31 Soft Skills Every Student Needs, and How to Get Them
Soft skills receive more notoriety from employers than any other job training area. Employers still look at your college degree or technical skills. But more of them want to know how you function around people.
It’s easy to gloss over soft skills and think you’ll wow everyone with your smarts. But how you present yourself to your employer and others will make a huge difference. It’s something you need to prepare for, if you want to get and stay gainfully employed.
To assist, we’ve put together a comprehensive list of the 31 soft skills you’re going to need. Some of these overlap, but all have a distinct purpose. Ignore at your own risk. Let’s get started!
Soft Skills Inventory No. 1. Oral communications
We live in an age of emails and texting. It’s difficult to get through a lunch meeting without 50 people looking down at their phones.
It can seem pointless to be good at expressing oneself in voice with all this going on. Yet, oral communication is more important than ever. That’s because a lot of meaning gets lost in a text or computer screen.
Written words alone have difficulty conveying personality. Without personality, it’s easy to get lost in translation. And “lost in translation” doesn’t bode well for moving up the corporate ladder.
Companies today look for students who have the confidence and capability to look them in the eye.
How do you get this skill? You should resolve to speak to everyone, even if they’re not in your wheelhouse as a person. Be careful not to talk at them but to them. Engage in an exchange of ideas through face-to-face interaction, and you’ll be well on your way.
2. The ability to write
The ability to write is important to more than journalists, bloggers, and authors.
Your written communication ability should be good enough to craft well-constructed emails. It should be good enough to produce clear instruction. It should be good enough to not make you look like an idiot on social media.
You scrawl out any words for human consumption, it becomes a reflection of who you are. And as you advance into the workforce, who you are becomes a reflection of who your employer is. That’s not something they slough off.
Expressing yourself through writing says a lot about how easy you’ll be to train. Many companies won’t invest in you if the words you’ve written betray intelligence.
How do you get this skill? Write a page of something every day. It could be a journal entry, part of a novel or short story, a blog, a homework, a grocery list. Use the mental muscles needed to write well, and they will get stronger with time.
3. Presentation experience
Presentation experience incorporates oral and written communication into a highly-focused package. Your presentations use words and voice to connect with their audience.
At the same time, they differ from oral/written because they’re a performance of sorts. You use them to inform, enlighten, entertain, and educate. They demand structure to resonate.
You may do fine speaking face-to-face with individuals and small groups. But you get up before an audience speaking on a certain topic, and you’d better bring the A-Game. Presentations have to fill time; they have to support points with key data.
They should build to something important. How do you get this skill? Apply yourself to group or individual assignments. Hone your research abilities. Break free from distraction, and find time to do deep work.
4. Active listening ability
There is a huge difference between hearing and understanding. With hearing, the words go in, but they aren’t internalized. With listening, you process the words and come out with deeper understanding.
Anyone who wishes to listen has to do more than sit there. They have to compute the speaker’s words with his/her nonverbal communication. They have to weigh the substance of what is being said against their own understanding.
They have to test new theories, make judgments, and respond. How do you get this skill? Good active listeners ask questions to themselves and of themselves. They make notes. They review information and establish connections. And if they start to zone out, they’re able to bring themselves back in.
Manners are useful because they show you know how to react in controlled situations. The world of work would go off the rails in a hurry if people couldn’t recognize and respond to changing context.
How do you get this soft skill? Be a good listener. Don’t talk over people. Observe the natural rules of order that come with social behavior. If that proves difficult, pick up a book on the subject from your local library, or read some tips online.
Manners are how you deal with other people in all situations. Etiquette rules are more technical and apply to narrower situations. There are rule books for that as well, and you should give one a look. In general, don’t do things to embarrass yourself or gross out other people, and you know most of what you need to know.
Let’s sum up graciousness with two simple words: Thank you. Whenever someone praises you or apologizes for something, use those two words. The rest will take care of itself.
