The hard truth about soft skills

Posted in: Advice, Graduate Jobs, Tips & Hints

Sometimes it seems as though the list of skills and attributes that employers want in their potential employees is getting longer and harder to attain. And, worst of all, it's full of unmeasurable, intangible 'soft skills'. Things like 'interpersonal skills', 'communication', 'team working' and the like.

You may also be sick of reading that the graduates of today are woefully lacking in skills and it is up to today's universities to help students develop such skills. And you have probably been to at least one careers  or placement-related talk where the importance of developing such skills has been mentioned.

I'm sure you get really fed up reading these articles....but think about it. For so many articles to be published along these lines, employers must be seeing something (or not seeing it, maybe).

Not just 'tell them about it'

We Careers Advisers know (we have seen your CVs and spoken to many of you) that you put a lot of effort into accumulating these skills. You play team sports, volunteer, take on leadership roles in societies - so what is going wrong here?

It is easy to fall into the way of thinking that it is your degree that is most important, and certainly employers do highly value your degrees. But when everyone who applies has a 2:1 and 320 UCAS points (becasue that is where the employer has set the bar) then it is only logical to assume that it is the 'extras' that are going to make the difference.

Yes, yes, yes, you may be thinking. We know that's the reason why we have to write the answers to those really annoying and tortuous questions on application forms. And we've done the activity, so we just need to tell them about it and that's the skill demonstrated.

Evidently something is missing in many students' answers, though, for employers to say they just can't see the skill demonstrated clearly enough.

How does it feel?

Here is a little trick that may help make this easier. Of course, you should still use your STAR*, or CAR*, or whichever acronym works for you as a means of evidencing your soft skills (more on that later). But before you do that, take a minute to think about what it feels like to be on the receiving end of that skill, really well demonstrated.

Let's take teamwork as an example. That's one of the skills we find students have a hard time demonstrating well. Leaving aside the overuse of 'we' when they need to be talking about 'I', there is an emphasis on process rather than rationale.

So, how do you know when you have been in a team that works really well? Or seen a team working well? Maybe you saw lots of supportive feedback on performance, or good listening to everyone's input, or letting everyone know what the progress towards the task is. Did that make you feel valued? That your contribution was important?

Then, think about a team experience you have observed or participated in that was not good teamwork. Possibly you saw, or heard, only one person's voice? No idea whether performances were as expected, or not? Tasks being handed out with no attention paid to who might be best at them, or prefer to do them? Then think about how that team felt.

Now, back to the employers' questions. If, in your answer, you only talk about the bare bones of the process and give no 'colour', an employer will not know anything about your approach to teamwork and can't guess at whether you show good or poor teamwork behaviours. So it is very important to tell them!

Include some R&R

I'd like to emphasise the importance of the R (&R) at the end of the STAR/CAR formula - Results (and Reflection). So, when crafting your evidence, reflect on what you learned about, say, the best way to distribute tasks, or to ensure a harmonious team performance. That way, an employer will be sure to see that you have considered the importance of teamwork and know how you will go about ensuring it in your teams in the future.

Run it past us

If you'd like to be certain your answers are hitting the spot, why not book a Quick Query appointment so a Careers Adviser can give you some constructive feedback?


* STAR: Situation - Task - Action - Result; CAR: Context - Action - Result. Common methods for answering competency/behaviour questions - for more detail see our Application, CV and cover letter guide.

Posted in: Advice, Graduate Jobs, Tips & Hints


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