For something so small, the skills section on your resume can be awfully hard to get right. But even though they’ve occasionally gotten a bad rap for being gimmicky, skills sections can also be a valuable way to highlight your expertise. Here’s how it can help you stand out — and not in a bad way.
What is a skills section on your resume?
The skills section is a small section on your resume where you can list your key proficiencies. It’s a great way to show off your skills at a glance, especially if you haven’t been able to include them elsewhere in your resume.
Why you need a skills section on your resume?
When it comes to writing a resume, you don’t have time for subtlety. If you have the skills a job opening is looking for, you need to explicitly say so, and the skills section lets you do just that. Adding a separate section means you don’t have to try to stuff a bunch of keywords into your achievements and allows both hiring managers and Applicant Tracking Systems to easily screen your resume for key skills.
A skills section is also one of the easiest parts of your resume to customize. You’ve heard how important it is to target your resume to fit the job you’re applying to — simply switching out the content of your skills section is a quick and easy way to do just that.
What skills should you include?
You should include a mix of hard and soft skills — list the hard or technical skills first.
You can approach the skill selection process in one of two ways. The first is to start by thinking about the skills that you possess. What are your most marketable or desirable skills? List them first and then customize them according to the specific job you’re applying for.
The second — and arguably quicker — way is to start with the job itself. Look at the job description and think about what skills you have that are a match. You can find relevant skills by searching for the most popular skills for each job, looking through similar job descriptions, and checking existing employees’ LinkedIn profiles to see what skills they list.
Remember to list hard skills and back up your claims with examples. If you want to demonstrate your work ethic and initiative, mention times you helped out other teams or developed a new initiative that saved your company time and money. If the job you’re applying for emphasizes the importance of good communication skills, list your public speaking engagements or published work you’ve written.
Where does the skills section go?
Generally, at the bottom of your resume. Hiring managers won’t always have time to read your entire resume in depth, which means you should always lead with the most relevant parts — that is, your recent work experience — and save additional information for the end. If you prefer a two-column resume, your skills can go on the side.
Examples of resume's skills sections
There’s no one right way to format your skills section, but here are some ideas to get you started.
Group skills by category
Breaking your skills down into discrete categories can make an otherwise long list easier to read and digest. If you have skills in different areas that aren’t obviously related but are both relevant to the position — for example, programming and project management, or sales and data analysis — this is a good way to group them.
Grouping skills by category can also be useful if you have skills in a number of related but separate areas, like design, modeling, and programming. Breaking down your proficiencies by the specific software or programming language is a lot more compelling than simply listing “modeling and design skills.”
If your skills are all in the same area, you can still group them in other ways. Technical, software, and programming skills can be grouped according to their function like in this example. This keeps your skills together so they can be seen at a glance but avoids having a single list that’s too long to easily digest.
Indicate proficiency levels in your resume's skills section
It’s okay to indicate your level of proficiency next to a skill, especially if you’d like to differentiate between skills you’re an expert at versus those you only have an intermediate knowledge of. Just make sure your self-assessments are accurate, and back them up with real evidence elsewhere in your resume.
A better way to indicate your level of proficiency with skills is to list your years of experience. Not only is this more reliable than a self-assessment of skill level, but it’s also easier to verify and understand. “Expert” level knowledge could mean nearly anything, but “10 years” of experience is clear and straightforward.
List technical qualifications
If you’re trying to establish hard or technical skills, one of the best ways to do this is to list any courses or qualifications. This proves that you’ve actually learned the skill and is a great way to present additional qualifications that may not be necessary for the role but are still nice to have.
Use a simple skills list
If you’re trying to save space in your resume, a simple list is an efficient way of presenting your skills. This works well for hard skills in particular, which don’t need a lot of elaboration. A simple list like this makes it easy for hiring managers to tell at a glance if you have the essential skills they’re looking for and is well-formatted for an ATS.
Where else to include your skills
Use metrics to demonstrate skills
A separate skills section isn’t the only place to highlight your skills to a hiring manager — your bullet points in your work experience are the core of your resume, and it’s what recruiters look at primarily when reviewing your resume. If you’ve read our advice about bullet points, you know how important it is to use concrete, substantiated examples. This is the skills version of that — it uses real examples of when you’ve used your skills to prove that you have the chops you say you do.
This is a great tactic when you’re trying to establish soft skills, which can otherwise be harder to describe — never use “Strong leadership skills” on your resume; instead, like in the above example, describe an accomplishment where you coached or led a group of people, which immediately tells a hiring manager you have leadership skills.
Add skills into your resume summary
If you’ve written a resume summary, you can use that space to illustrate key skills. This puts your most desirable skills front and center at the start of your resume as well as providing some extra context to demonstrate those skills in action.
What not to do when writing your resume skills section
- Don’t include skills that aren’t relevant to the specific job you’re applying to. Not only are you wasting space that could be used for more important things, but including too much irrelevant information can make it look like you haven’t bothered to target your resume at all — a big no-no.
- Don’t include skills you don’t want to use. This is particularly important for career changers, but it’s also good advice for anyone who’s attempting to transition away from a job or duty they didn’t enjoy. If you have a lot of experience in project management and you’re trying to move into graphic design, you shouldn’t mention your PMP certification or proficiency with PM tools, but you absolutely should mention any experience you have using design software.
- Don’t include basic skills like using Microsoft Office, email, or using the internet. These are skills everyone should have. If you’re trying to highlight extra proficiencies like creating Excel formulas or merging mail docs, list those directly. If you only have basic skills, there’s no need to draw attention to that.
- Don’t include outdated skills. If you know how to save to a floppy disk or troubleshoot a dot matrix printer, save it as an anecdote to tell your friends. Not only do employers not care, it could save you from indirect age discrimination.
- Don’t include skills you don’t really have. This sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many people list language skills they haven’t studied since high school, or social media skills just because they have a Facebook account. Stick to skills you’d be confident using in a business environment.
- Don’t include a massive list of skills. Your skills section — much like your resume in general — isn’t about cramming as much in as possible, it’s about selectively highlighting your strongest attributes. Choose the most relevant skills and/or the ones you’re most proficient with.
- Don’t use gimmicks like bar graphs, ratings, or infographics. In other words, do not do this:
You may think it’s eye-catching, but once the novelty wears off, it’ll come across as trying too hard at best and unprofessional. Additionally, this is not only hard to read by recruiters, but also by Applicant Tracking Systems and resume screeners..
Don’t include a bunch of buzzwords or vague self-assessments. There are a couple of good reasons to steer clear of overused “skills” like “Excellent communication skills” or “strong initiative.” The first is that these are skills almost everyone thinks they possess — very few people wouldn’t say they work well with others (and especially not on a resume). The second is that self-assessments are notoriously unreliable, and without evidence to back them up, are likely to be disregarded by hiring managers.