Every Question You Have About Putting Skills on Your Resume, Answered

by Lily Zhang, originally published at TheMuse

When you’re trying to keep your resume length down to accommodate that one-page limit, it’s easy to want to put your skills section on the chopping block. You might wonder why you ever included one in the first place. After all, it’s full of information that can be gleaned from other parts of your application, right?

Not so fast! Before you axe your resume skills section to make more space, read on to get the full picture of what you’d be giving up. And once you’re convinced not to scrap it, find out what types of skills you should include on a resume, how you should format a dedicated skills section, and how to figure the right skills for each job application. Plus, see a list of skills for your resume depending on what type of job you’re after.

Why Do I Need a Skills Section?

The whole point of keeping your resume concise is to allow for a recruiter or hiring manager to figure out the value you could create for the company after just a quick skim. With that in mind, having a section that basically spells out your hard skills makes a lot of sense,

Your skills section should actually be rather redundant. Ideally, a close read of your experience section should get across all your soft and hard skills. But the reason the skills section exists is because a resume so rarely gets a close read on a first pass. Considering the limited amount of time recruiters typically spend on a resume—about six seconds—a bit of repetition might actually be good. So cover your bases and put your skills in your bullet points and in a skills section. You never know what kind of reader you’re going to get.

Another reality of the job application process that this section addresses is the ubiquity of applicant tracking systems (ATS). Keyword scanning is one way an ATS flags resumes for closer review, and a skills section, conveniently, can serve as an extra block of relevant keywords.

Overall, your resume skills section gives your application a nice optimization bump for both the human and digital review process.

What Are Hiring Managers Looking for in My Resume Skills?

For certain roles, it can be a nonstarter for a candidate to not have specific skills. You can’t be a ballerina if you don’t know how to dance, obviously, just like you won’t get a front-end developer role if you don’t know HTML. By and large, though, the hiring managers I’ve spoken to are looking at the big picture. They’re trying to connect the dots, and skills help fill in the gaps a bit.

Hiring managers are trying to pull together a story about you, so list skills that match the experience you’ve written about in your resume. One hiring manager I know in tech finds it interesting and noteworthy to see skills that are kind of esoteric, but still relevant. Functional programming languages in particular always catch his eye. To him, it indicates that the candidate has a keen interest in programming and possibly went out of their way to learn it on their own. That’s a pretty efficient way to show your enthusiasm—listing a juicy, related, but kind of obscure skill.

Monica Orta, a hiring manager at the MIT Media Lab, says the skills section gives her “a sense of the suite of skills a person has—it’s another way to look at their experience and helps paint a fuller picture.”

What Can I Include in a Skills Section?

Your resume skills section should mainly be reserved for your hard skills. Think programming languages, business or design software, analytics programs, subject-matter expertise, or even carpentry skills—anything that can be taught, defined, and measured.

Keywords are important, but that doesn’t mean you should cram every last thing in here. Pay particular attention to skills that are relevant, but haven’t necessarily been part of your daily job. Perhaps you took an online course on how to use InDesign or independently studied web design and HTML for your personal website. These skills will be absent from your experience section, which means the skills section is the only chance you get to highlight them.

Just a word of warning: Listing skills on a resume implies you’re confident in your abilities. So leave off anything that you’re still working on or don’t feel comfortable training someone else in (like foreign languages you haven’t spoken since high school).

What Skills Should I Not Include at All?

For people who are pivoting to another career, it can be a good branding move to not include the skills you don’t want to use anymore, especially if they are not relevant or inherently interesting. For example, if you’re an executive assistant who wants to move into diversity and inclusion work, you probably don’t want to list all the flight booking and calendaring tools you’re familiar with. If you must include these skills in your experience section to accurately describe your previous roles, that’s fine, but don’t reiterate them in your skills section.

Skills that are a bit obvious can also be scrapped. There’s generally no need to put “Microsoft Word” on your resume, unless the job description specifically lists this skill. And avoid anything that is completely unrelated to the position you’re applying for. You might be an amazing knitter, but that probably doesn’t belong in your skills section if you’re applying to be a social media manager for a hotel chain. (You can always include these kinds of hobbies under “Interests,” of course.)

Should I Include Soft Skills in My Skills Section?

Hiring managers often consider soft skills (like teamwork, communication, time management, and leadership) to be just as important as hard skills, if not more so. That said, these skills are not often included in a separate skills section since they are usually intangible and harder to evaluate. While your soft skills are incredibly important, they’re better portrayed (and more believable) if you give them some context. In other words, tell a story.

To include soft skills in your resume, tuck them into your bullets. Making the first word relate to your soft skills is particularly effective. For example, instead of, “Assisted with annual corporate retreat,” you could write, “Collaborated in a group of four to plan and facilitate annual corporate retreat for 200 employees.” While both bullets describe the same task, only the second one shows that you’re a team player. Instead of, “Attended monthly sales meetings,” you could write, “Presented product insights to 12 clients in monthly sales meetings,” to demonstrate strong communication skills.

