Recently, I spoke with a job seeker from the IT world who asked me about writing up the “skills” section of his resume. It went something like this:
“Jennifer, how do I write up my skills without straight up listing them? I need to find a better way to convey what I’m capable of without boring someone to death.”
Normally this isn’t the part of the resume I get a lot of questions about since it’s feels kind of basic and relatively straightforward (unlike, say, deciding if you should include a summary or how many bullet points under each job), so I asked to see what he was working with.
What I got back was literally two pages of skills. There was no summary, and the work experience section that followed his skills included a job title and one measly bullet that attempted to sum everything up. And the kicker? Most of what he had listed in this lengthy section weren’t even really skills. They were descriptions of his duties—his seemingly never-ending duties. Here’s a small sample of how it read:
- Proficient in Microsoft Word, Excel, and Outlook
- Installation/configuration of network equipment
- Terminating and troubleshooting twisted pair, coax, RJ45, fiber
Don’t get me wrong—what’s here is impressive; however, it’s also overwhelming and unfocused. His problem wasn’t his skills, or even how to list them. This candidate’s issue was failing to clearly demonstrate what he’s got to offer and why he should be hired.
Skills in and of themselves don’t solve problems; it’s what you do with them that makes the difference. Two people can have the exact same education and training but entirely different career paths based on how they implement what they’ve learned.
And let’s not forget that the goal of any resume is to make it abundantly clear what potential problems you can solve for others. If someone happens to have the problem you solve, that’s when you get a call for an interview. The goal is always to answer the unspoken question on hiring managers’ minds: “What can you fix for me?”
So, the key is to make your problem-solving skills clear to others by writing each section of your resume as though it’s a continuous story, not a disjointed narrative. As you know, every good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You can think of your resume sections as chapters that tell what problem(s) you solve (your summary), how you solve it (your skills), and the results you achieve (your work experience bullets).
1. Bucket Your Skills and Pick a Theme: The What
For our IT guy, I was able to identify five buckets that his duties fell into: customer service, data/network management, building management, people management, and training. He wears many hats, all of which are important, so I could see why he was struggling. By bucketing his duties, two things became clear to me: several potential themes exist, and most of his “skills” weren’t skills at all.
The many themes that jumped out at me included problem-solving, informal leadership, troubleshooting, and big-picture thinking. So I asked my next question: What kind of job are you looking for?
He told me he wanted to be promoted into an operations management position that also included leading a team. Knowing this helped me recommend which buckets and potential themes to focus on.
He needed to put his emphasis on big-picture thinking and informal leadership as a way to solve problems. The best operations teams collaborate with many other departments to support the overall goals of the company. Not only did he need to articulate his abilities to his team, but to people outside his own department as well.
His summary section, which begins to hint at his skills, ended up looking like this:
“Network systems and operations professional who uses a combination of informal leadership and extensive knowledge of facilities and hardware management, and structured cabling/connectivity standards to execute complex customer network installation and troubleshooting. I create smoothly running customer data centers that achieve 100% uptime.”
Important note: Not everyone needs a summary, career expert Lily Zhang lays out if you should include one or not.
2. Rewrite Your Skills to Reflect Expertise, Not Previous Duties: The How
After deciding on your theme, you’re ready to write the skills section. Remember that you want it to reflect expertise that supports your theme. Most people will have between five and 10 main skills listed. Sometimes, just writing down software programs or concepts are enough, but many times they’re not. Know your audience.
Regardless of your audience, focusing on strengths that’ll help you stand out is what you want to aim for. For example, as a social media whiz applying for a branding role, you may have a natural inclination to think about how a company can continually strengthen its brand, an obvious part of a “big-picture” theme. Instead of just listing Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, your rewritten skill might look something like this:
- Ability to adapt to changing social media landscapes and new algorithms by regularly developing and enhancing online presence with creative strategies.
That’s a skill that in one sentence puts a hiring manager on notice that you’re not only on top of your field, but that you’re aware of the changes and the need to respond to them fast.
YOU WORKED HARD ON YOUR RESUME
So now you should check out all the companies you can send it to!
3. Show How Your Skills Are Advantageous: The Results
As I mentioned earlier, the IT job seeker had impressive skills, but I didn’t see where he clearly explained the benefits. I understood the gist of the professional history he was trying to paint, but that wasn’t enough. You’ve got to describe the results of your skills in the “Work Experience” section (a.k.a., quantify everything).
Did you cut the customer service email response time in half, resulting in better customer ratings than the closest competitor? Did your forecasting of needs allow your employer to make two new hires that you managed?
Here’s an example of how to deftly explain that a bullet point under a job heading:
- Cut customer service email response time by 50%, leading to increased customer satisfaction and a jump in traffic to site that gave the company a jump on its two biggest competitors
Because most recruiters spend less than six seconds on on your resume, the last thing you want to do is make the reader have to work to figure out your potential value to him or her. Make your skill sets clear and applicable to problems you’re able to solve.
Sure, you may be a complete whiz at MS Office Suite, or various data management programs, but if it’s not a key component you use to solve problems in the workplace, it doesn’t deserve that prime real estate on your resume. If something feels thrown in and you fail to make a connection, you can bet the hiring manager isn’t going to go the extra mile to piece together the puzzle either.
It’s your story to tell, so be sure you’re telling the right one for the job you want.
Photo of man reading over his resume courtesy of Nikada/Getty Images.
Jennifer Little-Fleck, for many years, was a writer trapped in a pharmaceutical rep's body. She wrote her first book in the third grade (Rainbow Brite meets Michael Jackson), and has added online courses to her preferred outlet. She is also the creator of Smart Bold Job Search, which features a Resume QuickStart Course as well as a Resume MasterClass. When she's not testing out new headlines on LinkedIn, she can be found making guacamole, sampling bourbon, and binge-watching sci-fi with her husband after the kids go to bed.More from this Author