There’s no way around it. In your job hunt, your skills matter. They tell potential employers not only what you can do, but also how you can do it and even who you are. All your skills can generally be divided into two main buckets: hard skills and soft skills. And you’ll need both to land your next gig. But what’s the difference? And how do you show employers that you have the skills they’re looking for?
Hard skills vs. soft skills
Hard skills are the skills that come from specific knowledge and are often tied to specific tasks or technologies, such as the mastery of a piece of software, the ability to drive a type of vehicle, or fluency in a foreign language. Hard skills are generally obtained through a combination of education and on-the-job training and are easier to prove you have and to quantify the results of.
Meanwhile, soft skills are less concrete. “Soft skills speak to your temperament, personality, and qualities such as being reliable, resourceful, organized, or professional,” says Muse career coach Emily Liou, founder of Cultivitae. Though you can definitely improve your soft skills, they’re not as easy to teach or learn, and they’re far harder to quantify the results of. Compared to hard skills, you’re less likely to have gained your soft skills through formal education or on-the-job training.
Whether or not you possess a soft skill is also less clear cut. While there are varying levels of expertise in hard skills, when it gets down to it, you either know how to use a POS (point-of-sale) system or you don’t. But the definition of something like “good communicator” can change depending on who’s evaluating it, and it’s more nuanced than a binary yes or no. For example, you might struggle with presentations to large groups but be clear and concise in one-on-one conversation. Or you might be a salesperson who’s great at communicating with clients and people within your team but struggle with explaining what you do to a non-sales colleague.
Some skills are on the border between soft and hard skills depending on how you use them. For example, strong written communication skills can be soft skills if you’re primarily using them to clearly exchange information with coworkers or clients. But writing would be considered a hard skill if it’s a core responsibility of your job as a copywriter, editor, communications manager, or marketer, says Muse career coach Jennifer Smith, founder of Flourish Careers.
What are hard skills?
Hard skills typically include both technical skills like software programs, coding languages, or search engine optimization, and task-oriented skills like forecasting, budgeting, or recruiting, Liou says. For example, if you’re an accountant, tax preparation is a hard skill and so is mastery of Intuit QuickBooks. If you’re a nurse, taking vitals and inserting IVs are hard skills, but so is the ability to use patient charting software. If you work in retail, knowing how to use a cash register is a hard skill. Some hard skills like Salesforce or the ability to analyze data enable you to do a wider set of tasks. The ability to speak a second language is also considered a hard skill.
Hard skills examples
Here are a few examples of hard skills employers might be looking for depending on what position they’re looking to fill:
- Customer relationship management software (such as Salesforce)
- Data analysis
- Data visualization
- Editing and proofreading
- Expense reporting
- Forklift driving
- Google Analytics
- POS systems
- Profit forecasting and prediction
- Search engine optimization (SEO)
- Schedule creation and maintenance
What are soft skills?
Soft skills are traits, qualities, and habits “related to how someone approaches work,” Smith says. Are you adaptable, creative, self-motivated, and/or a good problem solver? A big subset of soft skills is interpersonal skills, or how you relate to the people around you. Are you collaborative, empathetic, and/or a good communicator?
Soft skills examples
Here are a few examples of soft skills employers might be looking for:
- Conflict management
- Critical thinking/problem-solving
- Emotional intelligence and empathy
- Time management
- Work ethic
How to show off soft and hard skills in a job search
All job seekers (and job-havers) must possess both soft and hard skills, but the exact combination you’ll need depends on the specific position and company. Remember, recruiters and hiring managers aren’t looking for someone who can complete tasks or someone they can see working with and spending a lot of time alongside: They’re looking for both.
1. Decide which soft and hard skills to show off.
To figure out which soft and hard skills are most important for a given position, you can start by highlighting any specific skills explicitly mentioned in the job description. Many of the required or suggested qualifications and job duties will describe hard skills, but some employers will ask for “self-starters” or “team players,” say that effective communication is a must, or otherwise indicate they’re looking for any number of soft skills throughout the posting.
But for soft skills, you should also take it a step further and think about what qualities might make you better at doing this job based on the list of duties and the company description. If a job has a people management component, for instance, you’ll want to show off your leadership and communication skills as well as your ability to listen, delegate, and give constructive feedback. Or if a company is a startup or describes itself as a “fast-paced environment,” you might want to show off your adaptability and multitasking.
2. Work your soft and hard skills into your resume.
You should always tailor your resume and cover letter for the specific job you’re applying to—that is, edit your application materials so they show why you’re qualified for this job. So take a look at all the soft and hard skills you noted in the above step.
For your hard skills:
- List any required hard skills in your resume skills section.
