How to showcase your soft skills in an interview
Key skills include teamwork, problem-solving and adaptability
Human beings ‘are still going to be needed to interpret data and put nuance on things that computers are not yet able to do’
While university may primarily be seen as a place to secure a third-level qualification, you will also – maybe even unbeknownst to you – have acquired a raft of skills and talents that will be just as important when you go looking for a job.
These are known as “soft skills”, which are those talents that you’re not going to be able to prove you’re proficient in by simply waving a piece of paper at the interview panel across the table.
Most of the experts agree the key ones are things like communication skills, teamwork, problem-solving, creativity, adaptability, critical thinking, leadership and innovation.
Nowadays, when people are more qualified than ever for roles, you need these skills to set you apart from the crowd. “Soft skills are what make you easy to work with and give you the tools to grow in the job,” says GradIreland editor Ruairi Kavanagh.
“All your hard skills like computer skills, numeracy, project management, data analytics and programming are all underpinned by being able to communicate them well or being able to work in a team delivering those skills.”
So, how can you go about showcasing these skills in an interview or on your CV? With examples. “Work experience is vital no matter what it is,” says Kavanagh. “It could be a summer job. Show what you’ve done that demonstrates these skills.
“If you haven’t worked, highlight what you’ve done in college in terms of sports, societies, associations, or anything like that. Taking part in student competitions shows initiative, flexibility and that you want to lead.”
Claire McGee, head of education policy at Ibec, says you should think carefully about your experiences and the things you might not initially have considered advantageous to your career prospects.
“If you participated in an Erasmus programme and went to live abroad for a year, or took part in a work placement programme, make sure you communicate those clearly,” she says. “Try to demonstrate what you learned from that.
“That’s what employers are looking for. How can graduates reflect on something, take feedback on it well, and show that they are interested in learning and trying to grow themselves both professionally and personally.
“Talk about any jobs you have done, whether it be in retail or hospitality sectors. These are all quite important elements to bring. They show you’ve been able to deal with people, perhaps in difficult situations, and in pressurised environments.
“If you are involved in clubs or do volunteer work, that’s incredibly important to bring forward because it shows how you’ve been spending your time outside of academics.”
McGee says soft skills are becoming more and more important, but are also “incredibly difficult to master”. Apart from the obvious ones, she says curiosity about the way things work is a good one to try to demonstrate.
“Large organisations are changing and the jobs of the future haven’t been invented yet,” she says. “Companies love graduates with new ideas and new experiences. Look for ways to highlight how you came up with something new to make things better.
“A strong degree of curiosity is important. Are you interested in people, and finding out more about them and how that relates to you? Also, are you curious about the world and how we all operate within that?
“Regardless of what type of degree you qualified in, it’s using that technical knowledge with these types of skills. If you have a degree in mechanical engineering, how do you couple that with your project management and communication skills?
“That’s really where the sweet spot is. Bringing together your technical knowledge you learned throughout your degree and then marrying that with the more personal, leadership-style qualities.”
Tailoring your skills
Ruth Leonard, senior director at recruitment website Indeed, believes you should tailor the soft skills you list on your CV to the particular role you’re applying for.
“For instance, someone applying for a role as a social worker may want to highlight their empathy and ability to communicate, as those are soft skills crucial to that role,” she says.
Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and automation promise wholesale change across sectors, and the changing needs of the workplace are such that far greater emphasis is now placed on an ability to cultivate a workforce with a significant soft skills capability.
As Mike McDonagh, managing director of Hays Recruitment, puts it, human beings “are still going to be needed to interpret data and put nuance on things that computers are not yet able to do”.
Emma Scott, PwC Ireland people partner, says soft skills are what provide “the human difference” to interactions. “AI may automate some tasks, but it can’t replace the human capabilities needed for so many roles,” she says.
So, is it possible to acquire or work on these skills, given their somewhat abstract nature? Leonard says soft skills are highly valued because “they can be difficult to teach and are often inherent to our personality”.
That being said, it is possible. “For example, you may find that an employer wants someone skilled in conflict resolution,” she says. “While you may not be naturally skilled in that area, there are ways to learn.
“You can begin by researching and reading up on best practice in conflict resolution. Find someone successful in that area and mimic their methods. What kind of language do they use? Do they conduct meetings in person rather than by email?”
Scott believes it is “absolutely possible” to acquire or improve soft skills. “The best way to do this would be through college work,” she says. “Graduates could use college projects to develop and improve their time management and teamwork skills.
“They can also look beyond the education system to their interests and hobbies, whether that is travelling, sport, music or whatever they are passionate about. It is really about looking at how to make the most out of opportunities as they present themselves.”