Not everyone has the luxury of a long resume to power them through the interview process. New college graduates or people switching fields may find themselves at a loss when they think about just how they’ll compete against industry veterans. The good news is that many industries, particularly the fast-moving tech sector, are no longer just looking at length or depth of resumes to select people. HR managers have discovered that various sets of soft skills are key indicators of a person’s potential, and when you’re looking at hiring for long-term growth, potential can mean much more than bullet points on a resume.
Thus, the big question remains: how do you demonstrate your potential in an interview? Experience is easy to convey; you simply list items and cite examples. But potential is much less tangible, and many people might feel lost trying to quantify such a thing. Fortunately, research in cognitive abilities have identified key traits and qualities that many HR staffers have been trained to spot. These include:
1. Active listening
Regardless of technical skill or industry, effective communication is a major part of getting the job done, and active listening is the foundation of strong communication. Active listening is, by definition, simple: the clear demonstration that the listener is paying attention and picking up all significant details in a conversation. For new hires, this is particularly important, as they will be taking direction and learning lessons from many different sources. As a person moves up a career path, this becomes vital in a different way: as someone assumes a leadership role, they will need to be able to take input from people above and below to make educated, informed decisions. Gathering all of these viewpoints is only possible with active listening.
Interview Tip: Face the speaker, use body language to show understanding, ask appropriate questions, and never interrupt with unsolicited opinions.
2. Learning ability
In your first year on the job, you’ll be learning a lot of things, from day-to-day processes to project schedules to people’s personalities and quirks. The ability to absorb that information quickly and accurately is critical in any position. Outside of the first year on the job, it also lends itself to an upwardly mobile career path, as those who learn quickly are more versatile and can apply themselves to a larger variety of situations. Chances are, if you’ve made it to the interview stage despite a thin resume, that means that the hiring managers believe in your learning ability. Thus, your goal should be to reinforce this belief as much as possible during the interview.
Interview Tip: Weave in anecdotes of when you had to pick up new skills or abilities quickly, both professionally and personally.
3. Problem solving
Problem solving is one of the cornerstones of strong cognitive ability due to its combination of other traits: it requires logical thinking, active listening, teamwork, and strong situational awareness. On the job, an employee with sharp problem-solving abilities is able to work independently and can handle challenging situations. Strong problem solvers are gold for hiring managers because they allow for flexibility across departments while bringing senior-level potential.
Interview Tip: Prepare stories of severe challenges you’ve faced professionally and personally, along with clear paths to resolution and results.
Most people associate the arts with the word “creativity,” but being creative is an asset in any field. Creativity simply means thinking outside of the box and innovating in new and different ways. That type of mental flexibility is highly prized among hiring managers because it means that you’re adaptable in extreme or unfamiliar circumstances. Not only does this generate previously unheard-of solutions, it allows companies to think of the bigger picture. By tapping into creativity on both process and product, companies can become industry leaders that push new ideas forward — and in many cases, hiring managers specifically seek to recruit creative people by bringing in “new blood” who can provide a different perspective.
Interview Tip: Research the company’s past and future projects and generate unique solutions to processes and known criticisms.
5. What not to do
The above four tips are excellent ways to demonstrate your value even when your overall experience is light. However, one overarching tip applies to all of those: use common sense. Don’t try too hard to force a narrative into the discussion, don’t use subversively insulting comments when talking about the company or product — even when you’re showing a potentially creative solution to an issue — and absolutely always be polite. Whether you come in with a long resume or a strong set of soft skills or both, these assets can quickly be subverted by coming off as arrogant or unlikable — and that is a trap you can fall into if you try too hard to demonstrate your cognitive abilities or best traits.
Instead, practice with friends and colleagues ahead of time and work on being natural in a high-stress environment. Not only will this help you feel more comfortable in the interview, it will also translate into how hiring managers perceive your personality. In short, it’s a win-win that can’t be quantified on paper.
Josh Millet is the CEO & Founder of Criteria Corp., a pre-employment testing company founded in 2006 that creates software for employers to gather objective data on job candidates with aptitude, personality, and skills tests. He is also the Founder of JobFlare, a mobile app that helps job seekers get discovered based on their abilities rather than their resume.