Communication, CV, resume

How should I talk about my skills (technical and soft) in a CV/resume?

Below are two extracts from a real CV/resume of a 23-year-old graduate, Ana, who was applying to pursue a master’s degree at a university in Portugal. Ana is a real person (though I have changed her name) and she sent me her CV to correct before sending it to the university.

The two extracts refer to Communication Skills and Language Skills. Can you identify the problems?

Communication skills

  • Excellent written and verbal communicating skills
  • Confidence, articulate, and professional speaking abilities (and experience)
  • Empatic listener and persuasive speaker
  • Writing creative or factual
  • Speaking to public, to groups, or via electronic media
  • Excellent presentation and negotiation skills

Language skills

Ana also had a section called Organizational/Managerial Skills, where she listed 36 skills including:

decision making; analysis; assessment and evaluation; ability to work independently long or short time; taking notes; documentation; and communication.

Now let’s analyze why these three skills sections are unlikely to help Ana pursue her objective of getting a master’s, or indeed a job later in her career.

Think about who is going to read your CV

Your CV will be read by one or more of the following:

  • a professor/researcher – if you are applying for a position in academia
  • a human resources manager – if the position is in a small company
  • a piece of software and then a professional recruiter (i.e., an intermediary between you and the company where you hope to work) – for positions in bigger companies

Note: position means a place on a course, a short-term project, a job – basically anything that involves ‘working’ or ‘studying’.

The task of all these people is to decide whether you are suitable for the position. This means that they are interested in your education and work experience, and they want concrete evidence that you have the necessary skills to meet the requirements of the position.

Present your language skills concisely

Your CV should be as concise as possible and so everything you include should be highlighting the most important information. The language skills section in Ana’s CV occupies a lot of space. She is interested in a position in Portugal and given that she also has good skills in Portuguese, it would make sense to put Portuguese first or second after English. Given that her French is such a low level, she could save some space by omitting it. There is no need to specify your particular skills within one language, so a much simpler solution would be to put:

Mother tongue: Spanish; English: C2, Portuguese: C1, Chinese: B1, German: B1

This takes up just one line, compared to seven or more lines in the template version. 

In Ana’s language section, she also puts the examinations she has taken in the languages she speaks, but two of these (Portuguese and German) are not written in English. A good rule is to never, in an English CV, use words that are not English – either omit them or translate them. If you must have them in the original language, then at least put an English translation in brackets.

Finally, be honest. Ana claimed her level of English was C2 (i.e., the highest level in the European Framework of Languages). But in reality, I noticed that her CV contained many mistakes in English. For example, under ‘Communication Skills’, she wrote ‘communicating skills’ instead of ‘communication skills’; ‘confidence’ instead of confident; ‘abilities’ (not ‘skills’), ‘empatic’ (this is a spelling mistake; it should be ‘empathic’ or ‘empathetic’); speaking to public (in public).

You are likely to aggravate an interviewer if you cannot show evidence that you have the language level you claim to have, and this will considerably reduce your chances of getting the job.

The space you give to an item reflects the importance of that item

The skills sections occupy around 50% of the space of Ana’s CV. She hasn’t thought about what the reader really wants to see.

The space you allocate to a particular section should correspond to the importance that this section has in guaranteeing that you will get an interview for the position.

Ana’s CV is based on the Europass template, which is the standard template used in Europe. This template tends to produce excessively long CVs (at least three-four pages), and it encourages you to list things horizontally. If you really must list skills, then do so horizontally – you will save a lot of space.

Don’t write generic statements. Select your skills realistically. Be credible.

Under ‘Communication Skills’ and ‘Organizational/Managerial Skills’, Ana has basically created a shopping list of totally generic skills. She claims that she has these skills, but provides absolutely no evidence that she has them. Her skills are the skills that nearly everyone claims they have, and there is nothing to make her stand out from the other candidates. 

Another issue is that she listed so many skills (36 under ‘Organizational/Managerial Skills’) that she loses credibility. Is it possible that she has so many skills? Where is the evidence?

The same argument is true when listing your technical skills. Don’t list 45 software programs that you are familiar with.

Highlight your unique contribution

Communication/Organizational/Managerial skills (also known as ‘soft skills’) are very difficult to quantify. You cannot simply say that you have them. Instead, you have to provide evidence that you have them. 

Instead of having a separate section for these skills, it is much more effective (and space saving) if you incorporate these skills into your Education and Work Experience sections.

Before you start writing your CV, find out what skills are required for the position you are applying for. 

Below is an example of how to integrate some of your soft skills into the body of your CV, in this case the Work Experience section:

Sep 2018 – Jul 2019: Researcher – SpeedLab, Barcelona, Spain.

Worked as a junior researcher at SpeedLab in the Gigahertz Division. Responsible for various small internal work groups.

SpeedLab conducts basic research into the processing speed of laptops. Part of my duties included technical presentations in English or Portuguese of SpeedLab research projects to interested partners.

Development of hardware-software interfaces and client-server interfaces using MegaGiga++ and SpeedView. This included solving critical problems within very short timeframes.

Provide concrete evidence that you have the skills required

In the example above, the candidate has not stated explicitly that she has certain soft skills, but has mentioned them indirectly. The structure is:

i) state your position (junior researcher), explain what the institute does, say what you did at the institute;

ii) show what skills you used. 

So instead of writing Team leadership as part of her skills under a skills section, she writes Responsible for various small internal work groups. She has proved she is a team leader rather than simply claiming it (with no evidence that she is one).

Instead of writing presentations skills, she proves she has these skills by mentioning the presentations she did while she was at SpeedLab. And she also manages to emphasize her language skills at the same time.

And in the last paragraph, she mentions both technical and soft skills (capacity to meet deadlines).

So the strategy is that with each experience you mention, you highlight the skills that you acquired. Ideally, the skills you highlight should be the same skills that the company/institute is looking for.

You could also mention any particularly successful achievements/accomplishments from your work experience, e.g., successful reports/presentations, sales figures, deals – anything that can help provide evidence of your skills and make you stand out. 

The result is a CV that is much more concise and which really tells the professor/HR person/recruiter what they want to know. If you are worried that you haven’t covered your skills sufficiently, then you can integrate them into your cover letter or reference letters provided by people you have worked for.

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