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How College Students Can Develop Soft Skills

Jennifer King Logan

Written By: Jennifer King Logan

Published: 11/21/2022

As a college student preparing for your future career, you've no doubt heard that you'll need marketable skills to land a job. But what skills will you need? Mercer's 2020 Global Talent Trends report predicts that innovation, flexibility, and entrepreneurship will be among the most desirable soft skills in 2025, but are these the only skills you should be concerned about? Let's take a closer look at the many skills often needed in the workplace and how to develop soft skills while you're still in college.

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What Are Soft Skills?

In general, skills are essential to the success of organizations. Every organization needs people with a range of skills to produce its products and services, promote the organization, and manage all aspects of its operation. Additionally, these people need to work together productively, solve problems as they arise, and think creatively about the future. All of these skills can be broken down into two major categories: hard skills and soft skills.

Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills

Hard skills are easy to understand. They are usually technical in nature, often involve the use of specialized knowledge and equipment, and in some cases may be measurable. Hard skills tend to be job-specific skills, and examples include a nurse using a blood pressure cuff, a computer programmer coding with Python, or an accountant preparing a cash flow statement. A person's use of a technical skill often results in some sort of data or evidence that can be recorded in databases, reports, and so forth.

While hard skills are fairly straightforward, it may be more challenging to define soft skills. Often difficult to see or measure, soft skills refer to the way you think, work, and interact with other people. They're also called transferable skills because they can be used in virtually any work environment. Soft skills examples include time management, resilience, emotional intelligence, and a global perspective.

Wondering what skills you might need for your dream job? Learn more about job requirements with our career guides.

How to Develop Soft Skills

It's probably somewhat obvious that college courses are focused on building the technical know-how that leads to a mastery of hard skills in your field of study. But your college years also offer many opportunities to develop key soft skills.

The best part about these opportunities is that they're often fairly low-stakes situations, meaning that, for the most part, you can practice and improve without any serious repercussions. For example, even if your leadership of a group project in your business management class doesn't go as smoothly as you'd like, you and your classmates may still get a good grade on the assignment.

The following list of soft skills highlights the abilities that many employers find most desirable in a job candidate. It's packed with practical ideas for developing or expanding upon your abilities through classes, work experience, and extracurricular activities. A few of them may even be covered in online soft skills training tutorials, such as LinkedIn courses or TED Talks.

Collaboration and Teamwork

Beyond simply getting along with others, strong collaborators know how to harness the power of a team. Functioning as an effective team means actively listening to each other, respecting each person's opinions, negotiating and resolving conflicts, and creatively incorporating the team's best ideas. Participating in group homework projects, joining sports teams, and volunteering to work with clubs and organizations all create opportunities to work as part of a team and develop useful collaboration skills.

Leadership and Followership

Being an effective leader involves many interpersonal skills. Leadership skills involve the ability to develop a vision for the group, communicate this vision in an inspiring way, and convince others to buy into your goals. All of these people skills can be practiced by taking the initiative to form a study group, volunteering to take the lead in group class assignments, or asking your work, internship, or co-op supervisor for a chance to run meetings or lead small projects. However, it's just as important to learn to be a team player who supports the leader and exhibits dependability.

Adaptability and Resilience

Change is inevitable. In college, you'll change classes, advisors, jobs, supervisors, roommates, and more. The question is how you'll adapt to each transition. Employers are looking for people who respond to change with a positive attitude, ask the kind of questions that will help them adapt, and look for the benefits of a change so they can move forward with ease and confidence. As you go through your college years and face changes you didn't ask for, be aware of how you respond and strive to become more flexible.

Critical Thinking, Analytical Thinking, and Problem Solving

These three skills all relate to how you address issues. Analytical thinking involves collecting information and data about an issue and using logic to understand the problem. Critical thinking adds the element of forming a judgment or opinion about an issue, while problem-solving means envisioning potential solutions to a problem and choosing the best course of action. A lot of your college coursework is designed to help develop these skills, so be aware of these opportunities and take advantage of them by inviting specific feedback from instructors. You may also be able to apply these skills to issues in your workplace or volunteer organizations.

Creativity and Innovation

Creativity is listed as one of LinkedIn's top five in-demand soft skills, but just to be clear, employers aren't looking for people with totally original ideas. Instead, they're looking for people who identify ways to improve on what already exists and who can generate new solutions within a given set of parameters. You'll find plenty of chances to develop this skill in and out of the classroom. For example, in your workplace, you might see a more efficient way to organize your workstation or streamline a process. If you're volunteering for a club or organization, you might imagine a more engaging way to use social media to promote the group. It's simply a matter of focusing on small ways to improve.

Quality and Detail Orientation

Nothing impresses an employer more than someone with a strong work ethic who goes the extra mile and presents quality work. This is a soft skill you can practice in virtually every aspect of your life. For example, if you're writing a paper, dig a little deeper for the best information to include. If you've volunteered to coordinate an event for the club you've joined, do your best to address every detail in advance, so it goes smoothly. If you're a member of a sports team, take the time to perfect your athletic abilities in the sport. These steps will start training your brain to pay attention to the details and check your work.

Written Communication

Nearly every job involves some type of writing, which is why employers place a premium on polished writing skills. You'll have plenty of opportunities to write while in college, but be sure to ask your instructors and others to critique your writing so you can improve. Take advantage of your school's writing tutors if this service is available. In addition to writing papers for classes, you can practice by volunteering to write for a club or organization, working on the school paper, and asking your work supervisor for opportunities to write.

Verbal Communication

The more you can practice formal speaking, especially to larger groups, the more comfortable you'll be with this essential skill once you transition into the workplace. Consider taking a speech class, even if it's not required, just for the experience. You can also volunteer to be the spokesperson for your group when you're working on team projects in class, and you can ask your work supervisor for opportunities to give presentations, if possible. Just don't forget the other half of great verbal communication skills — active listening.

Time Management

You're probably juggling a lot of different tasks — going to class, doing homework, working, caring for your family, and socializing — so you already know what can happen if you don't manage your time wisely. In your daily life, practice evaluating what you need to do, how much time each task will take, what to prioritize, and how to focus. If you can learn to stay on top of your schedule while in college, you'll be better prepared to do it in your career.

Discover what hard and soft skills you might need to become a writer, software engineer, or psychologist.

A Plan for Building Soft Skills

If looking at this list of top soft skills for college students seems overwhelming, remember that you don't necessarily need to develop all of them, and you certainly don't need to tackle them all at once. Perhaps a good place to start is by honestly assessing your mastery of each of these skills to determine which to work on first. Ask mentors, friends, family members, or coworkers to help you identify your strengths and weaknesses. Then set a goal to work on one or two skills for several months.

To ensure improvement, seek feedback and constructive criticism from those around you. You may need to step out of your comfort zone as you develop your skills but keep at it. Ultimately, when you can honestly claim to have certain skills on your resume and you're able to provide hiring managers with specific examples during job interviews, you'll be glad you made an effort.

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