Parkland shooting survivor and activist David Hogg has come under closer scrutiny. Many like what he has to say about gun control and tightening legislation. Others — including some on his side — believe his rhetoric has spiraled out of control.
Anytime you equate an elected official with an actual murderer, as Hogg has done, that happens. The lack of respectful discourse may be great for scoring points on Twitter. It will hurt you with people, companies, and colleges, though.
Respecting others creates a good impression. It increases the likelihood people will listen to what you have to say. It leaves the world a better place than you found it.
Remember that it’s okay to disagree. Avoid hyperbole and inflammatory statements, even if someone else did it first.
The job force is forever changing. Thank technology for that. As a result, you may have to learn to pivot. Adaptability is a state of mind. It does play out through your actions, though. The best way to learn adaptability: put forth effort before expressing your opinion.
If someone gives you something you don’t want to do, keep those thoughts to yourself. At least until you have put in enough time and effort to provide constructive input.
10. Willingness to change
It’s one thing to be adaptable. It’s another to make a willingness to change a part of your mindset. You need both abilities because they sort of feed one another. When you’re adaptable, you’re going to have an open mind.
An open mind will keep you from thinking of future changes as challenges. Instead you’ll see them as opportunities.
11. Commitment to lifelong learning
What’s the highest level of education you can reach? Those plugged into traditional education hierarchies will say, “Ph.D.”
But if you read the subhead, you’ll know that’s a trick question. It’s a trick question because there is no max level of education. Learning always should be a part of your life.
Technology changes. Understanding changes. Social norms change. People committed to lifelong learning do what they need to do to roll with these changes.
How do you develop this skill? Stay informed. Ask questions about things you don’t understand. If there is enough to warrant it, take a new course or training module.
12. Accepting of new information and procedures
This relates to adaptability and willingness to change. It applies to specific changes in a class or job. As new info becomes available or new procedures take effect, be accepting.
You don’t have to like them or agree with them. That said, you should train your mind to think about the motivation behind the changes. Give others the benefit of the doubt. Don’t assume they’re doing this-or-that to make you miserable.
How do you get this skill? Realize there are some things you can’t change. Realize people have their reasons. Realize those reasons may or may not make sense. Keep an open mind, and try to be a tool for that change.
If you do have criticisms, share them in a constructive sense. Share your ideas about how to make something better instead of spewing your dislike.
Honesty is a valued quality, but it’s not always an easy one. Sometimes honesty can hurt you or others — in the short term. Committing to honesty will pay long-term dividends, though.
Employers will know they can count on you to provide value. They know you won’t follow the wrong path too far before correcting course. Co-workers will know they can trust what you have to say. It’s a great way to position yourself for advancement.
How do you get this skill? Be truthful, even when it hurts. If it hurts others, be sensitive and constructive about how you say it. If it hurts you (mistake, for example), be direct. Don’t beat around the bush in either case. Be direct.
14. Ethical behaviors
Ethics is about more than honesty.
The best we can do is to give an example. You write for a market where locality is important.
Say there are two rival business journals. You don’t have an exclusive written agreement with your employer. Still, you know the editor wouldn’t like you writing for the other publication. The other doesn’t care either way.
You actually would like to write for both for the extra money. What do you do?
An example of poor ethical behavior would go something like this. You write for the care-free publication without telling the sensitive editor. Oh sure, you don’t have his feelings expressed in writing. But he has told you not to do it.
An example of good ethical behavior would include being honest and upfront. Tell the sensitive editor, “Listen, I want to do this. We don’t have an agreement. I’d like your blessing. Here’s why you should let me do it.”
You tell the other editor, “I’d love to, but I know [sensitive editor] wouldn’t want me to. Thank you for the offer, though. I’m flattered.”
Ethics is how you treat others and how you do business, even if it’s not all laid out in writing. You do it, in other words, because it’s the right thing to do.
15. High morals
Morals goes beyond ethics. Companies want employees who are going to provide good examples to other people. They want this at the internal level to cultivate a good company culture. They want this at the external level to present the best possible image for their business.
