Spending your college years developing hard skills, particularly technical skills, may seem like a winning strategy for securing postgraduate employment. But according to employers, neglecting soft skills—like communication, self-motivation, and flexibility—can be a serious miscalculation. Many studies have found that employers tend to value soft skills more than job seekers do, and there's often a stark discrepancy between posted job descriptions and the skills listed by job seekers on résumés. The good news for college students is that a slight shift in strategy can boost your soft skills acquisition and give you a competitive edge in the job market. Here's how.
A soft skills strategy
A study from the Society for Human Resource Management found that employers rate soft skills as especially important qualities for the kind of entry-level jobs that recent college graduates take on. Another survey conducted by Business Roundtable reported that 95% of employers find it difficult to attract applicants with soft skills such as leadership, adaptability, integrity, industry knowledge, and customer service. Soft skills can take years to develop, and many, like project management and multitasking, are most easily acquired on the job. So how can students develop the kind of soft skills they’ll need to highlight on a résumé, on a cover letter, or in an interview while they are still in college?
1. Land an internship (or two or more)
The SHRM study cited completing a professional internship as a crucial advantage for entry-level job seekers, primarily because they offer students the opportunity to develop such valued soft skills as dependability, professionalism, information management, and adaptability.
2. Join the conversation
Communication skills such as asking good questions and active listening help drive interpersonal relationships with coworkers and clients. Strengthen these skills by taking part in class discussions and attending your instructors’ office hours.
3. Speak up
Public speaking and communication are highly valued soft skills. Taking on a campus role that includes public speaking, such as a student government leader or tour guide, is one way to develop these skills. Taking a speech communication course—even if it isn’t a required class—can also set you apart from other job applicants.
4. Join a club or intramural team
Extracurricular activities, including service learning experiences and philanthropic projects that require a group endeavor, are great ways to develop teamwork and collaboration skills. Better yet, seek a leadership role in a student activity or volunteer to take charge of a project.
5. Take the initiative
Demonstrate and develop ingenuity and management skills by starting your own student initiative. It might be a club that reflects one of your interests, a project you believe in, or a website or money-making endeavor.
6. Be a role model
Look for roles that include mentorship and high levels of responsibility—for example, a resident assistant (RA), tutor, or teaching assistantship.
7. Achieve outside the classroom
Demonstrate your time management and multitasking skills by maintaining multiple endeavors. Succeeding in the classroom while working part time, freelancing, or completing volunteer work is a sure way to impress future hiring managers.
8. Up your résumé game
Research shows that job seekers tend to underestimate how much hiring managers value soft skills. As a consequence, applicants don't always highlight—or even recognize—all the soft skills they have.
9. Think long term
Many hard skills are job-specific and change quickly as technology advances. In contrast, soft skills become a part of who you are and only increase with time and experience. That means the soft skills you develop today can remain your secret job-seeking weapons for years to come.
How to highlight soft skills on your résumé
Take inventory of all your work, volunteer, and academic experiences. Your part-time job may not be in the field you’ll be entering after graduation, but it might teach the value of costumer focus, one of the most valued soft skills across industry segments. You may not plan to go into politics anytime soon, but your student leadership role proves you have communication and interpersonal skills, two of the most sought-after skill sets cited by employers. In some cases, word choice may be the biggest stumbling block. According to a report by LiveCareer, jobs seekers were likely to refer more often to time management when job descriptions were looking for multitasking. Applicants referred to themselves as team player(s) when employers were looking for teamwork. In addition, some professions that often are not perceived as requiring soft skills in fact do. For example, according to the survey, job descriptions in the field of software development list an average of eight soft skills, as compared to a cross-industry average of five. For job seekers in sectors where they are less expected (for example, in STEM and technical fields), developing soft skills can set you apart from the rest of the pack.
No matter what field you pursue, by taking every opportunity to develop more soft skills—and by recognizing and valuing the ones you already have—you'll give yourself the edge you need to land your first dream job. Best of luck!
Don't think you have enough skills or jobs to put on your résumé? Check out this article on How to Write a Résumé With No Job Experience.