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You may have heard valuable workplace skills grouped into two categories: "hard" and "soft." Just about everyone has a bit from both Column A and Column B.

But what’s the difference between the two categories? And how can you express the value of these skills during the job application process?

What’s the difference?

Hard skills are competencies that can be taught, quantified, and measured. These are the proficiencies you learn in a classroom, a training program, or on the job, such as:

  • Your college degree. A degree at any level signifies you’ve completed certain coursework and passed certain exams.
  • Any additional certifications. Folks in education and healthcare-related fields, for instance, may need extra certifications for certain workplaces.
  • Software programs. Know your way around Microsoft Office Suite? That’s a skill right there. Specialized software programs for tasks like accounting and fundraising also count.
  • Language knowledge. This includes spoken and written languages, sign language, computer coding languages, and more.
  • Completed trainings. Any training that teaches proficiency in a specific area (e.g. food safety, emergency response, or vehicle operation) counts as a hard skill.

Soft skills are traits relating to your interactions with others. While these competencies can be practiced and improved, they can’t be measured in the way hard skills can.

Employers are often on the lookout for candidates with soft skills. Not only are soft skills more difficult to quantify, they’re difficult to teach. Patience, empathy, leadership ability, communication finesse, enthusiasm, active listening, and other soft skills are more likely to emerge and grow naturally as you gain work experience.

Fine-tuning hard skills

The great thing about hard skills is that in most cases their rules remain the same regardless of your work environment. While you may need to make some adjustments, once you have the skill, you can use them anywhere.

These areas of expertise can also be renewed and revitalized as needed. If you want to brush up on a foreign language, look for a group of local speakers. If your Microsoft Excel skills are rusty, an online tutorial might help you out. In fact, any computer-based skill will need a refresher from time to time as technology evolves.

To list hard skills on a resume you’ll have to get pretty specific. Financial competency, for instance, is a trait most nonprofits need for budgets and fundraising. But simply saying you’re "financially competent" runs the risk of being vague. Instead discuss the software programs you’ve mastered and the budgetary problems you’ve solved. Event planning is a similar area of expertise that needs a little specificity for a job application. Think of the event purpose, the venue size, the number of attendees, the role you played … you get the idea.

Determining soft skills

Some hard skills, like degrees and active certifications, can be listed on a resume. Soft skills, however, are best revealed through resume details, the story you tell in your cover letter, and the extra info you offer in an interview.

The full range of soft skills is too extensive to list, but here are some that employers in multiple fields will appreciate:

  • Dependability and follow-through
  • Flexibility
  • Open-mindedness
  • Critical thinking
  • Honesty and integrity
  • Good communication
  • Motivation
  • Vision
  • Work ethic
  • Teamwork
  • Organization and prioritizing

Show, don't tell

But listing these words on a resume doesn’t tell an employer much. To borrow some old-school writing advice: when it comes to soft skills, show, don’t tell.

The best way to talk up your soft skills in a job application is to give examples of when you’ve used them effectively. You don’t even need to use the actual words; let your actions speak for you.

  • Did you train new employees and walk them through the specific lingo of your workplace? That shows both communication and leadership.
  • Did you pull off a project with multiple moving parts, in school or on the job? That demonstrates organization, prioritizing, and patience (and teamwork, if you worked with a team).
  • Have you worked with a range of clients in a direct service position? You probably have flexibility, adaptability, and patience.
  • Have you come up with initiatives, ideas, or projects on your own, whether or not they got off the ground? That’s a good example of vision and motivation.

The interview is another great place to demonstrate soft skills. Showing up on time and being attentive throughout the interview shows you value punctuality and active listening. And if you give thoughtful responses to difficult questions, you’re already proving that you have some core competencies employers need.

Soft skills, just like some hard skills, involve an ongoing learning process. You can always practice and improve your soft skills and develop new ones over time in your career.

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Amy Bergen profile image

Amy Bergen

Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.

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