How do you get high morals? Be generous to others. Ask yourself how you can provide value instead of taking it. Be respectful of different opinions.
16. Personal values
You have to know what you believe. This prevents you from accepting responsibilities you’re not equipped to handle. It gives you a moral compass that sets the guidelines for what you will and won’t allow.
How do you get personal values? To start, it’s your parents’ job to teach you about them. If they never did, find older people whom you respect. Study what it is about how they lead their lives that you admire and respect. Talk to them about why they do what they do and believe what they believe.
At the same time, don’t let yourself feel pressured to wholesale adopt one point-of-view. What works for some doesn’t work for others. Use your respect and admiration as a fact-finding mission, and see how you can improve upon it.
17. Strives to do the right thing
Sometimes the right thing takes more time. It can be annoying and inconvenient. But you have to be the type of person willing to put in the time. Willing to deal with the annoyance or inconvenience.
Companies prefer a few minutes of lost productivity in exchange for the right thing. They don’t want to wait until the decision to do nothing costs them millions of dollars.
Employees willing to stay late or roll up their sleeves will always find employment. How do you get this skill? No complaining. Ask yourself how you can provide value. Don’t limit yourself to the step-by-step instruction. If there is something unstated but necessary, do it. Go above and beyond the call.
18. Personable behavior
People who are personable have the following qualities:
They are nice to others.
They are funny (or at least have an appreciation for humor).
They nurture others.
They know how to empathize, or feel what others are feeling.
They exercise self-control.
They have patience.
They can manage in social situations.
They are approachable.
How do you get personable? Be quick to listen and slow to speak.
Positive people believe in the best outcome. They feel that even when things are going wrong, something right will come of them. They have an enthusiasm for new challenges rather than a dourness.
They also encourage others to be the same. They’re happy with who they are and confident in their own abilities.
How do you become a more positive person? It starts by calling yourself out when you know you’re being negative. Noticing negative behaviors will give you the chance to transform your thinking. You can transform your thinking by asking two questions. What will be the benefits of this going right? What’s the first step I can take to turn things around?
You may think you’re as good as anyone at this-or-that no matter what. “It shouldn’t matter what I wear” or what tattoos are showing, you say. “I treat others well. So who’s it going to bother if I show up to an interview with facial piercings?”
Listen, I’m there with you. What you deem as fashionable or as a viable form of self-expression is your right. But the people who hire you — either on purpose or subconsciously — may not see it the same way.
You’ve got to realize the workforce follows certain norms true for most everyone. You operate outside those norms at your own risk.
Dress, behavior, appearance, poise — it all counts. It’s very likely you’ll have to play ball if you haven’t already.
Being accountable is more than admitting when you’re wrong. It means stepping up and taking responsibility even if the responsibility isn’t yours. Don’t misunderstand us here. We’re not saying take credit for other people’s screw-ups. What we are saying is this.
If you expect to be a leader, you’ll have to spend less time complaining about other people’s screw-ups. When a screw-up does occur, you need to stand up and say, “We’re going to fix this.”
Accountable people don’t get lost in the blame game. They instead say, “This happened. Let’s find a way forward.”
How do you get this skill? Step up. Take on a leadership role. Don’t be afraid of failing. Be afraid of not giving your best effort.
When you say you’ll deliver something, deliver it. Don’t be loose with deadlines. Don’t wait until the last minute to get started. Companies today value soft skills that show a person will do what they say they’re going to do. (When they say they’ll do it.)
How do you become a more reliable person? Take on new responsibilities with a plan in place. Don’t jump into the fire with the attitude of, “I’ll get to it when I get to it.”
Realize others are counting on you when you say you’ll do something. Be serious in your commitments. It’s your reputation on the line. Don’t waste it by putting yourself into a situation where you’ll need to apologize.
Companies today will go to great lengths not to hire you. Why? Because they don’t want to bring in someone who requires 24/7 hand-holding. They scrutinize every hiring decision, and you can’t blame them.
