition at iCIMS, a talent cloud company which helps employers attract and hire top talent. "It can be done really powerfully in an informal way, where you're just having conversations with peers or people who hold positions you work with and respect."

Sanchez says to make sure you ask for examples or very specific feedback. "I once worked with a student who interned for a public official," she shares. "He got the feedback that he needed to improve his communication skills. But he had no idea what that meant." Sanchez says the student went back to his employer and was able to drill down that his presentation skills specifically needed work. Through coaching, he was able to make improvements and got an amazing recommendation for his future job.

If you're not able to get a lot of feedback or feel like you're not getting honest feedback, another way to get a baseline on your strengths and weaknesses is by taking skills assessments. Enneagram quizzes, the CliftonStrengths test, and evaluations available through your school's career services office can all be beneficial and revealing.

Speaking to Soft Skills When Job Hunting

"On a resume I think it's fairly critical to show your soft skills, even though people tend to leave them out and focus on tangible things they've accomplished," says Alexandra Levit, author of They Don't Teach Corporate in College. "It can be more subtle, for example focusing on results and accomplishments that showcase your ability to get along interpersonally with other people."

Belyna agrees that your resume wording is critical. "Instead of saying, 'Implemented an applicant tracking system,' for example, it might say something like, 'Collaborated cross-functionally to implement an applicant tracking system to better suit the needs of our organization,'" she says. "In that slightly longer sentence, I can hear that you're able to work across teams, you're able to problem solve, you're likely organized—things like that."

By highlighting projects on your resume that may have been successful because you adapted to changing deadlines, utilized your ability to plan and manage your time, or because you stepped up as a leader, you can showcase your soft skills without actually writing them out in a "Soft Skills" section.

Once you land an interview, it's time to really show off. For one, your communication skills will be front and center as you answer questions and interact with the interviewer(s). And you'll have to be adaptable as the interview goes on and you meet with different people, answering different questions and thinking on your feet.

Perhaps the most important way to highlight your soft skills is to speak to your strengths in response to behavioral and situational interview questions. Levit says you should walk into an interview ready to share examples of how you've exhibited common soft skills: thrived as part of a team, adapted to change, showed integrity, etc. "This may require you to sit down beforehand and actually think through examples," she adds.

Often interviewers ask these questions because they want you to open up about skills they can't easily test for—things like empathy, integrity, work ethic and more. Some of these questions may include:

  • Can you tell me about a time you had to deal with a difficult co-worker or classmate?
  • How do you prioritize multiple tasks with the same deadline?
  • What would you do if you disagreed with a co-worker or manager?
  • Can you tell me about a failure you had at school or work, and how you responded?
  • How would you adapt if the scope of a project changed significantly, changing your deliverable?

No matter the behavioral question, Sanchez says, when you're answering your example should talk through the situation, task, how you took accountability, and the results. "What I have found is someone will provide the situation and task, but you rarely hear the action they took and the result," Sanchez says. "That really differentiates an individual and can reveal those soft-skill strengths."

How to Develop Soft Skills

While you can list soft skills on your resume and talk about them in interviews, the true test of soft skills comes when you're hired and on the job. This is when you'll be interacting with others, meeting deadlines and being held accountable for a high level of work productivity—time for all your skills to shine!

Although soft skills are often honed through experience and interactions in school and work, if you'd like to improve or further develop your soft skills right now, there ways to do so. Consider these options:

  • Complete training or attend conferences. While some soft skills can't be learned with a quick training webinar, there are some you can improve upon with educational programs. Skills such as leadership, communication and time management can all be brushed up on through courses, training, or conferences.

    A quick Google search can yield specific educational programs for skills you'd like to improve. University online courses are a great place to start (your own school may have some available), LinkedIn Learning, Coursera, or of course, SHRM's Educational Programs.

  • Learn about cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps you understand how your thoughts influence your behavior and actions. "When we're talking about global personality things or attitudinal things like empathy and integrity, some degree of understanding how your thoughts work is really, really useful," says Levit. You could meet with a therapist or psychologist, take a course at school, or just research and read about the concept online.

  • Improve your office etiquette. Soft skills are often strengthened around the water cooler, not in front of your computer or a customer. A key way to develop interpersonal skills—such as teamwork, integrity, communication and dependability—is to make a conscious effort to improve your interactions with co-workers.

    Knowing how to handle co-worker annoyances, such as a co-worker who converses too loudly on the phone, for example, is a great place to start. According to a SHRM survey, 50% of employees have overlooked annoyances, 32% have personally confronted someone, and 24% have reported upsetting behaviors to a manager. Think about how you're handling co-worker pet peeves and make a plan for how you'll react (in a professional manner) when the time arises.

  • Find a mentor or skill shadow. Whether through a formal or informal mentorship, finding someone who possesses the skills you want and working closely with them to learn can be incredibly productive. "I had somebody who wanted to work on time management and organizational skills, and I paired them with the most organized person I had on the team, maybe the most organized person I've ever worked with," Spilka says. "And that person provided mentorship and worked with them on how to manage their time to get organized. It worked well."

    Sanchez agrees, saying the mentor could even be a peer. "As a professor, I try to buddy up students who can learn from each other," she says. "Somebody who has a problem with interpersonal skills I put with an empathetic person, for example. I'll even give them a problem and have them role-play a solution." You can refine your own behaviors over time by observing and emulating strong examples set by co-workers and managers. SHRM's Mentorship Program can be a great place for students to find and connect with professionals who have inspirational careers and skill sets they wish to learn from.

  • Think outside the office. Soft skills aren't only applied at work—many spill over into our personal lives, and can be strengthened outside the office. If you want to work on something like empathy, for example, volunteering to work with others less fortunate than you can be a great way to shift your mindset and challenge yourself to understand their feelings. Communication or presentation skills could be honed through something like Toastmasters. Participating in a neighborhood kickball team or trivia night, for example, can help strengthen your teamwork skills.

  • Practice, practice, practice. Some skills are simply strengthened with time and routine. Take integrity, for example: When your boss asks if you completed a task, don't sugarcoat or exaggerate what you've done. If you have time management issues, start projects earlier, make your own schedule of smaller, achievable deadlines, or start leaving early so you're not running late. For improving teamwork, volunteer for work committees, ask your co-workers if you can help them, and get to know your co-workers socially.

While developing your soft skills can be a lifelong endeavor, it's critical to your success at work. "When we're hiring, technical skills are almost just kind of check the box," says Belyna. "When we debrief after interviews and review talent, the majority of our conversation really is on those soft skills."

Much of the effort to improve your soft skills starts and ends with you. With discipline, time and hard work, you can hone these important qualities and be a standout job candidate and employee.

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