When job seeking, it’s crucial that you know your unique talents. Does everyone constantly come to you for advice at work? That could mean you have exceptional soft skills where leadership and empathy are concerned. Are you always picked to head engineering projects? That's indicative of expert hard skills in the IT field.
This article defines hard and soft skills for job seekers. It explains the difference between the two, how to leverage them in your resume and job application, and how to demonstrate hard and soft skills to recruiters when answering interview questions.
Hard skills are easy to quantify. They are typically technical skills that require study or practice to master. For example, coding is a hard skill, as is speaking a foreign language, craftsmanship, design, accounting, or statistical modeling.
There are certifications and credentials that demonstrate hard skills. Architects, for example, are licensed through The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. Accountants are required to pass an exam to become Certified Public Accountants.
Here is an example of a hard skills list for the IT industry:
Adobe software suite
User interface design
Storage systems and management
Programming languages—C++, Perl, Python, Java, and Ruby
Soft skills are much harder to quantify and quite nebulous in some ways. In many cases, soft skills can be mastered by practice and work experience, but there aren’t really any certifications or exams for soft skills. Examples of soft skills are leadership, people management, time management, collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking, interpersonal skills, and active listening.
Here’s a list of soft skills that apply to any industry.
Willingness to learn
Some degree of soft skills is required in any job. Even someone who works independently and codes in a closed room must interact with others at some point. They must communicate their progress, present their work, and be part of a development team. Your soft skills can be described as your personality, habits, or behavior in the workplace.
Some job descriptions lean more toward one set of skills than the other. Engineers and scientists require technical expertise while customer-facing roles call for soft, people skills.
At an entry-level position, you are often mastering one skill at a time in a given industry. It might be journal entries in accounting, budgeting, point-of-sales services in retail, or a particular programming language in computer science. Usually, you are given a narrow set of tasks to do as you learn to master each skill set.
As you rise to management level, however, you are relieved of many of these technical tasks as you take on an overall supervisory role. You start to lead and manage others who are now doing the tasks for you.
As a leader, you need soft skills to manage the people doing the tasks. So, if your goal is to become a manager, you will need both a broad technical background in your industry (hard skills), but you will also have to develop the soft skills that you will need to manage projects and people, oversee teamwork, and respond to clients.
Most resumes include a skills section. This is where you highlight the types of skills most relevant to the job you are applying for. It’s up to you to use your judgment on how and which skills to list.
If your specific job is more technical, for example, IT, finance, or accounting, you should list all of your related hard skills first. Then, list your soft skills, but only put one or two that are most relevant. Otherwise, you can clutter your resume with skill sets that are not a priority for this type of technical job.
If the job is a project management or leadership role, you should list your soft skills and any credentials that you need for that role.
Here’s an example of a resume that emphasizes hard skills.
Here’s an example of a resume that emphasizes soft skills.
It’s all very well to list specific skills on a resume. The hard part is demonstrating your expertise in the interview. Interviewers will use various methods, tests, and questions to assess your hard and soft skills.
Hiring companies may administer tests to find out your level of technical or hard skills in areas such as coding, accounting, or language ability. They may ask to see your portfolio. You can accentuate your hard skills by explaining technical projects that you have worked on and asking relevant technical questions when invited.
Soft skills are often assessed through behavioral interview questions. These questions ask you to detail a real-life situation and to explain how you managed that situation. The theory is that how a person has behaved in the past is an indicator of how they will behave in the future.
For example, you might be asked to describe a time when you faced conflict with your manager and explain how you dealt with the situation.
Your behavior during the interview will also be under scrutiny where soft skills are concerned. It’s important to be punctual, maintain eye contact, speak clearly, don’t interrupt, and to actively listen by asking relevant follow-up questions.
The interviewer may use behavioral interview questions to assess both your hard and soft skills.
The best way to structure your answer to this type of question is to use the STAR technique. STAR stands for “Situation,” “Task,” “Action,” and “Result.” First, explain the situation. Next, describe the task that you needed to do and the actions that you took. Lastly, describe the results of your efforts.
Here’s a sample question and answer that demonstrates the STAR technique.
Example answer: My most successful sale was one that benefited the whole sales team as well as the customer. I didn't measure its success based on the financial value of the sale. A customer was not quite on board with a new product we had brought to market because they didn’t really understand it. So, they wouldn’t close the sale (Situation). I knew I needed to educate the customer so that they better understood the product (Task). I came up with a 30-second educational video that better explained the product (Action). That was enough to seal the deal. The sales team members then used videos for all of our other products because it's a quick and efficient way to show how our products could work for them. Sales really took off for the whole team after that (Result).
Each job will require different hard and soft skills in different amounts. It’s crucial that you understand the difference and which are the most important in your context. That way, you can tailor your resume and cover letter to address those skills, and you can better prepare for the interview.
Here are key takeaways and how to address hard and soft skills in your job search.
Hard skills are typically technical skills that require study or practice to master. For example, computer programming, speaking a foreign language, craftsmanship, design, accounting, or statistical modeling.
Soft skills are much harder to quantify and reflect personality traits, emotional intelligence, and approaches to people and environments. Examples of soft skills are leadership, decision-making, being a good communicator, collaborating, problem-solving, critical thinking, and active listening.
When applying for a new job, decide what type of competencies are most important to the hiring manager.
Prioritize the most important skills on your resume. Don’t list them all and clutter your resume.
Think about the skills employers are likely to target and what type of interview questions they might pose.
Prepare answers for the interview process using the STAR technique.