Leveraging the Intangible, but Essential, Soft Skills

Leveraging the Intangible, but Essential, Soft Skills

Brianne Neptin

Coordinator, Coastal and Environmental Fellowship Program, College of the Environment & Life Sciences, University of Rhode Island

I imagine there are many people out there with a similar mindset to me. We do our jobs, not spending much time actually thinking about what we do or how we do it. We’ve simply been doing it for ages. But then one day it hits… your current position is not quite enough.

You are ready for a new challenge, so you dust off the resume and persevere through the arduous process of writing about how awesome you are in a cover letter. There are paragraphs describing the workshops you gave to forty high school students four days a week every week during the college recruitment season. You discuss how you chaired your program’s five-year strategic planning committee.

All of these things win you the coveted interview. Now it’s time to spin that interview into a job offer. It’s time to stand out from the X number of people also interviewing who also chaired planning committees and gave umpteen workshops during the fall semester. This is the moment when the soft skills can make or break your interview. It’s one thing to write that you can think critically and operate in a high stress environment, it’s another to prove it during your conversations with the hiring committee.

First though, what are these elusive soft skills? I mentioned two already: critical thinking and operating in a high stress environment. The others are generally considered to be adaptability, problem solving, decision making, time management, and conflict resolution. Arguably there are others, but these are often at the top of the list.

If these are the soft skills employers will look for, how do you highlight them in conversation?

Sometimes the interviewer will make it easy for you. One of the most popular interview questions is What are your greatest professional strengths? Hopefully, you consider at least a couple of the soft skills to be strengths.

Another favorite question asks you to share an example of how you managed a particularly difficult situation. This opens the door to highlighting your adaptability or conflict resolution skills, depending on the anecdote you choose to relate.

Regardless of what you choose to mention in your responses, there are three things you must always remember to include: Examples, examples, and more examples!

Do not assume the hiring committee will just take your word for it. Provide full, detailed stories of how you accomplished things in order to show why you are good under pressure and how you collaborated with colleagues across your current institution and with community partners. Also, do not be afraid to bring props. If you regularly evaluate and assess your program’s effectiveness, and assessment and analytical skills were highlighted in the job description, bring charts. Show you are capable of analyzing raw data and extrapolating conclusions.

As a person who has conducted close to, if not more than, 800 interviews in the last 9 years, I appreciate details. **The more you can give me, the better I will feel hiring you or recommending that you be hired.** Give me scenarios that I can latch onto and help me imagine you in the position for which you are interviewing.

My favorite question to ask is “What is the one word you would use to describe yourself?” This stumps most people, especially since they have a hard time coming up with just one. The usual responses are adaptable or easy-going. What most people forget to do is explain why they picked that word. They say, “Oh, I am very adaptable” and then give me that look that says they are ready to move on to the next question.

I was recently on the search committee for a new hire in our office and I asked that question of all the interviewees. I got the same basic responses I usually get, except for one. That person’s response was “Fun. I like to put on music and dance to start my day.” Not only is that something I can visualize – the building up of positive energy to get the day going. But, that is also something I was able to respond to personally because that’s the type of person I want to work with, that’s the type of energy I want in this office.

There is one key thing to remember…you do not want to provide overly rehearsed and canned answers. What you can do is write notes to yourself about all your various accomplishments to peak at during the interview. So that right there is the challenge. How do I highlight my soft skills without sounding like I put myself on auto-response?

Are you a list person? Even if you just shook your head no, give this a whirl one time. Take out a couple of pages of notebook paper and at the top write ‘critical thinking’ and then half way down write ‘operating in a high stress environment’. Repeat that on each sheet with the rest of the skills I mentioned earlier - adaptability, problem solving, decision making, time management, and conflict resolution. What stories immediately come to mind each time you think of these skills. Write down a sentence or two about each of these scenarios. I understand not wanting to show up to an interview with pages of notes. However, if you have been thinking of stories that highlight your abilities, they will be at the forefront of your mind and easier to recall when questions are asked.

In the end, however you choose to highlight your skills and abilities, enter your interview prepared and ready - highlight your awesomeness!

About the Author: Brianne Neptin graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a B.S. in Environmental Economics and Management and from the University of Connecticut with an M.S. in Agricultural Economics. After spending 2 years in Eastern Europe volunteering with the Peace Corps, she was hired as URI’s Coordinator for the Coastal and Environmental Fellowship Program. That position helped her realize her true passion was working in higher education and chose to enter into the College Student Personnel program for Master's degree round two. She enjoys spending her free time cooking, writing about cooking, and getting crafty. Feel free to connect with her @brianep.

Brianne Neptin

Coordinator, Coastal and Environmental Fellowship Program, College of the Environment & Life Sciences, University of Rhode Island