What Are the Biggest Mistakes I Can Make With Skills on My Resume?

Now that you have a sense of what you should be doing, here are a few mistakes you want to avoid:

  • Underselling your proficiency: Downplaying your abilities is a big one. A hiring manager in the finance industry once told me he hated it when people listed skills in their resume and then added the word “basic” in parenthesis next to it. If you only have a basic understanding of something, it may not belong in your skills section. Or if you’re just being modest, maybe don’t be.
  • Overselling your skills: On the other hand, another hiring manager uses the skills section to judge how truthful a candidate has been in their application. If a candidate lists a string of 20 programming languages, but only has done projects in one, it’s not a good look. In general, a good rule of thumb is to only include skills you’re comfortable talking about in an interview.
  • Hiding skills in your experience section: Don’t assume recruiters or hiring managers will necessarily find your skills stashed away in the bullets of your experience section. If you’re applying for one of those roles where a certain skill is absolutely required for consideration, it would be a huge mistake to not list it in the skills section, even if you go into more detail elsewhere. For these roles, it’s not unusual for the reader to take a little shortcut and scan the skills section of all the resumes to figure out which ones to look at more intently.
  • Using the skills section as a catch-all: Don’t use the skills section as a catch-all. You might really want to mention that one time you were an extra in a movie or the fact that you’ve run five marathons, but don’t put it in the skills section. If you include them, these things would go under “Additional,” “Activities,” or “Interests.”

How Should I Format a Skills Section?

Hopefully, at this point you’ve been convinced to keep your skills section intact and perhaps even to add a couple things you hadn’t thought of before. But how do you best present all this important information in a way that isn’t just a jumble of keywords? That might be okay for an ATS, but no human being wants to read that.

If you have a long list of skills, think of subheadings as beautiful things that make even the most unruly mess of words look sleek and organized. Group your skills into reasonable categories, then name each group of skills something appropriate. For example, if you happen to be multilingual, a good subheading for all the languages you speak would be, unsurprisingly, “Languages.” Or if you’re a designer who also codes, label your sections “Design” and “Technical.” Start each category on a new line with the subheading in bold at the beginning of the list. That’s it!

If your skills only fill one to two lines, you can change the section to “Skills and Interests” or “Skills and Certifications” and add the appropriate additional subheadings for interests, certifications, awards, and the like.

So What Does This All Actually Look Like?

Here’s an example of a good skills section for someone who is looking for work as a designer:

Visual Design: InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, After Effects, Premiere, XD, Animate, Lightroom
3D Modeling & 2D Drafting: Rhino, VRay, AutoCAD, Vectorworks, Autodesk Fusion 360
Programming: Grasshopper, Processing, HTML, CSS
Interests: Sailing, running, cooperative board games

And here is one that is less good:

InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, Lightroom, Quark, Rhino, Grasshopper, VRay, AutoCAD, After Effects, Premiere, XD, Vectorworks, Processing, Animate, Autodesk Fusion 360, HTML, CSS, Microsoft Office, typography, teamwork, creativity, multitasking, sailing, running, cooperative board games

The difference, as you can see, is all about pulling out relevant hard skills and breaking them up into relevant subheadings. Even though this section is short, it still needs to be easy to skim (because no human will make it to the third, or even second, line of skills in the second example). Bullets and subheadings prompt the reader to start reading again. And as a bonus, they cue the reader on what broad skills the candidate has.

Where on the Page Should My Skills Section Go?

Generally a skills section lives at the bottom of a resume. It’s meant to reiterate or summarize what the reader learned from your experience section. There are some exceptions though.

If you’re a career changer who’s been slowly accumulating the necessary skills for a shift, for example, it might make sense to move this section up to a more prominent spot—possibly even the top to create a hybridfunctional, or skills-based resume. Listing your skills before your experience section will color the way your whole resume is reviewed and help tell your career story. If you work in a technical field where hard skills are paramount, you might also want to put your skills section at the top.

How Do I Figure Out the Right Combination of Skills to Include on My Resume for a Particular Job Application?

Check the answer key! That is, print out the job description of the role you’re interested in and take a highlighter to it (or copy and paste it into a doc and highlight there), marking any skills you see listed that you have. Then, make sure these skills are listed on your resume. 

What Are Some Examples of Skills for a Resume?

It all depends on your industry and role. Scuba diving is a hard skill, but only relevant to very specific jobs. Remember, hiring managers are reviewing your resume with the job you applied for in mind, so keep your skills section at least tangentially relevant to avoid the dreaded “Why did they apply for this?” reaction.

Below are some examples of specific roles you might be applying for and skills that could be appropriate to list, but remember that a job posting is always the best place to find the skills you need for a specific role. To get a more robust list for your specific industry, you can check out O*NET, a resource developed by the U.S. Department of Labor that breaks down occupations by skills, tasks, and activities.

For a robust list of skills broken down by job title/function, visit: 250+ Skills for Your Resume and How to Show Them Off | The Muse

By Katie Fell
Katie Fell Assistant Director, Harvard College Still Deciding, Exploring, & Self-Assessment