On Relevant Skills & Interests

Navigating the most misunderstood territory of the personal resume.

There’s a weird power behind all first impressions. But when it comes to seducing prospective employers, the task of conveying a strong personal brand in a one-page resume can feel especially daunting.

Despite the temptation to over-embellish the details of your work experience and educational background (e.g. “spearheaded supply chain process improvement while lifeguarding in the summer of ’04”), most applicants recognize that these sections are relatively straightforward summaries of your experiences and triumphs. But the “Relevant Skills and Interests” section is the Bermuda Triangle of the resume—no one really knows what happens there, and there’s a looming possibility of disaster.

To make things a bit more navigable as you try to land that next job offer, we’ve asked a handful of experts—from resume strategists, to headhunters, to University Career Center advisors—to offer some advice on how not to screw up that enigmatic section known as, “Relevant Skills and Interests.”

Putting the “Relevance” in “Relevant Skills”

The term “resume,” comes from the French, “to summarize,” and your CV should be treated as such: a snapshot of your strongest attributes, not an exhaustive list.

“The truth is, everything should be relevant, so you should scratch ‘Relevant,’ off of that heading completely,” noted Lela Reynolds, Senior Career Consultant at Resume Strategists, Inc. based in Manhattan. “The goal is to show the company that you can fulfill the role that they need. Ultimately, that’s going to get you into the ‘yes,’ pile.”

While it may be tempting to include that you love to knit and you once hitchhiked across South America, the resume is only the beginning of what can be a very long process. Information that rounds out your personality should be saved for the interview.

“I wouldn’t put that you have a yoga certification if you’re applying to an analyst position,” Ms. Reynolds explained. “It doesn’t say anything about your ability to do the job.”

In other words, including completely unrelated interests can cause confusion and take away from the true relevant skills that you intend to outline.

On the other hand, outside of the professional hard and soft skills needed for the role, if you have an interest that has some correlation to the company or industry, it may help to give you an edge.

“A sporting goods company or wellness startup might appreciate someone who is an avid marathon runner or fitness enthusiast,” noted Dana Leavy-Detrick, Chief Creative Scribe at Brooklyn Resume Studio. “It not only shows culture fit, but that you understand the product and the audience that they deal with.”

But keep in mind that a key component of relevancy is keeping it up-to-date. While it’s a great idea to include membership of professional associations, leadership positions, key presentations delivered, or honors and awards received, if it’s something that happened six or seven years ago, it’s time to let it go.

“It can be hard to let go of accomplishments, but your profile should reflect something fairly current,” noted Ms. Reynolds. “I once encountered a resume that listed about 15 undergraduate courses the applicant had taken. Needless to say, not too many jobs were opening to that candidate.”

Avoid the Keyword Landfill

It’s no secret that many employers—especially larger organizations—rely on applicant tracking systems (ATS) to help pre-filter resumes. These systems scan resumes for contextual keywords and mathematically score them for relevance, sending only the “most qualified” through for human review.

This system tends to incite fear across many applicant pools, and as a result, there’s a temptation to use the “Relevant Skills and Interests” section as a keyword dumping ground in an effort to ward against the merciless robots that overlook your CV. In other words, the candidate lists everything possible skill found on LinkedIn, and a few made up ones to “stand out.”

But while this method might get your resume into human hands, it’s likely that the human who reads your resume will not appreciate your cluster of search terms lacking context.

Tonya Osmond, Assistant Director of the University of Richmond’s Career Services Center noted, “Even if the applicant tracking systems identify resumes with the key words, employers who review these selected resumes will not be impressed with random, unexplained lists of skills.”

While a traditional skills section that merely lists skills in a topical manner is seen as obsolete by most HR departments, a well-written professional profile will call out relevant skills and then provide quantifiable evidence.

“No matter what industry you’re in, your resume is your opportunity to brag about yourself when you’re not there in person,” noted Stephen. Preng, an executive recruiter in the oil and gas industry at Preng and Associates. “The best way to capture your reader’s attention is to capture what you’ve accomplished in your career, and list as many accomplishments as possible. It doesn’t make sense to simply list skill sets—that’s not being successful.”

A systems analyst might say, “helped migrate legacy spreadsheets from front-office technology to valuation framework,” in lieu of saying, “expertise in Excel.” Granted, giving evidence of your strongest skills means that there will be less space to mention others, but that’s exactly the point; It’s better to communicate what sets you apart from someone with a similar background or skillset, rather than listing every common skill.

As Ms. Reynolds noted, “It’s pretty much a given that everyone knows how to use Microsoft Office. Why waste space saying that?”

With all this being said, it’s important to keep a few measures in mind so that your resume doesn’t get lost in ATS limbo as a result of avoidable technical issues.

Avoid fancy formatting and logo placements to ensure that the ATS doesn’t reject your resume out of confusion. And use both the acronym and the spelled-out form of any title or technology you mention.

And if you’re unsure of how to tease out the most important key words that describe you, tag cloud tools such as TagCrowd and Wordle can help you figure out which keywords to focus on by inputting job descriptions and creating word clouds that visually highlight the employer’s most frequently used terms. (You can also copy the text of your own resume into the tag cloud tool to get a better sense of what your resume says about you and adjust).

Provide Evidence When Fluffing Your Feathers

The saying, “fake it until you make it,” is a popular one, but the fact is that faking skills, competencies, and attributes within a professional environment is, in fact, very hard, and will often show quickly.

Ms. Osmond noted that tempering the language when describing a specific skill can help you demonstrate to your potential employer that you are familiar with a skill without proclaiming expertise. “Words like, ‘familiar with’ or ‘knowledgeable of’ can convey a low-level skill,” she noted. “But if you use words like ‘experienced in,’ and ‘proficient with,’ you better be prepared to demonstrate your abilities within the interview.”

Ms. Reynolds agreed, “If you list a skill on your resume, you have to be able to actually do it, not just aspire to it. If the skill is vital to the job, you will have to jump in on the first day, rather than learn as you go. That’s why verifiable examples of the work you’ve already done are so important.”

But in light of providing concrete evidence in the form of specific projects and certifications, it begs the question: Does this make the “Relevant Skills and Interests” section obsolete all together?

According to Ms. Leavy-Detrick, the answer is, “absolutely not.” While it’s important to show skills within context, having a dedicated section gives the reader a quick snapshot of what strengths and areas of expertise are, all of which can be expounded upon within the experience section.

“The relevant skills section is more of a professional profile that helps to identify what type of professional the job-seeker wants to be perceived as. It essentially a marketing tool that calls attention to relevant abilities,” explained Ms. Osmond. “The work section can help provide quantifiable evidence of these attributes.”

Ultimately, being an Ironman finisher or a leader of a World of Warcraft guild might offer unique strengths to your future team, but it’s best to let your future co-workers figure that out after you’ve secured your position.

“I think of using the Skills section as a way to communicate a candidate’s core strength in a visual way,” Ms. Leavy-Detrick echoed. “It should really answer the question, ‘What can YOU bring to the table?’”