One of your resume’s main functions is to show off your skills. Modern resumes need to include the right skills to quickly prove to a hiring manager–and an applicant tracking system–that you are worth contacting. Adding a skills section is a good start, but there are other tricks to getting your resume’s skills noticed.
By skills, we mean the technical and interpersonal abilities you need to thrive as a candidate. You’re a talented and qualified applicant—how do you choose the best skills to put on your resume?
Zipjob has a proven system to identify the skills you need to put on your resume, developed by our team of resume experts, professional writers, and Fortune 500 hiring managers. We blend strategy with applicant tracking system hacks to ensure your resume gets noticed.
“Having the right combination of skills is key to passing the ATS scans,” says hiring expert Jennifer Johnson, Zipjob’s Operations Manager.
“You need to showcase the skills that are most relevant to the job you are applying for. Deciding which skills to list is important; don’t list everything you’ve done, but rather what you’ve done that positions you for where you want to go.”
In this guide, we’ll share the top 10 skills hiring managers are looking for, where you should put those skills on your resume, and how to optimize your skills to work harder for you.
After we explain the general best practices, Jennifer shares her top 3 best strategies to leverage your skills to land interviews—even when your skills don’t match the job description. Ready to get started?
The 10 most important skills to put on your resume
- Knowledge of specific computer applications
- Applicable certificates or degrees
- Graphic design ability
- Computer programming, web, or software development
- Foreign language proficiency
- Problem solving / creativity
- Time management
- Leadership skills
These 10 items are the most in-demand skills in 2020, according to our team of experienced hiring managers. Here is an example of what skills a V.P. of Finance might want to include on a resume:
Your first step to identifying the right skills to put on your resume will follow the same process. We have more information and more examples of each skill further down on the page, but first we need to tell you why skills are the most valuable words on your resume.
Why skills are so important on your resume
Nearly all companies use applicant tracking systems to filter through resumes. These systems scan through resumes to look for specific keywords, such as certain skills necessary for the job.
The ATS scan summarizes what your skills are based on the keywords you chose. If the skills section of your resume doesn’t exactly match the job description, your resume may be rejected before it ever reaches a human.
Example of an ATS skills report
Depending on the program, the ATS scan also gives weight to your core skills. Based on the words you use and the frequency of each, the computer generates a report that briefly explains to the employer how skilled you are. The screenshot below was pulled from an ATS scan for one of our clients.
You’ll see our ATS pulled information about computer systems (including Microsoft Office—more on that later!), foreign language proficiency, and problem solving skills in addition to the industry (Information Technology) and the core skill (data mining).
This information was generated from a resume submission, as opposed to a Zipjob professionally written resume, so other IT-related computer programs, degrees, and so on were not optimized for the ATS. We’ll talk about how to optimize your resume for ATS scans next.
How to make your skills jump out in the ATS scan
“Your skills section should be front and center, easy for both the hiring manager and the ATS program to scan quickly,” says Jennifer.
To find the exact words they’re looking for, refer to the job description. For more information on identifying keywords, refer to our guide on how to write a resume summary.
The better your resume skills match the keywords, the better your chances are to pass the ATS scan and reach the hiring manager’s hands.
Types of skills and where to place them on your resume
In the resume writing world, there are two types of skills: hard skills and soft skills. The main difference is that hard skills are objective and soft skills are subjective.
This difference is important.
“The best resumes contain a strong combination of both hard and soft skills. The hiring manager needs to know that not only can you do the job well but that your personality will be a good fit,” says Jennifer.
“You want to make it easy for the hiring manager to find your qualifications. Your resume should have a ‘Core Competencies’ section where you can list your hard skills and tailor them for the specific job you are applying to. Then, you want to integrate your soft skills throughout the Summary and Work Experience sections.”
To better explain this, let’s split up our list of the 10 most important skills into hard skills and soft skills. This time, we’ll talk about why each skill is important and how you should include it on your resume.
Hard skills don’t refer to difficult skills or areas of expertise: they’re the objective technical skills needed to do the job a company is hiring for. From the list above, the first five are hard skills.
1. Knowledge of specific computer applications
Hard skills include technical skills such as computer applications, software, and overall digital literacy. Even if you’re not applying for a job in IT, you should include the computer programs you’re familiar with in your resume skills section.
“Listing your exposure to virtual tools like Slack, Hootsuite, or Asana shows that you’re tech-savvy,” says Caitlin Proctor, Zipjob’s Marketing Manager.