- Talk about how you’ve used your hard skills in the bullet points describing your past experiences, including past jobs, volunteer work, and education. Write about what you accomplished with your abilities and quantify your bullet points whenever possible. For example, if you’re in a sales development role and looking to show off your Salesforce, prospecting, cold calling, and lead generation skills, you might say something like: Generated 100+ warm leads monthly through sales prospecting and cold calling and tracked using Salesforce, leading to an average of 30 meetings set per quarter
- List hard skills you gained through a formal education program in your education section, and if you have a relevant certification you should include that as well.
- Consider including especially important skills in a resume summary at the top of the page.
- Use the same phrasing as the job posting when describing your hard skills. Recruiters and hiring managers will often search resumes for important hard skills using an applicant tracking system (ATS), so don’t say “project management software” instead of “Asana” if a job description asks for experience using the latter.
For your soft skills:
- Demonstrate how you’ve used your soft skills through stories and accomplishments. Because soft skills aren’t as tangible, “It’s important to show not tell,” Liou says. Instead of saying, “I’m a strong team player,” describe a specific time when you brought a team together to meet a common goal, Liou says.
- Incorporate your soft skills into the bullet points that describe related achievements. This will often mean you’re showing off your soft and hard skills in the same bullet points. For example, if you’re trying to demonstrate your management, collaboration, organization, and communication skills you might say: Managed six-person cross-functional team from ideation to execution of the “Your Story” digital campaign, assigning tasks in Airtable, communicating among departments, and tracking engagement and sales via Google Analytics and Salesforce, resulting in 20,000+ new Twitter followers and 500 subscriptions
- Incorporate your soft skills into a resume summary or headline.
- Decide if you want to put soft skills in your skills section. Smith says that including soft skills in your resume’s skill section “is a great way to showcase your skills in a way that can match a job description and let the recruiter or hiring manager know you’re perfect for the job.” And though skills sections are more traditionally reserved for hard skills, “If you have space remaining, it doesn’t hurt, as it can help with the applicant tracking system’s keyword matches,” Liou says.
3. Highlight your soft and hard skills in your cover letter.
Don’t call it a day with your resume. Talk about how you’ve used your relevant soft and hard skills in your cover letter too. A cover letter gives you more space to expand on a few key skills and experiences that best qualify you for the job. Just remember to back up any skill you claim to have with concrete examples of how you’ve used said skill and the results you were able to achieve. How well you write your cover letter can also show off your communication skills—whether they’d be a soft or hard skill for the job you want.
4. Showcase your soft and hard skills in a job interview.
Interviews give you an opportunity to show off both your hard and soft skills.
For hard skills:
- Work the most important hard skills for a given job into an elevator pitch you use during networking conversations or as an answer to common interview questions like “What are your greatest strengths?” or more specific questions like “Tell me about your experience using [software/tool],” Smith says.
- Come up with stories you’ll use to answer behavioral questions that highlight your most important hard skills for the role.
- Be ready for technical interviews and skills tests.
For soft skills:
- Choose interview stories that show your soft skills in action, even if you don’t explicitly state what they are. For example, for a question about how you motivate others, Liou suggests saying something like: “At [XYZ company] morale was low due to a huge merger and a mass layoff affecting our department the week before. To lift our spirits, I took the initiative to schedule a team lunch outing and wrote a positive note for each team member to share what I loved about working with them. The recipients found this to be such a great energy booster, it encouraged everyone else on the team to write notes to each individual. Despite the layoffs, our team was able to connect and communicate.”
- Show your soft skills in your behavior. Arrive on time to show punctuality and time management. Answer each email and phone call professionally to show communication skills. Make an effort to get to know the people you interact with to show your interpersonal skills. And so on.
5. Show off your hard and soft skills together.
There are some differences in how you might show off your hard and soft skills in a job search, for sure. But for every stage outlined above, keep in mind that you don’t have to choose between hard and soft skills. Your hard skills help support your soft skills and vice versa, and so you can often describe them simultaneously.
For example, if you’re a financial analyst, your ability to create and analyze profit and loss statements might be a required hard skill, but your attention to detail is a soft skill that makes you even better at it. As a manager, your ability to lead your team to hit goals could be supported by your mastery of a piece of project management software. So any time you want to highlight either a soft or hard skill, think about what other skills you can reference alongside it.
At the end of the day, you need both soft and hard skills to be a well-rounded employee. “For example, a software developer who knows how to code and can communicate across all levels of an organization” will be more effective at their job and more appealing to a company that’s hiring, Smith says. So as you go about your job hunt, make sure you’re demonstrating all the abilities, qualities, and knowledge that make you a great candidate.