It costs thousands of dollars to recruit and train personnel. If they get it wrong, it’s the same as tossing that money on a bonfire.
How can you stand out? Show them you’re a resourceful person. Share times in your life when you had to overcome a challenge with limited or no experience. Emphasize the resources you used in doing so. Then, once you’re in, commit to being a resource collector.
Any time something helps you solve a problem, make note of it. Learn to become a great inventory manager for resources. If you do, you’ll never meet an insurmountable challenge.
Marathon runners are great examples of self-discipline in action. For starters, there aren’t many of them. If 26.2 miles of running was easy, everyone would do it. But tell someone you’ve run a marathon, and watch their jaws drop to the floor.
“I don’t understand how you can do that. I never could.”
Some variation of this response always comes when you’re talking to average people. But the truth is, everyone can run a marathon if they have self-discipline. It means they’ll need to get their body in shape. Follow running plans. Six months to a year of heavy training, and the sky’s the limit.
Companies value skills like this, so if you can show how you used self-discipline to meet a goal, you’re home free. Self-discipline also will make you a happier, healthier person in other areas of life.
25. Common sense
The ability to do things because they make sense; not because someone has to tell you. That’s the best way we know to describe common sense.
As you’re likely aware from observing classmates, it’s possible to be book-smart only. There’s only one thing you need to know to see the value of common sense. That’s this: many companies will hire you without checking a single grade.
How do you get common sense? Being around other “common sense” people is a start. Also helpful: figuring things out for yourself. Resisting the temptation of constant instruction and supervision.
Mindfulness of how your decisions affect others should be a priority. This leads to conscientiousness. Whenever you make a decision, ask yourself how it will come across. You don’t have to live your life to make others happy, but selfishness is nobody’s golden ticket either.
How do you become more conscientious? It goes back to empathy. Try to view your decisions through the guise of someone else. What would they have to say about it? Would they be happy? Sad? Angry? Would it make their lives any better? Would it make their lives worse?
Prodding yourself to examine these questions will build up this particular muscle.
Don’t be a lone wolf. Be open to other ideas. Even if you don’t agree, be adventurous. Experiment by allowing input from fellow classmates, teachers, parents, etc.
Every successful entrepreneur will tell you there comes a time when You are not enough. Sure, you might be able to learn a new skill or approach. But at day’s end, you’re better-served doing what you’re good at doing. Rely on the expertise of others to fill the gaps.
Without a collaborative spirit, companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Tesla would fail. There’s no shame in asking for help. If you want this skill — and you should — be willing to do just that.
There’s a line you’ll need to walk here. Don’t go along with everything if you know it’s a misstep. But do realize your limitations and be willing to try new things. This approach will result in one of two outcomes.
It either will make you a better employee and more knowledgeable about what works. Or, it will give you a chance to show your capabilities.
Agreeable behavior will earn you the reputation of being good to work with. It’ll also get you opportunities to work on new projects. This improves your potential for advancement.
Take joy in the accomplishments of other people. Don’t harbor jealousy. Be the type of person who cares less about taking the credit and more about there being credit to give.
If you’re supportive, that means you also reach out to others. You take a personal interest in bringing out the best of others. How do you get this skill? Learn this phrase: is there anything I can help with?
31. Strong work ethic
The final of our soft skills inventory, and the most important! That said, it won’t do the trick alone. You need many, if not all, of the others on this list.
But without a strong work ethic, you’d better hope for some lucky lottery numbers. You won’t be going very far in the workforce.
Strong work ethic means you have the following qualities:
You’re hard working.
You’re willing to work.
You’re loyal to others.
You show initiative.
You know how to motivate yourself.
You arrive on time.
You keep good attendance.
While this soft skills list can be a lot to take in, acquiring each is simpler than it looks. It mostly boils down to this: do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’ll do it. Be proactive. Create value for others. Do these things, and the rest will fall into place. Good luck!
[Featured Image by Pixabay]