Do these 3 things to develop your soft skills while still at university and employers will thank you for it

Dec 2, 2016

The only way to successfully compete for a graduate job is to develop your soft skills while you are still at university.

Education is not just about acquiring knowledge but also about developing the person you are. Agree? Good, then you’re on the same page as employers when it comes to views on how critical it is to develop your soft skills while still at university.

Employers believe education must also develop your character. It must develop the attributes and attitudes that guide the way you interact with and respond to people and events. Education doesn’t teach you these things but creates opportunities for you to develop them. Consequently, it is possible to go through university and never acquire the right skills at all. This, employers have been saying for many years, is much to your disadvantage.

Why is that so? The main reason is because every year, about 450,000 new graduates swarm onto the UK job market where there are already over 1,000,000 graduates with five years or less experience. A fair number of them will be just as, if not more, knowledgeable and qualified in their subject matter as you are. They will be also going after the same graduate jobs. The only way to differentiate between you and another equally qualified candidate is by your soft skills.

On top of that, soft skills are what help you hit the ground running. When you first start a job, you’ve a lot to learn about the role, company and industry. You don’t just walk into a job today and become an expert at it tomorrow, so you need something else: soft skills. They determine how quickly you learn the ropes, connect with colleagues, clients and bosses and generally get good at the job.

So, to get a graduate job and make it in today’s workplace, you need to do 3 things:

  1. Demonstrate evidence of soft skills.
  1. Understand and articulate what these skills are.
  1. Show what you did at university and during any internships to acquire them.

You must begin as soon as possible, preferably during your first year at university if not before. I suggest you buy yourself a notebook or diary to record your progress – it’s easy to forget events that may prove useful for swaying an interview your way: they are won on such small differences.

Demonstrate evidence of soft skills – what are they

I found the following description of soft skills by the Jubilee Centre very handy. It describes them as ‘a set of personal traits or dispositions that produce specific moral emotions, inform motivation and guide conduct’. It then divides them into the following four categories:

  • moral virtues: like courage, honesty, humility, empathy
    and gratitude;
  • intellectual virtues: like curiosity and critical thinking;
  • performance virtues: like resilience, application
    and self-regulation; and,
  • civic virtues: like acts of service and volunteering.

Understand and articulate what these skills are

Okay, now you have your notebook and a knowledge of what these skills are. Work at them (see below) and practice talking about them so that it comes natural to you when it counts. Make notes in your diary about what you did to acquire them. Think about the process – how difficult it was at first and how you eventually succeeded. What did you learn and what would you do differently next time?

Developing soft skills isn’t like acquiring a list of individual items you tick off. Many work together, overlap and can be developed simultaneously during a single event (i.e. organising an awareness day), which you then strengthen by repeating over and again.  All it takes is a bit of awareness of the situations, events and people you encounter each day.

Show what you did at university and during any internships to acquire them

Look for opportunities to lead projects and people. Lots of people shy away from project work because they see it as something that gets in the way of ‘real’ academic work. They don’t want the headache of managing deadweight and lazy team members who come with a bucketful of issues and sulk when they can’t get their own way – but that’s the whole point. Working with your difficult peers mirrors the scenarios you’ll encounter at work. Welcome these as opportunities to develop skills such as perseverance, patience and problem solving. It’s all great material for use in the job interview room.

Travelling is a great way to learn about the diversity and cultures of the world but the next best way is to take an active interest in the people around you. Be curious about viewpoints, etiquette and behaviours that may help or hinder effective communication.

Are there opportunities to volunteer at university? Get involved in the student rag, student union, open days and so forth. Don’t limit yourself only to events connected with your course, subject or department but find out what’s happening elsewhere.

Okay, finally, if there aren’t any opportunities, create them. Don’t wait for stuff to fall into your lap. Demonstrate initiative and come up with ideas yourself. Look around your environment for a problem to solve. Lunchtime queues too long? Freshers not well supported? Do your peers lack motivation? Are they struggling to manage finances or unduly suffering from stress? Do something about it. Start a petition. Make stuff happen. Do these things to develop your soft skills while you are still at university and employers will thank you for it.

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