“Being tech-savvy has all kinds of good connotations like being smart, adaptable, and up to date. Plus, if the company uses any of these tools, they won’t have to spend as much time training you and that means they’ve saved money.”
Choose your computer-related strengths and place them in a resume skills section. If you’re short on program and software knowledge, consider adding other computer skills like your words per minute rate.
In general, you shouldn’t include Microsoft Office on a resume. At this point, it’s expected that office workers know how to use word processors. However, if you’re heavily experienced in Microsoft Excel, you can mention your skills in the relevant experience section by explaining how you used it. Better yet, include some numbers to illustrate your point.
Example of using numbers to showcase skills in your experience section:
- Implemented inventory management system using Microsoft Excel to track shipments and deliveries, saving an estimated 3 hours and $250 per week previously spent on redundant orders.
2. Applicable certificates or degrees
If you earned a certificate or degree, that hard skill has (probably!) earned a place on your resume. Even if your degree is in a different field from the one you currently work in, your education shows that you are hard-working and committed. You should put these types of hard skills in a section titled ‘Education’ or ‘Education and Certifications.’
When the job description includes certifications or degrees as a requirement, be sure to include them on your resume. If you don’t meet these requirements, you may want to hold off applying for this type of job until you have earned them.
Notice that this item says ‘applicable,’ though: there are cases when your education might not help your resume, such as in these examples:
- An expired realtor’s license from 15 years ago is not going to help you become the next technical writer for toaster ovens. You can safely leave that out of your skills section.
- Your high school diploma is implied if you hold an associate, bachelor, or other higher degree. Save the space for another skill.
- Multiple certifications on similar topics might make your resume look cluttered. Pick your top three based on issuing entity, recency, or preference and add the other ones to your LinkedIn.
If you don’t have the training or experience an employer wants, you can always learn a new hard skill! Unlike soft skills, which are mostly innate, hard skills can be acquired and improved all the time.
“Check out online skill-building sites,” suggests Caitlin. “Many are free or a small fee per month, and you can gain skills or industry-recognized certifications.”
3. Graphic design skills
Graphic design is one of the most in-demand skills. If you have experience with graphic design programs like Photoshop or InDesign, this will appeal to most employers.
“Graphic design skills are important when competing in today’s market,” says Jennifer.
“It is a unique skill that conveys both technical acumen and creativity. If I have two candidates that are equally qualified for the job, I will call the one with graphic design experience first.”
To give the skill the maximum impact, include a link to a digital portfolio. While this is common for writer and artist resumes, an engineer who has a graphic design portfolio is surprising and unique. When a hiring manager sees a link, they’re going to want to click it to learn more about a qualified candidate.
“My favorite digital portfolio options for artists are a personal site or a dedicated (public) Instagram profile. If you’re looking to connect with other graphic designers, Instagram doubles as a networking site so you can find fresh inspiration and connections,” says Caitlin.
4. Computer programming, web, or software development
Tip: If you’re in an industry that involves more than 10 of these highly technical skills, look at this article on how to list technical skills on a resume—it involves a special technical skills section.
On top of the practical need for developers at nearly every business, programming skills demonstrate advanced problem-solving skills that can contribute to a well-rounded professional. Even if the position your applying for doesn’t specifically require programming skills, it can benefit you greatly to include it on your resume if you have developed these skills.
5. Foreign language proficiency
Knowing multiple languages ranges from helpful to essential for client-facing roles. Being bilingual also demonstrates intelligence. If you are fluent or proficient in another language, you should always mention it on your resume! You can include your level of proficiency in the final sentence of your resume summary, or you can list multiple languages in a skills section.
If knowing another language is a job requirement, be sure to list your skill prominently. Consider reinforcing your skill by listing relevant classes in your education section or noting a situation you used the language in a recent position.
Example of including language skills in your experience section:
- Translated 2000 word article from French to English for a client in the digital health industry
To summarize, hard skills refer to knowledge or ability in specific areas. They can be proven through demonstration of ability and can be easily quantified. Hard skills are usually the more important skills to highlight on your resume because they can be vital to the job function.
Soft skills are more open to interpretation than hard skills, so you need to work harder to demonstrate these skills on your resume (there are some great examples on this US News piece). Because soft skills are often people skills, hiring managers are always on the lookout for them. Soft skills can make or break your candidacy, and are especially important if you’re applying for highly-nuanced, creative roles in marketing, advertising, or customer service.
