You may have heard the terms “hard skills” and “soft skills” in reference to your resume or CV. So what do these terms mean and why are they important to know about?
Hard skills vs. soft skills
First, let’s talk about definitions. A hard skill is a technical, practical skill, while a soft skill is a little more broad or generic. A hard skill is usually something that can be learned through training or experience. Oftentimes, we’ll use the term “soft skill” to describe a personality trait.
For example, if you’ve been working in Excel for three years, then that would be a hard skill. You spent a lot of time working in the software, which means you have a lot of knowledge about how it works, and when asked to perform a task inside of Excel, you can do so without having to ask questions or do a Google search. You might not have been formally trained on Excel, but over time, you’ve certainly grown more proficient and knowledgeable with it.
On the other hand, getting along well with others and a knack for creative problem solving would be soft skills. While we suppose you could train to get better at these, they’re a lot harder to quantify. Unlike working in Excel, these soft skills can be applied universally. Excel training will make you a better fit in particular industries, whereas creative problem solving will be an asset in just about any industry.
Why are hard skills important?
If you’re putting together a resume, you always want to prioritize hard skills over soft skills. A potential employer is hiring you for your technical knowledge or skillset, not your personality (we could, of course, add a footnote about cultural fit, but that’s a conversation for another time).
The good news is that you can easily turn soft skills into hard skills depending on how you frame them. Creative problem solving, which we mentioned earlier, can be a hard skill if you can apply it practically and give an example. If you used creative problem solving to overcome an obstacle specific to your job, then it becomes a hard skill. For example, “created new filters for our email system, which improved email responsiveness by 15%.” That’s creative problem solving, but now it shows off your ability to use technology to improve your workplace in a tangible way. Now we’re talking hard skills!
Think about it this way: The usefulness of a hard skill will be immediately obvious, while the usefulness of a soft skill will take a little bit of creative thinking to figure out. By including a soft skill on your resume, you’re asking a potential employer to do some creative thinking to imagine how your skills might fit into their workplace. By turning that soft skill into a hard skill, you’re doing that work for them.
What about soft skills?
Now, we don’t want to be misunderstood here; there is real, practical value to soft skills. We keep going back to creative problem solving, so let’s bring it up one more time. If you’re a natural creative problem solver, you’re a valuable asset to any employer. If you can solve problems others can’t, no matter which industry you work in, you’re going to bring something important to your position.
Soft skills are highly valuable. You absolutely want to cultivate them and talk them up in a job interview. However, your resume is designed to be quickly scanned – oftentimes by A.I. – and should give a potential employer an overview of what you would provide as an employee that can be digested in a minute or less.
We hate to dispel any fantasies you’ve been comfortably holding onto, but if a human being does end up looking at your resume, they’re not going to sit down with a cup of coffee and contemplate it like it’s a New York Times crossword puzzle. More likely, they’re going to skim it in 30 seconds or less and then hastily place it one of two piles: yes or no.
So you need to use your resume as a showcase of hard skills. Lay out the facts as plainly as possible, and make those facts as “scannable” as possible. “Three years of Excel experience” is far more scannable than “ability to work with others and minimize conflict.” (As an additional note, mentioning conflict in this bullet point could read as a red flag – a potential employer might focus on the negative here without thinking about how you are saying that you’re not doing that, which should be a positive.)
Hard skills will almost always outperform soft skills when it comes to the effectiveness of your resume.
How do you balance hard skills and soft skills?
With all that said, there are a few benefits to listing soft skills. If you’re just entering a new field, you might not have enough practical skills to fill a resume. In that case, you can use your soft skills as filler. However, make sure those soft skills complement the hard skills you also have on your list.
Further, soft skills are great to talk about in interviews. Again, you want to lay out your hard skills first, but when you can talk through a soft skill, you show some measure of initiative. Remember how we said that turning a soft skill into a hard skill takes some creative thinking? An interview is where you get to show off that creative thinking. Mesmerize your interviewer with a (brief-as-possible) anecdote about how you used your ability to work well with others to overcome a specific obstacle related to your career field. Now that’s impressive!
Your resume is all about wowing a potential employer in as few words as possible. Hard skills are typically easier to scan, and they do a lot more work on a resume than soft skills. That doesn’t mean you need to stop talking about soft skills altogether. By knowing how to differentiate between hard skills and soft skills, then striking a good balance between the two, you’ll be able to write a resume that turns heads.