Soft Skills You Develop as a University Student
That Will Later Boost Your Career

See also: Critical Thinking

It is easy to overlook soft skills. They seem like things we should know and do routinely, and only rarely are soft skills taught in formal education. Indeed, the term ‘soft skills’ suggests they are easier and less important than hard skills, but that could not be further from the truth.

In fact, the soft skills you will develop and use at university are likely to be the most important you will ever learn. And far from being easy, learning to use soft skills effectively takes time and constant effort. Indeed, many who work in soft skill training now prefer the term ‘power skills’, since they believe it more accurately reflects their importance without making them seem easy or natural.

Although there may not be formal degrees in soft skills, many universities recognize their importance and will offer students soft skills training. But even if not, there will be lots of soft skills that students will need and learn. But what are the soft skills, what are the differences between soft and hard skills, and why are the soft skills important?

What are the soft skills?

Because there aren’t many qualifications in soft skills, there isn’t a single agreed list of what the soft skills are. However, they tend to be people-centered, and soft skills examples often include things like communication. Other soft skill examples include how we approach work and tasks, like organization and problem-solving abilities, while some go even further and include what some might consider characteristics, like resilience.

A key difference between soft and hard skills is their application. Typically, hard skills have a defined and limited purpose. A hard skill, for example, might be the ability to solve coding problems in a Computer Science Masters. However, a soft skill like planning can be just as useful when approaching a coding problem as when thinking about your meals for the week.

Finally, hard skills can usually be mastered once, and last a lifetime. Even something like learning a language, though you might learn new words years later, is something you do once, but a soft skill like communication, will need constant practice if you want to use it effectively.

Why are soft skills important?

When education systems are set up to teach and reward hard skills, the importance of soft skills can be overlooked. But a simple way to illustrate their importance is to consider why people are dismissed from their jobs. Ask any manager, and they will tell you it’s not because of their hard skills.

People need to prove their hard skills to get jobs in the first place, through their qualifications or experience. However, when they are in work, managers may realize they lack the necessary soft skills. An employee might have terrible timekeeping, arriving late or missing deadlines, or they might lack interpersonal skills, causing arguments or misunderstanding instructions. It is almost always soft skills that make the difference between a bad and a great employee.

To highlight this, research in the US found that teaching soft-skills to pre-school children led to them outperforming their peers decades later at college and when in work. And it was all because their soft skills made them more effective at learning, working, and applying their hard skills.

The good news is that it’s never too late to learn, and students, especially international students, will have countless opportunities to develop their portfolio of soft skills.



Five areas of soft skills that international students will learn (and need)

Interpersonal skills

Students often improve their communication and understanding skills. In part this is because the nature of teaching changes between school and university, from a teacher delivering knowledge to more discussion about learning.

Students also find themselves in a new environment when not learning. International students may be away from home for the first time, and even using a second language. Whether it’s chatting with new friends, or presenting at seminars, international students will quickly develop and hone their communication skills.

Confidence and resilience

Confidence and resilience are not just characteristics, but soft skills anyone can develop.

Aside from the confidence of moving to another country, study provides lots of opportunities to move outside of comfort zones, learning the importance of preparation and how to deal with nerves. And, resilience is not just about stoicism, but the strategies and techniques you use to learn and overcome setbacks, however big or small they are.

Independence and self-care

It is assumed that everyone is capable of living an independent life, but everyone knows someone who can’t manage a household budget or fix simple problems.

International students have a unique opportunity to practice their skills of self-reliance and self-care. And they can do so in the supportive environment of a university where help and support are easily available if needed.

Organization and motivation

Self-motivation and organization are critical tools for a university student. Every course will require some independent and self-motivated study. Despite this, it’s not uncommon for some students to be caught out by the lack of compulsion when they no longer have to be in school for set hours.

As a student, you will have to learn how to balance the expectations and deadlines of your course with the rest of your life. Not only will you learn how to motivate yourself, despite other temptations, but also how to manage your time and take a long-term view of your education investment.

Critical thinking

One of the most important soft skills is the ability to think critically. While this may be a requirement of many courses, which might expect you to take a critical view of sources of evidence, it’s also an important life skill.

Critical thinking is not just about research or learning. Whether it’s fake news or more mundane things like restaurant choices, the ability to think critically about information and decisions is vital.


Don’t underestimate the importance of soft skills

Soft skills are vital, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking they will just develop. Honing your soft skills can be as difficult as any university course. However, as an international student you will have no shortage of opportunity to practice.

Approach soft skills with purpose and intent, and they won’t just help you achieve academic success, but can set you up for a career and life filled with success too.


About the Author


James Cousins is a writer, passionate about education and training subjects. He has over fifteen years of experience in writing, from blogging to academic and think tank research, to conversational columns in trade publications.

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