Continuing down the list of top skills, the remaining five skills are soft skills.
6. Problem solving / creativity
Problem solving skills show an ability to approach difficult situations and work through them. This is something that nearly every employer wants in an employee. Similarly, creativity shows you’re an adaptable applicant with a mind for design.
Unlike hard skills, you shouldn’t list soft skills in a skills section unless you are new to the job market.
Instead, you should match your soft skills with examples or descriptive adjectives and include them in your work experience section. To demonstrate your problem solving and creativity skills, you can use the STAR method: situation, task, action, result.
Describe the situation, the task you were faced with, the action you took, and the (positive) result.
This skill is a must-have for nearly every resume because communication or interpersonal skills are listed on virtually all job descriptions. Define your specific communication strengths.
“Think about how you communicate and how it advances your professional success. For example, don’t just list ‘negotiation’ as a skill. Add an adjective/descriptor that demonstrates how you negotiate. Say something like ‘Persuasive Negotiator’ or ‘Strategic Negotiator.’ The right adjective can set you apart as an achiever vs. a doer,” suggests Jennifer.
Your communication skills should ideally be listed in terms of how they helped you achieve something. If you are a ‘persuasive negotiator,’ it’s far more persuasive to include the results of your skill, preferably using numbers.
- Reduced price of green coffee by $1.29 per pound (-36%) by leveraging negotiation and interpersonal skills
For more information, read our post about how to list communication skills on a resume.
8. Time management
Time management is essential for any applicant with multiple tasks to manage. It comes down to a matter of organization, and proving you can be effective with competing priorities.
Include this skill with specific examples under work experience. This skill is often related to other organizational skills you should include on your resume such as the ability to meet deadlines, collaborate with a team, and delegate assignments.
Teamwork is an indicator of emotional intelligence, an increasingly valuable skill that many companies are focusing their hiring efforts on. As teams are becoming more diverse, leading a team is more about emotional intelligence than technical skill.
Show your teamwork skills by mentioning a shared achievement in your work experience, or include an example of your teamwork prowess in your resume summary. Don’t list it in your skills or core competencies section.
10. Leadership skills
Are you applying for a supervisory position? Don’t forget to include leadership skills on your resume. Leadership skills on a resume demonstrate professional flexibility and growth potential, which is beneficial regardless of the position. It’s not essential, but if you can think of a good example in which you’ve applied solid decision making and leadership skills, put it on your resume.
This is especially relevant if you have significant project management experience, which combines several soft skills such as interpersonal communication and time management. For example, leading a marketing campaign requires people skills throughout the project’s lifecycle from delegating tasks to public speaking when it comes time to present work to a client.
To summarize, soft skills such as problem solving or creativity, communication, time management, teamwork, and leadership definitely belong on your resume, but not in your skills section. They have the most impact when coupled with examples, metrics, and results. When chosen carefully, your soft skills will show that you are a skilled applicant and a good fit for the company.
Jennifer’s advice: “Don’t forget to include your soft skills on your resume! Most hiring managers today are more selective than ever before because they understand how the right culture and work atmosphere can impact productivity and employee retention rates. They don’t want to just know that you can do the job – they want to know you will fit in with their organization. A solid combination of soft and hard skills will help land you the interview.”
How to organize your skills section
Once you’ve identified which skills should be featured in your skills section, you can hone in on how to organize the content.
First, you want to title the section as ‘Skills,’ ‘Core Competencies,’ or something similarly recognizable.
“The section headings should be very straightforward,” warns Jennifer.
“Most ATS systems are programmed to understand basic section headings i.e. ‘Work Experience, Education, etc.’ If you get too creative with the headings it can confuse the ATS scans and skew your results. When it comes to your skills, I like to use ‘Core Competencies’ or ‘Core Proficiencies’.”
The order matters
It is good practice to order your skills strategically, as well as group related skills together. You don’t have to label different categories. Simply grouping your related skills together will make them easier to sort through.
The wrong way to list skills:
- Fluent in Spanish
- Proficient in German
The right way to list skills:
- Fluent in Spanish
- Proficient in German
See how much easier it is to read through the second list? While this won’t help you with an ATS scan, it will help the hiring manager. Keep it visually balanced and intuitive.
The format matters
You can set the information apart visually by adding a line or even a border, but avoid using a text box or table. Not all systems are capable of reading these features yet, and your skills section is too important to risk losing.
