How to Guides Resumes & Cover Letters

The Ultimate Resume Guide for Every Job Seeker

Written by Kate Lopaze

Remember that old song by Destiny’s Child, “Skills, Skills, Skills”? Oh, wait, that was “Bills, Bills, Bills.” Still, you can still use that old tune to remind you that skills are the beating heart of your resume. Work experience and your network are essential to get you to the next step, as is a solid interview performance, but skills are what get you hired. Think of them as a kind of currency: you collect them along the way, and trade them to employers in exchange for experience and more skills to add to your wealth. They’re also something that affects every level of job seeker, from the least-experienced folks just starting out to those who have many years in the trenches and are looking for a new job. No matter who you are, you can always find new and better ways to build and showcase your skills to take advantage of new opportunities.

1. Which Skills Belong On Your Resume?
2. The Newbie Applicant
3. The Changing Careers Applicant
4. The Paused Career Applicant
5. The Promotion Seeker

via Imgur

Which Skills Belong On Your Resume?


“Skills” can seem like an abstract concept. We hear about social skills, communication skills, job skills, sports skills. On the most basic level, skills answer the question, “What am I good at doing?” or “What are my competencies?” In the context of the resume, we get more selective and focus almost entirely on the types of skill areas that help you do your job:

  • Communication skills: How you convey needs and results to colleagues or clients, or how you present yourself in writing and in person
  • Problem solving skills: How you approach challenges in the workplace
  • Organization skills: How you structure your tasks, and set up the resources you need to do them
  • Technical skills: How you use tools (like specific equipment, programs, or processes) to do your job
  • Interpersonal skills: How you interact with bosses, colleagues, team members

Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills

“Hard” skills are those that are easily quantifiable, and can be learned formally. Some examples:

  • Software training or competency (like Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Office, InDesign, SalesTracker)
  • Program certifications
  • Computer programming
  • Foreign language fluency
  • Typing (words per minute)

Hard skills are important because they show immediately what you can do. If you have training in Photoshop or other photo editing software, that tells the resume reader that you have a very specific area of expertise. Hard skills are ones that can be developed fairly easily, though tutorials, classes/education programs, or practice.

RELATED: 13 Skills You Need to Put on Your Resume

“Soft” skills are those that are a little more subjective and open to interpretation—but don’t be fooled into thinking they’re less important! Some examples:

  • Communication
  • Work ethic
  • Problem solving
  • Teamwork
  • Organization
  • Multitasking
  • Adaptability
  • Creativity

Soft skills are harder to pick up; they tend to come more through experience and personality instead of a class or tutorial. However, soft skills are gaining more traction in the job hunt world, as hiring managers look for personalities that will mesh well in their work environment. This is not to discount the importance of experience and hard skills—but recruiters and others are turning more and more to the less quantifiable strengths (sometimes referred to as “emotional intelligence”) that suggest a well-rounded candidate.

So which set of skills reigns supreme? Well, neither—and both. The best resume will have a strong showing in both categories, so you’ll need to find a balance between them. The important thing to remember is that your resume should play to the strengths required by the job you’re seeking. If you’re applying for a job that has a heavy computer programming focus, emphasize that on your resume, but also make sure to include bullet points about how your softer skills support that hard skill.

The way you use these skills on your resume may also be affected by what kind of goal you’re hoping to achieve in your job hunt. If you’re a non-traditional candidate (entry-level, applying for jobs after a break, or already employed), the best format for you is likely a skill-based resume over the traditional reverse-chronological format. Let’s walk through different job seeker scenarios to see what would be the best way to use your skills on your resume.

The Newbie Applicant


If you’re just entering the workforce, creating a resume can be really tough. How do you fill in that page when you don’t yet have much experience? This is where skills become especially important—because you may not have work experience yet, but you definitely have skills. It’s just a matter of framing those in a “hire me” way. Through your classes and activities, you likely picked up experience in problem solving, or teamwork, running meetings, or communicating with others. These may not fall under the heading of “work experience” per se, but don’t count out your skills just because you haven’t been paid for them (yet!).

RELATED: 10 Biggest Job Search Mistakes of New College Grads

According to The Muse, there are many soft skills that you may have picked up along the way without even realizing it, including:

Analytical skills

Teaching classes Editing publications
Dramatizing ideas of problems Organizing people and tasks Raising funds
Communication Motivating others Setting up demonstrations
Advising people writing reports Coordinating events Meeting the public
Customer Service Finding information Managing your own time
Bookkeeping Counseling people Interviewing people
Problem solver Scheduling Enduring long hours
Increasing productivity Selling products Escorting VIPs on tours
Inventing new ideas Office management Investigating problems
Displaying ideas graphically Handling complaints Persuading others
Updating files Administering programs Delegating responsibility
Analyzing data Arranging social functions Advertising/promoting events
Speaking in public Evaluating programs Proposing alternate approaches
Confronting other people Corresponding with others Interpreting languages
Listening to others Entertaining people Preparing materials
Managing an organization Dispensing information Working under pressure
Handling detail work Sketching charts and diagrams Working collaboratively with people with different backgrounds
Imagining new solutions Planning organizational needs Making decisions with incomplete information
Supervising others Collecting money
Running meetings Compiling statistics

