EducationCollege Choice

Building a strong CV: Skills employers seek and how to stand out from the crowd

Students and graduates should develop skills outside of their college degree as well

Many students and graduates will be aware of the importance of grades and academics. It’s a tale as old as time. Parents and teachers drum it into children from a young age: you should go to school, study hard and then you’ll be able to get a great job.

But the world has changed vastly, and the world of work is no exception. More and more, there is growing recognition of how things outside of academia can increase the value of an employee.

At the end of the day, a large proportion of young people now obtain a university degree. Having something additional on your CV can make a person stand out from the crowd when it comes to applying for jobs.

Maureen Lynch, managing director at Hays Ireland recruitment agency, said its recent annual salary and recruiting trends guide found a “departure from conventional hiring norms based around qualifications”.


“Currently we are seeing a trend of employers emphasising skills-based learning and the candidate’s willingness to adapt and acquire new skills in employment. Employers still place a premium on transferrable and practical skills, adaptability, and a proactive willingness to learn,” she said.

“But there is an increasing importance on a candidate’s ability to grow and adapt within that rapidly changing work environment.”

The problem with the importance of this, however, is it is much more difficult to list on a CV. When it comes to technical skills, a degree is a clear indication that you are capable of doing those things. But there are no modules that are solely focused on adaptability, teamwork or communication, for example. This is where extracurricular activities can be of huge benefit.

Ms Lynch said they provide “tangible evidence” to an employer of a candidate’s “well-rounded skills, adaptability and willingness to go beyond just academic requirements”.

“Participation in extracurricular activities showcases qualities that employers are often searching for such as leadership, teamwork, time management and initiative, which are incredibly valuable in a professional setting,” she said.

“Extracurricular activities often demonstrate a candidate’s ability to acquire new skills and how quick they can do so, aligning with the changing priorities in the modern workforce.”

Diversity in the workplace is increasingly important. Being able to bring forth a unique set of skills and experiences is appreciated by employers. But not all activities create the same skills, and as such, “the value of specific activities [are] contingent on the unique requirements of the job and industry”.

“Specific activities that are most valued can vary depending on the industry and the specific needs of the employer. For instance, activities that showcase relevant skills for the job, involvement in industry-related projects or leadership roles in extracurriculars are likely to be particularly valued by a corporate employer,” Ms Lynch added.

But these extracurricular activities do not have to be directly aligned to the field of interest or specific career goals. According to Ms Lynch, employers generally value skills and experiences that “demonstrate an array of qualities that tell a bit about a candidate’s personality”.

While talent and business acumen are often cited as important in the workplace, someone who is pleasant to work with is an underappreciated facet of employability. Nobody wants to hire someone who is difficult or rude to their colleagues.

Allowing employers to get a glimpse into your personality through your interests and hobbies prior to hiring will also be an added benefit for hiring managers who want to make sure a person is a good fit for a team.

“Employers appreciate candidates who are continually seeking self-improvement and the key is to highlight the skills and experiences gained during these activities. Emphasising how these experiences have contributed to personal and professional development can make a candidate appealing to a wide range of employers,” she added.

“There are various extracurricular areas where these skills could be displayed, such as through sport or volunteering. In industries that prioritise creativity and innovation, participation in projects or activities that demonstrate these qualities could be highly regarded,” Ms Lynch said.

Even if an individual does not yet know what they want to pursue as a career or study, they can still increase their employability by engaging with these sorts of activities. This forward planning means they are already ahead of the game when they do decide which avenue they would like to go down.

But young people shouldn’t fear if they haven’t been involved in activities heretofore. Though many parents shoehorn their children into pastimes when they’re younger, many don’t and even those that do, a large proportion tend to quit by the time they get to teenage years.

Ms Lynch said there are a “variety of ways” to get involved in activities, particularly for those in universities.

Most higher education institutes have an array of clubs and societies, so there is something to suit everyone’s interests. Even if your only interest is Harry Potter, there is often a society dedicated to that, and if you take on a leadership or committee role in the organisation, then you are adding to your CV purely by speaking to likeminded people about one of your passions in life.

Furthermore, those who play team sports naturally learn how to be a part of a team, one of the most valued soft skills in the modern workplace. For volunteers, this illustrates an ability to empathise with people, communicate clearly and it provides evidence that you’re goal orientated.

For example, an individual could teach or tutor, which would demonstrate organisational skills, time management and patience, among others.

Students could also take on a student ambassador role, acting as a voice for others and liaising between students and the college. This teaches a person how to understand and manage differing perspectives and priorities.

“Whether it be through sports, volunteer work, internships, community work and joining school or college clubs that not only provide an avenue for personal growth but also demonstrates an ability to work in a team and engage in collaborative projects,” Ms Lynch said.

“Another of the most obvious extra-curricular activities that aligns with career goals is to pursue internships and work experience related to the chosen field of study or career goals. Practical experience enhances skills and provides real-world insights.”

Irish people, as a nation, are known for being a humble bunch. But it is important when seeking employment to not only recognise the skills they learned through any hobbies or activities they have, but also to mention them as a selling point.

These skills, which we often take for granted, are vitally important in the world of work.

Ms Lynch said applicants should “emphasise how these experiences have equipped you with skills that are relevant to the job you are applying for”.

“Craft a narrative that connects your activities to the qualities employers are seeking in the job description. Also, it’s not about the number of activities but the depth of your involvement and the skills gained. Choose activities that genuinely interest you and where you can make a meaningful contribution,” she added.

Trends are ever-changing. This applies to workplaces, too. And the best thing applicants can do is to remain aware of these trends. Ms Lynch recommends young people to attend webinars, conferences and workshops to stay updated on the latest developments in the industries in which they’re interested.

“This knowledge can be valuable in interviews and networking. It’s also important that young candidates build an online presence that is professional and aligns with their career goals,” she said.

“This includes having a well-crafted LinkedIn profile, a professional email address, and a portfolio showcasing your work if applicable.”

Overall, Ms Lynch’s biggest point to students is that they should not underestimate the importance and value of soft skills, which are learned through the likes of the activities outlined already.

“Soft skills such as how you communicate with others, how you work with others and how you manage your time and react to stressful situations are invaluable,” she said.

She added: “Activities that develop and display these skills can significantly enhance your employability.”

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Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is Health Correspondent of The Irish Times