Many job candidates make mistakes when it comes to defining hard and soft skills for their resumes.

Common missteps include listing the wrong skills and not including soft skills that are important to hiring managers. Compound these mistakes with other oversights like failing to organize the resume skills section in a way that highlights your candidacy, and it's easy to see why so many applications end up at the bottom of the pile.

Crafting your resume to sail past the keyword-searching robots (ATS) and fast-scanning hiring managers is the key reason to pay attention to the skills section. Even if your candidacy has the benefit of a personal introduction by an insider, you will still need to stand on your own with a resume that highlights your skills during each phase of your career. If you are ready to take a good look at maximizing the impact of the resume skills section, here is your primer.

Begin by defining our terms

Since hard or technical skills are easiest to define, let us begin there. In general, hard skills deal with your technical knowledge and ability. Bookkeeping, data analysis, programming in a specific language, and hands-on familiarity with employment law are all examples of hard skills. Effective use of hard skills is consistent between companies. In other words, the working knowledge of accounting pronouncements and IRS rules is the same no matter which CPA firm you choose to work for.

Soft skills deal with your emotional intelligence, personal attributes and temperament traits. Conflict de-escalation, communication skills, building relationships and working with cross-functional teams are examples of soft skills. The specifics of applying soft skills for maximum impact vary from company to company because of the broad diversity in cultures, acceptable practices, and personal fit.

There is a common misconception that hard skills are learned from books and soft skills are learned on the job. I disagree with that. In my experience, both hard and soft skills can be learned and refined in a formal setting (educational courses, training seminars, books or instructional videos) and through hands-on practice on the job. I believe that professionals can be naturally talented at both hard and soft skills and that they can improve both by seeking development opportunities and feedback.

Resume skills section: A quick refresher

The resume skills section is typically located towards the top or the bottom of your resume. This is your opportunity to outline key knowledge and experience areas where you have demonstrated proficiency. HR professionals, hiring managers and the ATS all scan this section to quickly determine whether you have the background of a candidate who fits the job description. Get this section right, and you will get past the gatekeepers and win the opportunity to make your case in person.

The first test for making sure your resume makes the cut is by creating alignment between the skills listed on your resume and those required by the job description. Be sure that the alignment is not in spirit alone. Use the employer's language and pay attention to the choice of words so that you can mirror them on your resume. This step is simple if you have a well-written and complete job description as part of the position posting.

If you are not starting from a sufficiently detailed job description, consider reaching out to the employer to request one. While you can use similar job descriptions from other companies to identify patterns and pick up keywords that would make your case more effective, I do not recommend that as a replacement for a missing or inadequate job description. Keep in mind that if a company struggles to provide you with a clear job description, it could be an indication that the company has poorly defined job responsibilities and vague professional standards.

4 questions to ask yourself to maximize the impact of your resume's skills section

With the basic alignment taken care of, here are four additional questions to ask yourself if you want to maximize the impact of the skills featured on your resume.

#1: Are my listed skills up-to-date?

Many of us are guilty of allowing months or even years lapse between resume updates. As a result, I often see candidates leave out recent training, coursework, and projects that could make their candidacy stronger.

You may find that flipping through your calendar is a good way to capture all continuing professional educational classes, seminars and conferences that have advanced your technical skills. If you have presented a technical update at a recent professional event, include that as well.

Sometimes, intense client and personal commitments can keep professionals from investing time in personal development. If you find that you are missing key industry knowledge, use this opportunity to catch up.

#2: Do the skills paint a picture that is uniquely mine?

A complaint that I hear frequently from job seekers is that their resume skills section is too generic. “Anyone from my industry could list those same skills,” they remark. “What good is a skills list if it does not help me stand out?”

That is a fair point. If you are concerned that your listed skills are identical to those of your peers, dig deeper to find a take that is uniquely yours. Perhaps you have worked or volunteered in another industry or country – an experience that equipped you with a perspective and a set of insights that aren't common. Sometimes, cross-functional experiences can allow you to present the same skills in a different light. You might find that soft skills, in particular, can help you round out the presentation.

For example, while most candidates for an accounting manager position have familiarity with the same set of technical guidelines and rules, you may bring in a unique experience because you have helped a company comply with a new regulation in record time. That example can demonstrate your ability to learn technical guidance quickly, manage yourself and others under pressure and identify pivotal change and risk points for maximum impact in the shortest time.

#3: Are the skills on my resume presented in a way that is easy to scan and digest?

A disorganized resume skills section is a major pain point for hiring managers and HR professionals. To make an otherwise long and varied list more user-friendly, consider grouping similar skills together. If the list still seems unwieldy, break it up into sub-sections for hard skills and soft skills. Keep in mind that the resume skills section is only effective if the reader can get the information he or she needs from it.

#4: Can I support key hard and soft skills with stories and examples?

This question goes beyond the resume, although adding some qualifiers to the resume skills section is a good step. If you have wooed four national accounts to join the customer list in the last year, trained 25 interns on the use of the company-specific methodology or presented 10 sales pitches with a 100 percent close rate, numbers and details can add color to an otherwise dry list.

As you prepare for your interviews, make sure you can support every critical hard and soft skill with an example or a story that demonstrates your proficiency and effectiveness.

Which job skills do employers look for that you need examples for? That is a great question. The specific list will vary by industry, but you will have a good starting point if you can highlight the top five skills that trend across several similar position descriptions. Be sure that you have covered both hard and soft skills for a well-rounded presentation.  

Resume hard and soft skills: An art and a science.

While there are best practices and common industry approaches to maximizing your resume skills section, getting the language just right requires a mix of art and science. I recommend that you experiment with different combinations and formats to see if certain words and organizational methods prove more effective than others. Making the cut requires you to both fit in and stand out – a tough balancing act that can be accomplished with some research and practice.

Want to see how your resume stacks up? Try out our free resume critique today!

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