When you’re trying to keep your resume length down to accommodate that one-page limit, your skills section may seem like a prime contender for the chopping block. You might wonder why you ever included one in the first place. After all, it’s full of information that can be gleaned from other parts of your application, right?
Not so fast! Before you axe your resume skills section to make more space, read on to get the full picture of what you’d be giving up. And once you’re convinced not to scrap it, find out what types of skills you should include on a resume, how you should format a dedicated skills section, and how to figure the right skills for each job application.
Why do I need a skills section?
Overall, your resume skills section gives your application a nice optimization bump for both the human and digital review process. The whole point of keeping your resume concise is to allow a recruiter or hiring manager to figure out the value you could create for the company after just a quick skim.
For certain roles, it can be a nonstarter for a candidate to not have specific skills. You can’t be a ballerina if you don’t know how to dance, obviously, just like you won’t get a front-end developer role if you don’t know HTML.
Outside of these situations, however, the hiring managers I’ve spoken to are looking at the big picture. Monica Orta, a hiring manager at the MIT Media Lab, says the skills section gives her “a sense of the suite of skills a person has—it’s another way to look at their experience and helps paint a fuller picture.” They’re trying to connect the dots, and skills help fill in the gaps a bit.
Another reality of the job application process is the ubiquity of applicant tracking systems (ATS)—software that most employers use to organize and parse candidate resumes. Keyword scanning is one way an ATS flags resumes for closer review, and a skills section, conveniently, can serve as an extra block of relevant keywords.
What do I include in my skills section?
Hiring managers are trying to pull together a story about you, so the first rule is that your skills section should match the experience you’ve written about in your resume.
Here’s what you should include:
Skills relevant to this job
Each job will require different skills to be successful, so each skills section you write will be a bit different as well. But how do you figure out the right combination of skills for a particular job application? Check the answer key!
That is, print out the job description of the role you’re interested in and take a highlighter to it (or copy and paste it into a doc and highlight there), marking any skills you see listed that you have. Then, make sure these skills are listed on your resume. For example, here’s a job description with some of the key skills bolded:
Email Marketing Manager
- Manage email marketing strategy and calendar
- Monitor, analyze, and report on campaign performance
- Improve campaign success through conversion optimization, A/B testing, segmentation, and more
- Collaborate with the design and editorial teams to maintain consistent brand and voice across platforms
- Work cross-functionally with sales, product, product marketing, and data teams
- 3+ years in email marketing
- Experience with content management systems and email service providers such as MailChimp or Constant Contact
- Experience with Google Analytics, HTML, CSS, Photoshop, Microsoft Excel, and SEO a plus
- Excellent oral and written communication skills
- Team player with strong interpersonal, relationship-building, and stakeholder management skills
- Excellent problem solving and time management skills
And here’s a list of skills you might include in your skills section if you were applying to the job:
Conversion optimization, A/B testing, segmentation, MailChimp, Constant Contact, Google Analytics, HTML, CSS, Photoshop, Microsoft Excel, SEO
All of that is just from one job description. Even better, find a few different job postings for the kind of role you’re interested in. Then, start looking for common skills among the different postings. These are the skills you definitely want on your resume—and likely in your skills section.
When crafting your skills section, pay particular attention to skills that the employer is looking for, but haven’t necessarily been part of your daily job. Perhaps you took an online course on how to use InDesign or independently studied web design and HTML for your personal website. These skills will be absent from your experience section, which means the skills section is a great place to highlight them.
Your resume skills section should mainly be reserved for your hard skills. Think programming languages, business or design software, analytics programs, subject-matter expertise, or even carpentry skills—anything that can be taught, defined, and measured.
Hiring managers often consider soft skills (like teamwork, communication, time management, and leadership) to be just as important as hard skills, if not more so. That said, these skills are not often included in a separate skills section since they’re usually intangible and harder to evaluate. While your soft skills are incredibly important, they’re better portrayed (and more believable) if you give them some context. So save your soft skills for resume bullets and your cover letter, where you can tell a story that shows them in action.
Bonus skills that show your passion
You can also add skills that will show how passionate you are about the job. For example, one hiring manager I know in tech finds it interesting and noteworthy to see skills that are kind of esoteric, but still relevant. Functional programming languages in particular always catch his eye. To him, it indicates that the candidate has a keen interest in programming and possibly went out of their way to learn it on their own. That’s a pretty efficient way to show your enthusiasm—listing a juicy, related, but kind-of-obscure skill.
What shouldn’t I include in my skills section?
Here’s what doesn't belong in your skills section:
- Irrelevant skills: Particularly for people who are pivoting to another career, it can be a good branding move to not include the skills you don’t want to use anymore, especially if they’re not relevant or inherently interesting. For example, if you’re an executive assistant who wants to move into diversity and inclusion work, you probably don’t want to list all the flight booking and calendaring tools you’re familiar with. If you must include these skills in your experience section to accurately describe your previous roles, that’s fine, but don’t reiterate them in your skills section.
- Very basic skills: There’s generally no need to put “Microsoft Word” or similar on your resume, unless the job description specifically lists this skill.
- Skills you don’t have: Listing skills on a resume implies you’re confident in your abilities. So you should also leave off anything that you’re still working on or don’t feel comfortable training someone else in (like foreign languages you haven’t spoken since high school).
- Unrelated hobbies: You might be an amazing knitter, but that probably doesn’t belong in your skills section if you’re applying to be a social media manager for a hotel chain. (You can always include these kinds of hobbies under “Interests,” of course.)
How do I write a skills section?
Hopefully, at this point you’ve been convinced to keep your skills section intact and perhaps even to add a couple things you hadn’t thought of before. But how do you best present all this important information in a way that isn’t just a jumble of keywords? That might be okay for an ATS, but no human being wants to read that. So follow these steps:
1. Group your skills.
Sort your skills into reasonable categories, then name each group of skills something appropriate. Think of subheadings as beautiful things that make even the most unruly mess of words look sleek and organized. For example, if you happen to be multilingual, a good subheading for all the languages you speak would be, unsurprisingly, “Languages.” Or if you’re a designer who also codes, label your sections “Design” and “Technical.”
2. Format your skills section so it’s easy to read.
For example, you might put each category on a new line with the subheading in bold at the beginning of the list. Even though this section is short, it still needs to be easy to skim. Bullets and subheadings prompt the reader to start reading again.
3. Decide where to place your skills section.
Generally a skills section lives at the bottom of a resume. It’s meant to reiterate or summarize what the reader learned from your experience section. There are some exceptions though. If you’re a career changer who’s been slowly accumulating the necessary skills for a shift, for example, it might make sense to move this section up to a more prominent spot on your resume—possibly even the top—to create a hybrid, functional, or skills-based resume. If you work in a technical field where hard skills are paramount, you might also want to put your skills section at the top.
Example skills section
Here’s an example of a good skills section for someone who is looking for work as a designer:
Visual Design: InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, After Effects, Premiere, XD, Animate, Lightroom
3D Modeling & 2D Drafting: Rhino, VRay, AutoCAD, Vectorworks, Autodesk Fusion 360
Programming: Grasshopper, Processing, HTML, CSS
Regina Borsellino also contributed writing, reporting, and/or advice to this article.