IT Resume 101: Tips for a Perfect Technical Skills Section

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In the first two parts of our IT Resume 101 series, we covered some crucial resume basics and your education section of your resume. Now, we'll talk about another essential feature: your technical skills section (also called a technical qualifications section).

Candidate screening for IT positions often begins (and frequently ends) by assessing technical skills. While other features are valued -- initiative, leadership, writing ability, customer service, teamwork -- these soft skills take a clear backseat to technical competence.

Most technical resumes, therefore, have a section for technical skills. There are three main things we need to take into consideration here:



  • How technical skills are organized

  • How technical skills are described

  • How your technical skills section is formatted

Let's cover some resume tips for each of these in turn.


Tip #1: Order your qualifications logically

Your technical skills section should be more than a laundry list of IT certifications; ideally there will be some clear-cut pattern behind how your abilities are ordered. Here are a few common patterns:



  • ORDER OF PROFICIENCY: Lead with skills in which you fancy yourself expert, and then move on to those in which you are simply competent. This pattern creates an efficient picture of your specialties. It is particularly useful if you're not applying for any one job in particular -- at a career fair, for example, or posting your resume on-line.

  • ORDER OF RELEVANCE: For this pattern, list technical skills that are most relevant to your target position first, and then move to those less pertinent. If hiring managers are looking for expertise in specific areas, as opposed to a jack-of-all-trades, this lets them recognize these traits swiftly.

  • ORDER OF EXPERIENCE: This pattern, in which technical skills are followed by the number of years experience, shows hiring managers how your career has taken shape. If the job specifies a minimum number of years experience, consider this pattern of development.

  • TYPE OF SKILL: Technical skills have different categories. If you want to create a diverse portrait, consider having independent sections for hardware skills, software skills, networking skills, programming languages, operating systems, databases, apps, or any other appropriate category. Between four and five categories is usually fine, but make sure that each looks robust.

Feel free to combine these patterns. For example, you could have a primary pattern of relevance, and within that a secondary pattern of years of experience. Just pick the system of organization that seems most applicable to the job you're applying for.


Tip #2: Describe your qualifications accurately

In addition to listing your abilities, you'll probably need to describe them. After all, your knowledge will vary from serviceable familiarity in some skills to expertise in others. So how do you communicate this difference efficiently?

Well, the best way is to use an accessible vocabulary. An obscure system of numbers (a "3/5" in Java, for example, but a "4/5" in C++) doesn't communicate much. Readers don't know what a "3" means, or what skill sets it describes.

Here's some fail-safe jargon to use instead:



  • Novice: You can handle basic functions, but not much more; troubleshooting is best left to others.

  • Intermediate: More advanced abilities are at your disposal; you can handle troubleshooting, but still might need the manual or help forums.

  • Proficient: Routine or not, you'll usually be okay. If issues arise, you handle them efficiently and without consulting references.

  • Expert: You can handle anything thrown your way, no matter how obscure. Other techies come to you for advice.


Tip #3: Format your qualifications clearly

Some applicants get fancy here, creating color-coded schemes, complicated grids, or even substituting program icons or clip-art graphics as symbols for their expertise. The thinking, I imagine, is to make the resume "stand-out." Rather than being accessible, though, such gimmicks are often overwhelming, even corny. The question to ask is whether design decisions block clarity or enhance it.

In any case, a simple list or column format usually works fine.


Tip #4: Be honest

This one isn't really a tip; it's a requirement. Skills in your technical qualifications section should always reflect actual abilities -- never more. Sometimes applicants exaggerate skills, thinking it will increase their potential jobs -- and that they can learn what they need on the fly.

Such deception almost always backfires.

Hiring processes for IT positions almost always include a technical interview, where current IT staffers quiz you on required skills. If your responses don't match what you've claimed, you'll be found out quickly, and be right back where you started -- only now you'll have wasted your time, and the time of a potential employer who probably won't look at your application again.

If that sounds unpleasant, consider this scenario: If you somehow get the job, it won't take long for your shortcomings to emerge. When they do, people will remember what you claimed when you were hired. Then you might find yourself fired for something worse than your incompetence: your integrity.

Take a look at some of the common interview questions for IT professionals to see why honesty is the best strategy.


Bonus Tips for Your Tech Skills Section



  • Limit technical skills to programs and languages still in widespread use. If the qualification is for an antique program, listing it doesn't communicate anything useful. Even more risky, it could indicate that your knowledge -- like the program itself -- isn't up to date.

  • Be specific about which versions you can handle. Software and operating systems are routinely updated, and each edition is slightly different. Specify what you know.

  • Don't overdo it by listing too many skills. Remember: the goal is to convince employers that you can do what they need done well, not that you can do everything.

It is not necessary, for the moment, to include times you've used skills in on-the-job situations. You'll also have an employment section, which will take care of that just fine. In fact, an ideal resume considers sections in connection with one another, so that material in the employment section amplifies what is simply listed here.

Next Friday's IT Resume 101 article, on developing your work history section, will cover how to make these connections clearly and effectively.

Ready to test your skills in Resume Writing? See how they stack up with this assessment from Smarterer. Start this Resume Writing test now.


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Alan Ackmann

Alan Ackmann teaches professional and technical writing at DePaul University in Chicago. His work has appeared in a variety of journals, and he is the author of the following Pluralsight Courses: Fundamentals of Written Proposals; Writing Process Instructions and Directions; and Resumes, Research, and Writing on the Job Hunt.