How to Identify Your Job Skills for Your First Job Search

By Roberto Angulo

Employers will ask you about your skills and how they pertain to the job to which you’re applying. Knowing your skills helps you prepare your responses and it also allows you to better identify jobs where you can do well, based on those skills.

There are two kinds of skills:

  • Hard skills: These are ones you learn, like programming, doing financial accounting, or sorting mail accurately and quickly. Playing guitar is another example of a hard skill. These are concrete, tangible skills that help you perform specific tasks.
  • Soft skills: These are a mix of your personality traits and natural abilities. An example of a soft skill is being a good listener. Another one is being tenacious, meaning that you don’t give up. The first skill is valuable in many settings, including healthcare where you need to listen to patients. The second one can apply to sales or any other role that is goal driven.

You could argue that soft skills can be learned as well, but these tend to be baked into your personality. In this section, I explain how you can uncover these skills.

Translating your major into specific skills

Your major in college translates into a number of skills that you can list on your résumé and talk to employers about. For example, if your major is computer science, then programming is one of your skills. Creating algorithms is another. If you’re majoring in economics, then critical thinking is another skill you can point to.

Your academic department may have a map of your major and related skills. Ask your department administrator if he has this data or look for it on your department’s website.

Employers will know your major by looking at your résumé. What you really want them to know is what you can do. This is more obvious for specialized majors such as nursing, computer science, and actuarial science. But the possibilities are wider for majors where it’s more about the skills than the specialization. Majors that are not specialized and are more likely to lead you into various jobs include business, English, and psychology. Think about what you do in your classes and create a list of skills associated with those courses.

This table shows some examples of skills associated with some popular majors.

Popular Majors and Associated Skills

Major Relevant skills
Accounting Forecasting, using spreadsheets, financial reporting, financial analysis
Anthropology Doing research, documenting, interviewing, reporting, statistics
Biology Doing research, documenting, analyzing data
Business Reading comprehension, communication, writing, qualitative analysis, analyzing data
Chemistry Math, reading comprehension, research, analyzing data, device operation
Economics Critical thinking, communication, math, reading comprehension, problem solving, statistics
Education Communication, training, organization, leadership, time management
Electrical engineering Critical thinking, programming, doing math, quantitative analysis, problem solving, statistics
English Writing, being creative, critical thinking, communication, qualitative analysis
Humanities Research, writing, communication, critical thinking, qualitative analysis, presenting
Industrial engineering Math, data analysis, quality control, statistics, optimization
Marketing Presenting, market research, A/B testing, telling stories
Mathematics Math, focus, logical thinking, problem solving
Nursing Active listening, patience, responsiveness, clinical knowledge, device operation
Philosophy Critical thinking, constructing arguments, creativity
Psychology Reading comprehension, active listening, communication, doing research
Physics Doing research, math, device operation, quantitative analysis, qualitative analysis, problem solving

This is just a sample list of the skills associated with each major. The same skills can also apply to more than one major.

Some skills such as being good at math are highly transferable. For example, if you’re a math major, it shows you’re good at problem solving and means you can most likely learn how to program fairly easily. If you study nursing, it shows you’re good with patients. You could also go into the pharmaceutical industry and work on clinical trials with patients who are testing new drugs. A degree in education can help you become a teacher, but it also allows you to take on training jobs — for example, training a sales team on how to use a company’s new products. You get the idea.

Majors have skills associated with them that are transferable to different types of jobs. Highlight the relevant skills that apply to the job you’re pursuing.

Listing your soft skills

You may have some unique ability or personality trait that doesn’t necessarily apply to your major or job but that nonetheless is worth listing. Employers want to see not only what you know but also what you’re like as a person. Your personal attributes can help you do certain jobs better. You probably won’t list these on your résumé, but they may come up in interviews.

Examples of soft skills include the following:

  • Calm: Being able to remain calm in stressful situations is a great quality to have. This is a trait worth mentioning if the job you’re considering involves a lot of stress.
  • Curious: Being curious means you’re willing to learn about new things. Employers value individuals who want to learn and improve their skills.
  • Dependable: If others are able to depend on you, this is good for the employer to know. In your job, you’ll be expected to deliver on your commitments and complete the work you’re given.
  • Empathetic: Having empathy and caring about others is a noble thing. This may not be an important trait if you’re going to be a financial analyst, but it’s definitely a great trait if you’ll be dealing with patients or customers.
  • Independent: Employers like to see individuals who are self-reliant and don’t require a lot of guidance or supervision.
  • Good listener: Being a good listener means you can follow direction and absorb information. Listening also helps you in sales roles and in healthcare settings when dealing with patients.
  • Outgoing: Having an outgoing personality helps for a variety of roles, ranging from sales to healthcare, marketing to engineering. It implies that you like to communicate, and communication is vital for teamwork.
  • Tenacious: If you’re tenacious, it means you’re driven to complete a task, no matter how difficult and to reach your goals. Employers love this attribute. This should not be confused with being stubborn, which implies that you stick to your opinions, even when reason says otherwise.

Think about your unique skills and abilities and list the ones that are relevant to the job. Be ready to give the employers examples of how you practice these soft skills.

Uncovering your hidden skills

You may have some abilities or traits that you take for granted, yet to an employer, these traits could be valuable. These traits can include obvious things like the following:

  • Ability to lift weight: Maybe you weightlift and can carry up to 200 pounds without a problem. Some jobs, especially warehouse ones, require that you lift heavy packages.
  • Being a good chess player: Being a good chess player may just mean you’re good at chess. It can also imply that you’re good at strategy and knowing how to anticipate a competitor’s moves. If you excel at chess, list it on your résumé or bring it up during your interviews.
  • Good memory: Having a photographic memory, or just a good one, is important for remembering facts and data. Most people talk about employers valuing critical thinking. But memorization is important, too. Being able to remember pieces of information is key for process-oriented jobs.
  • Laser focus: Being able to focus your full attention on a task and do it well is an important character trait of a productive employee. Do you live in a noisy household or live with distracting roommates yet are able to do your homework well? If so, then you possess a valuable skill.

Getting feedback from your friends

Your family and good friends are usually the best at judging what you’re good at and where you need to improve. These are the people who have spent the most time with you. They may be able to identify your strengths and capabilities better than you can.

Your mom, for example, may be biased and say you’re the best in the world to do any job. But still, it’s worth asking your parents, siblings, significant other, and friends these questions:

  • What are some of my best qualities? Why?
  • What would you say I’m good at doing? Can you give me some examples?
  • What are some of my flaws or areas where I can improve? Why?

Write all the answers down, even if you get feedback jokingly. There’s probably some truth behind it. You may learn something about yourself that you didn’t know. This feedback will help you to write your résumé, and it will also aid you tremendously in preparing for interviews, where you’ll be asked to identify your strengths and areas for improvement.