If you’re a job seeker trying to get noticed, it’s important to use the right balance of hard and soft skills in your resume and cover letter.
In this article, I’ll share the following:
Soft skills are non-technical skills. They’re abilities that aren’t tied to a specific job or task. Instead, these general skills are transferable between employers and even between industries, and they help you accomplish a variety of tasks in the workplace.
An example of a soft skill is work ethic, whereas an example of a hard skill or technical skill is financial analysis.
The best way to understand soft skills vs. hard skills is to look at some more examples, so let’s do that now…
Imagine you’re in a customer service position at a software company. The hard skills you’d use in this job would include:
Whereas, your soft skills may include:
These are all key soft skills for a customer service representative, but they aren’t tied to a specific task, technology, tool, or employer.
You could completely change industries and you’d still be excellent at listening, deescalating tense situations, communicating clearly, etc. Whereas, your knowledge in the hard skills listed above, such as your specific company’s software or billing system, would no longer be useful to you.
That’s the best way to understand the differences between hard and soft skills.
Now, let’s imagine you’re a student or recent graduate looking for a job without work experience. You can still find plenty of soft skills from your educational background that you can mention to an employer or hiring manager, including:
If you need more examples, the next section includes many more soft skills that you can include in your cover letter and other job search documents.
You can often find the most important soft skills and traits by reading the job description of a position you’re applying to. Companies will often make statements like, “Must be able to self-manage effectively and work as part of a team effort,” which tells you the exact soft skills they value.
In general, most employers will appreciate skills related to work ethic, attitude, and the ability to work well with others. Problem-solving, ability to follow deadlines and instructions, and being detail-oriented are also desirable soft skills.
However, since each employer values different soft skills depending on the role they are hiring for, reading the job description is the best way to identify the right soft skills needed for the jobs you want.
If you’re going to be a cybersecurity analyst and will have almost no need for interpersonal skills, then don’t emphasize those as much.
But, if you’re applying for a sales position and will be interacting with people daily, communication skills, emotional intelligence, and other interpersonal skills are the main type of soft skills to demonstrate in your cover letter and the job interview.
Now that we’ve defined the difference between soft skills and hard skills/technical skills, let’s talk about which type of skills employers value most on your resume.
I’ve worked for years as a recruiter and looked at thousands of resumes and I can tell you without a doubt, employers prefer to see hard skills and technical skills on your resume.
Your resume skills section should contain primarily (or only) hard skills.
When a hiring manager reads your resume, they’re asking themselves, “Does this person have the experience and skills necessary to step into this job and be successful?”
So employers are comparing your background to their specific job duties. They look for job-related skills first and foremost on your resume and they tend to skip over soft skills, personality traits, and general claims like, “hard-working,” “fast-learner,” etc.
Don’t worry, though, because there is still a great place to show off your soft skills, and that’s your cover letter…
Your cover letter is the best place to highlight important soft skills that you want employers to know about. While hiring managers want to see job-related skills on your resume, they’re looking for more on your cover letter.
Your cover letter should never repeat details from your resume and should instead provide an additional layer of information.
And showing off strong soft skills, with examples of how you’ve used them, is a great way to set yourself apart in a cover letter.
Your cover letter is the ideal place to talk about how you were successful in the past due to your strong work ethic, decision-making skills, ability to work under tight deadlines and pressure, etc.
These are all examples of soft skills that transfer to any job/industry and are best highlighted via stories in a cover letter.
Instead of listing a skill like “strong work ethic” as a bullet on your resume, you’re much better off discussing it in detail on your cover letter.
Now, don’t go write a seven-page cover letter highlighting every soft skill you can think of. But look at the employer’s job description, think about their company culture and industry, and ask yourself which types of soft skills seem most important for the role.
Then, highlight a few of your greatest strengths from among the key soft skills you identified.
Whether you’re currently employed or not, you can find opportunities to develop your soft skills to get ahead in your career.
If you’re unemployed and job searching, you can demonstrate that you’re well-organized by creating a job search spreadsheet to track follow-ups, applications, etc.
You can also demonstrate your ability to conduct thorough research by researching a company before your interview and impressing them with your knowledge, perhaps by asking a couple of unique questions in the interview.
And you can demonstrate your communication skills in every interaction with employers, whether responding to emails, scheduling interviews, sending a thank you email after an interview, and more.
If you’re job searching while employed, you can do all of the above and look for opportunities to develop additional soft skills with your existing colleagues in your current role.
Look for problems to solve, and then you’ll be able to discuss your problem-solving skills in future job interviews.
Ask your manager if you can participate in the hiring or training of new team members, and then you can mention those leadership experiences in your cover letters and interviews, too.
There are a variety of soft skills that you can build in the workplace, and the specifics depend on your job. For example, some jobs will offer a chance to build interpersonal skills, while others don’t, but they may offer a chance to practice critical thinking, time management, etc.
There are opportunities to develop or build upon your soft skills in every role if you look for them.
You now know the definition of soft skills, and you have a soft skills list of 70+ items to help you choose the skills that best describe you.
Remember to not only think about how to describe yourself in general, but also focus on highlighting the soft skills that are most relevant to an employer’s job.
Since hiring managers look for different soft skills depending on their role and needs, you always want to think about your skills in the context of an employer’s job description and goals.
This approach will give you an edge over other job seekers and will allow you to point out the key soft skills that prove to an employer that you’re a fit for their role.
Biron Clark is a former Executive Recruiter who has worked with hundreds of job seekers, reviewed thousands of resumes and LinkedIn profiles, and recruited for top venture-backed startups and Fortune 500 companies. He has been advising job seekers since 2012 to think differently in their job search and land high-paying, competitive positions.
Get our free PDF with the top 30 interview questions and answers. Join 10,000+ job seekers in our email newsletter and we'll send you the 30 must-know questions, plus our best insider tips for turning interviews into job offers.