Have you ever described yourself on your resume or in your cover letter as a “hard worker” with a “positive attitude” who is able to “learn quickly?” Let me guess—did your job application seem to disappear into the HR black hole? I can’t say I’m surprised.
Here’s why. While the prevalence of applicant tracking systems, which match up job applications with the skills listed in the job description, has grown, in the end there’s still a human doing the final screening. And humans don’t connect with a series of keywords—they connect with good stories.
In other words, don’t sell yourself short by just throwing in flat, overused words to describe your soft skills. Show them off in a more concrete way, and I guarantee you’ll have more success.
Here’s how to do it—in every aspect of your job search.
In Your Cover Letter
Think of your cover letter as the conversation you would like to have with the hiring manager, but on paper. It’s your best chance (before the interview) to really bring to life what you can do.
As you’re writing, pick two to three of the skills in the job description—say, technical prowess, a knack for taking initiative, and strong communication skills—and think of one or two stories that really highlight them:
As the technical lead for a major client, I not only executed all updates on schedule, but I also took on the responsibility to train and mentor two new employees to get them up to speed for the good of the team. Understanding that this was not a client we could afford to lose, I made sure to stay in close contact with our customer service representatives and made myself available to answer any technical questions to ensure our client felt well attended to.
In Your Resume
Sadly, not all companies read cover letters. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write them, though—it just means you should try to complement your cover letter by showing off those soft skills in your resume.
How? Well, you may have heard the advice to include as many numbers as possible in your resume to illustrate the impact you made or the results you contributed to. This works for soft skills, too! Make sure each bullet point describes a skill the hiring manager is looking for, then use facts and figures to show—not tell—just what a “skilled manager” or “effective communicator” you are.
Developed and independently initiated new mentorship program to alleviate high turnover of new staff members, resulting in the matching of 23 mentor-mentee pairs and a significant reduction in staff turnover.
Managed strict project timeline successfully by coordinating virtual meeting across time zones and presenting findings to over 50 colleagues via teleconference.
In the Interview
Shockingly (or maybe not so shockingly) many interviewers aren’t very good at interviewing. Which means that you might get a few close-ended or vague questions that don’t really let you show off your skills.
But here’s a secret: No matter what you’re asked, you can (and should!) still work an example or two in there. For example, if your interviewer asks you, “How would you define leadership?” instead of “Tell me about a time you demonstrated leadership,” you can start by making a general statement that answers the question and then launch into your story regardless of whether there is an invitation to tell it. Ultimately, your story will likely be more memorable than your philosophy.
I think leadership comes in many forms, but in the end it’s all about a group of people reaching a common goal. For me, I prefer to lead by example. In my most recent project, I was not the formal lead. However, when morale was low due to unforeseen budget cuts, I made sure to not let my outlook be dragged down. I continued to organize informal group gatherings after work and speak optimistically about our project, despite the significant setback. Eventually, this rubbed off on my team members, and we were able to refocus and regain group cohesion. In the long run, we delivered a successful product to our client, and our team left this experience stronger than before.
The next time you see a job description that calls for a “team player” with a “strong work ethic” who is able to “multitask” and “work under pressure,” know that they’re serious, but also that you’re much more likely to be remembered if don’t limit yourself to their vocabulary. Use your stories, your experiences. Because you are so much more than a couple of keywords.