Your skills section should be very clean and easy to read. You don’t want it to look cluttered, so being selective is key. Use bullet points to keep your skills lined up, or try one of the other formats below.
Examples of good skills sections
1. The bullet point
This list includes both soft skills and hard skills, so we’ve relabeled it “Core Competencies.” Bulleted lists like these should be lined up. Limit yourself to 9 to 12 points so it doesn’t look cluttered.
2. The vertical bar
In this example, the skills are more detailed and complex. Since each skill takes up a different amount of space, a bullet point list would look messy and uneven. Instead, you can use a vertical bar key to separate each core proficiency. With this method, limit yourself to two or three lines of text to focus on the most essential of your proficiencies.
3. The symbol
By using bullet-type symbols, this list keeps each skill visually distinct. Some of the skills take up less space than others, but none of the items are too lengthy as in the vertical bar example. Again, limit yourself to two or three lines of texts for this method.
Notice that in each example, the section is clearly labeled, the bullet points are all lined up, the capitalization is consistent, and the section is not packed full of related keywords.
How to stand out from the applicant pool: 3 tricks
1. Quantify your skills whenever possible
Saying you are a ‘60 word per minute typist’ has far more impact than a ‘fast typist.’
“Measurables are incredibly valuable to your resume; anything with numbers, percentages, or dollar signs immediately draws the reader’s eye and gives tangible examples of how you made a difference,” says Jennifer.
2. Make sure your resume has a clear message
The hiring manager should know exactly who you are as a professional and what your goals are. Having too much information can confuse the hiring manager about your goals and can frankly cause them to lose interest in reading your resume.
“Do not approach your resume with the mindset that you have to include everything you’ve ever done in your career,” Jennifer advises.
“The hiring manager needs tangible proof that you are qualified for the job they are seeking to fill. For example, if you are applying for a senior-level executive position, it is not relevant to the hiring manager that you worked as a Customer Service Associate in Retail while in college. Eliminate experiences that are not applicable to your goal, and do not exceed a 2-page document length.”
3. Tailor, tailor, tailor
You should always think of your resume as a living, working document. Always read the job descriptions to understand what the hiring manager is looking for. Review your resume to make sure it aligns correctly.
The hiring manager should not have to dig through your resume to see if you are qualified. Your relevant skills should be front and center. The best places to tailor your resume is in the title, subtitle (if applicable), the Summary, and the ‘Core Proficiencies’ sections.
“Hiring managers can tell when someone has customized their resume to match the job description,” warns Jennifer.
“Hiring managers are inundated with resumes each time they open a job, allowing them to be picky when choosing candidates. That ten minutes you spend tailoring your resume to the job description can make all the difference between getting a phone call for an interview vs. getting a ‘thanks but no thanks’ automated email response.”
Here is a list of skills not to include on a resume so you don’t stand out in a negative way.
How to write a skills section when your skills don’t match the job description
During your job search, you’re probably going to come across a job that looks perfect for your goals. Unfortunately, the employer asks for skills that you don’t have. What should you do?
First, determine whether the skills are hard skills or soft skills. If a job requires specific technical skills to be successful and you don’t have them, you shouldn’t apply. You wouldn’t do well in this position, and this is exactly the type of qualification that ATS scans are designed to filter out. You should spend your time on other job applications or learning those skills instead.
When you’re lacking soft skills, you can try to leverage similar experiences or transferable skills. You might not have experience managing a department, but you may have managed a project. Include that on your resume instead. If you’re not experienced at public speaking, mention your experience leading a meeting or being interviewed for a podcast instead. Do your best to relate the soft skills you have to the work experience you lack.
Keep in mind that some jobs have requirements (generally hard skills) that an employer won’t budge on. It is important to include every single one of these requirements in your resume’s skills section. Identify these skills in the job description with the markers ‘requirements’ or ‘basic qualifications.’ In shorter job descriptions, you may have to infer which desired skills are the core requirements of the job.
“Check online tools like PayScale.com or ONetOnline.org to do more industry research,” suggests Caitlin. “When you see overlap between the general job duties and the specific job description, those are the most important skills to include on your resume.”
Your skills should be included in a skills section and in the other sections of your resume. These words and phrases are your most effective tools to pass an ATS scan. Remember to use keywords from the job description. Incorporate numbers when you can. Be specific, and be honest.
Once your resume passes from the scan to the hiring manager, all your words, metrics, and examples will demonstrate your worth will help you land more interviews.
Good luck with your job search!