And don’t forget personal skills as well—those can show potential employers what kind of employee you’d be. Prized personal skills include punctuality, flexibility (think “adaptable,” not “gymnast”), responsibility, persistence, and creativity. The best way to use those on your resume is to tailor the document to the job description for which you’re applying, and come up with examples (bullet points) of those skills that match the job. After all, the hiring managers will understand that you’re fresh on the job scene, experience-wise, but you want to help them understand how you’re already well equipped for that next step into the career world. Your career path might be a blank slate at this point, but you’re not.

The Changing Careers Applicant


A similar scenario is someone who’s changing careers, or shifting lanes within an industry. If you’ve decided to pull a career switcheroo and pursue a different type of job from the ones you’ve already held, experience can be as much as an issue as it is when you’re just starting out.

RELATED: 6 Things You Must Know About Changing Career

In that case, a skills-based resume could help ease that transition. In this kind of resume, you put a hefty “Skills” section front and center, followed by an abbreviated work history section—tailored to the highlights you can most easily apply to your potential new job/industry. You can also skip bulleted points, and just include company names, position titles, and dates. Definitely include any volunteer experience or internships, classes, etc. that pertain to your hoped-for job. On a traditional chronological resume for an experienced employee, you’d likely skip those (unless directly relevant to your job), but here you’re aiming for flexibility and the transferability of skills you already have.

The Paused Career Applicant


Resume gaps can occur for a lot of different reasons: job loss + challenging hiring landscape, personal issues, maternity/paternity/family leave, etc. Whatever the reasons, your skills can be recruited to help ease the frustration of experience/work history gaps on your resume. The most important thing to remember is that this isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker: you just need to do a little extra work and tailoring to show that the gaps don’t define your career path or goals. The skills-based resume is a good option for you as well. You want to emphasize that regardless of your experience, you have the tools necessary to be a great employee.

RELATED: 6 Ways to Handle Employment Gaps on Your Resume

For your skills-based resume, it’s extra important to customize your resume for the individual job description. You’ll need to be able to a) get your resume seen by someone who might be screening for more experience or who’s currently working in the field; and b) convince the reader that hmm, this person may have a gap, but s/he’s got experience and the right skills, if not doing it currently. Before applying, do your research:

  • Which tasks/skills are specifically outlined in the job description?
  • What background information can you find about the company’s values? (Company websites often have mission statements, or brief summaries of the company’s values and goals.)
  • Does anyone in your network work at this company? If so, the benefits are twofold: this person could help get your resume in the right inbox, but he or she could also give you some insight into what the company’s culture is like, and what qualities would be most welcomed.

Once you have as much info as you can find, tailor your “Skills” bullets. For the work history, you can keep the position info brief and as vague as you dare—just know that if you don’t include dates or company names, it could be either a red flag to a reader, or lead to specific questions about it in an interview. It’s okay to be honest about gaps and employment dates…just be prepared to speak to why, then pivot the conversation about how you’re ready for the opportunity at hand.

The Promotion Seeker


If you’re seeking an advancement where you already are, your case is a little different from the resume builders mentioned above—you’re already in, you just want to go up. In that case, it can be easy to dismiss the need for a resume at all. After all, they already know you, right? Not so fast.

RELATED: 7 Workplace Tips For Getting a Promotion

The resume can be a great way to reintroduce yourself, the you that has picked up skills and experience (and maybe even awards or professional certifications) along the way. Your old resume is likely picking up dust (literally or digitally) somewhere in HR’s files. No one’s likely to dig it up to give you the promotion you deserve, so take the initiative to update your resume and show why you deserve a promotion or raise. This has the added benefit of your experience: back when you applied, you probably framed your resume based on what you thought would apply to the job. Now you know what applies to the job, because you’ve been doing it. You can refine skills that are directly relevant, and weed out ones that never really applied to your day-to-day. You can also add specific examples and achievements from your time at the company.

The skills-based resume is a good format for a promotion because your work history is less crucial here. They know where you’ve been…right in cubicle C. It’s good to keep the abbreviated work history section in there, just to give the powers that be a reminder of your path to your current position—but the spotlight should really be on the skills you have, and have built in your current job.

If you’re looking for a raise, emphasize skills that show you going above and beyond your basic job description. If you’re looking to move into a more senior position, emphasize your leadership and management skills. Again, you have the benefit of inside information about the job and the company, so use that to tailor the heck out of your resume. Don’t just brush off your old resume file…start from scratch and think deeply about what skill areas you want to emphasize.

Skills, Skills, Skills

Skills are one of the most effective tools you have in shaping your career narrative. Names, dates, and titles only go so far in telling a hiring manager what you can do. No matter where you are in your career, crafting a resume that makes your skills shine could be the key to your next big opportunity.

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.