Everything you need to know about adding the right skills to your resume.

Whether your resume has been through 19 revisions lately, or you are just revisiting it for the first time in years, spending some time taking stock of your skills section can generate more interest in your candidacy.

However, there is a lot of conflicting information online and in books about maximizing the effectiveness of this section. Do you simply list all of your technical skills? What are the right skills to put on a resume? What order is best? How will a jumble of technical qualifications help you stand out? And what about those soft skills?

Let's tackle those questions one at a time, starting at the beginning. Why is the resume skills section there in the first place?

The way I see it, there are three good reasons to include the skills section in your resume and to organize it well:

  1. To list your skills and abilities in one place for easy reference and scanning
  2. To highlight the match between your background and the job requirements for the position you are interested in, and
  3. To get your perfectly well-crafted resume through automated screening by resume-reading robots (ATS).

Recruiters and robots scan your resume as a pre-qualifying step towards considering your candidacy. The right mix of technical resume skills will get you past the first hurdle and towards a conversation. Here is a blueprint for making the most out of your skills section!

Don't list skills that are a given

Back to common questions asked: a jumble of technical skills beefed up with some basics for good measure won't help you stand out. In fact, listing out skills that are considered to be a common baseline can actually hurt your candidacy by making you look like you are scrambling to establish credibility. Instead, you'll want to focus only on skills that look good on a resume.

So what exactly is a technical skill that is a given? That depends on the industry and the position, but I can offer some guidelines. As a general rule, basic user-level proficiency with Word, Excel and email applications is assumed to be a given. However, if you have advanced Excel skills (expert-level proficiency with macros and advanced analysis capabilities), I recommend listing them.  

Make your list of technical skills relevant to the job

As a human being, you have technical skills in a broad range of areas. You might be an expert whitewater rafter, or maybe you have advanced a World of Warcraft character all the way to level 80. Both of those accomplishments have required dedication, practice, and technical proficiency, but they may or may not be relevant for the jobs you are considering.

The general recommendation on standout skills for a resume is to only list technical skills that will, directly or indirectly, help you be more effective in your job. If you are applying to be a floor manager at a store that sells musical instruments, your proficiency with inventory software and your ability to play guitar may both be relevant for the job.

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Keep your technical skills specific and clear

A common pitfall when it comes to resume technical skills is to list broad categories of skills without going into sufficient detail. The problem with that approach is that it won't get your resume past the ATS systems because they are looking for specific proficiency statements.

So, instead of writing “familiarity with accounting software,” list Quickbooks, Quicken, Sage, and Xero. Use numbers and descriptive words where appropriate – how many projects have you managed using Teamwork Projects? How many people have you trained on using Salesforce? A few well-placed quantifiers can position you as a serious candidate with supported qualifications.

Organize your technical skills list

The placement of the resume skills section itself on the page is up to you. I have seen it positioned towards the top of the document or at the bottom – either way can work well. If you have a lot of skills to list, consider breaking them up (for example, technical skills on the top and additional skills at the bottom).

When creating a long list of skills for a resume, consider ordering it to keep related skills together. In other words, group proficiency with programming languages, software suites and technical IRS pronouncements in their own clusters. Our brains look for patterns, and your resume will look better organized if it groups similar skills together.

Another organizing tip is to list the most important skills for the job first. Specifics will vary by industry but think through the critical technical skills that will drive your effectiveness and success in the role and put them at the top.

Include soft skills

I am a proponent of including soft skills on the resume. No matter how technical your position is, it will require interacting with people, dealing with deadlines and adapting to change.

In listing soft skills for a resume, consider making strategic decisions about what makes the cut. Think about the position requirements, and include the soft skills that fit the job description and are an obvious advantage in the role.

Consider adding technical extracurriculars

Unusual or colorful technical extracurricular activities and interests could be a great way to make your resume stand out! Be sure that they illustrate your passion for the field and fit with the overall job requirements. If you are applying for a programming job, mention that you are a part of a coding meetup. If you are interviewing for an accounting manager position, mention that you manage the books or prepare taxes for a local non-profit on a pro bono basis.

If you are at a loss of where to start when it comes to the resume skills section, try a bit of reverse-engineering! Read through LinkedIn profiles of professionals you admire. Carefully review job descriptions for positions that interest you, and scan lots of others with a highlighter to pick out commonly listed skills. You may also find that a technical skills inventory is an effective way to get started.

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