Top 5 Soft Skills Every College Student Should Master

by Evan Thompson

Updated September 1, 2022 is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Graduating from college is a worthy accomplishment, but earning your degree doesn't always mean you're ready for the real world.

A graduate's career readiness — meaning the set of skills that makes you well-prepared to enter the workforce — can be just as important as a diploma. Generally speaking, having career skills means you can communicate well, think critically, collaborate with others, and be creative. Employers pay close attention to these skills because they can help you succeed at any given job.

Key Competencies for Career Readiness

  • Critical thinking and problem solving

  • Oral/written communications

  • Teamwork/collaboration

  • Digital technology

  • Leadership

  • Professionalism/work ethic

  • Career management

  • Global/intellectual fluency

Source: National Association of Colleges and Employers

There are many ways to improve your career readiness. You can seek early exposure to the workplace by doing internships, apprenticeships, and job shadows. You can also work on interpersonal attributes, known as "soft skills," like critical thinking, public speaking, multitasking, attitude, and work ethic.

Soft skills are often the reason employers decide whether to hire, keep, or promote an employee, and developing them helps prepare you for the workforce.

We've narrowed them down to five main soft skills that every college student should master, regardless of career path.

Work Ethic

Work ethic is a measure of how much effort, determination, and dedication someone puts into their job. Strong workers are reliable, motivated, and disciplined throughout the day. They're able to manage their time and complete their work quickly and thoroughly. They can also stay productive despite obstacles and hold themselves accountable if they start to fall behind.

  • Why It Matters: Effort makes a difference. A 2015 study found that 85% of employers value attitude and work ethic above all else when hiring new entry-level employees. Finding ways to showcase that effort tells your bosses you can excel in any position or task given to you. But it's not all about working hard; getting outside of your comfort zone by volunteering for a new project or learning a new skill also demonstrates a strong work ethic.
  • How to Improve: Work ethic is not something you can easily translate to a resume. You'll have to prove it by meeting deadlines and following through on expectations. Be willing to take on any task, no matter how difficult or unfamiliar it might be for you.


Creativity means you can come up with new and useful ideas. Creative people help push the workplace forward, coming up with ways to accomplish tasks, solve problems, and create systems that others haven't tried before. It's about thinking differently than convention demands.

  • Why It Matters: Employers across all industries want creative workers who can shake things up. Creativity not only leads to innovation but inspires others to be creative as well. Finding new ways to do things is encouraged. This can include breaking from a tried-and-true approach to find a new one, putting a fresh spin on a mundane topic, or pitching a wild but insightful idea.
  • How to Improve: Everyone possesses creativity in some capacity. Unlocking it is the key. You could keep track of your brainstorms on a piece of paper, go for a walk to boost your creativity, or research how other industries accomplish similar goals. Find a method tailored to your work style that gets your brain flowing with ideas.


Good communicators can express their thoughts and ideas clearly and effectively in written or verbal forms. They can comfortably speak in front of groups, big or small. They're approachable, humble, and open to hearing new ideas.

  • Why It Matters: Whether it's telling teammates which tasks you're tackling throughout the week or pitching new ideas to hit company goals, communication is key. Poor habits, such as not keeping your manager up to date on your progress, can hurt your growth.
  • How to Improve: A good rule of thumb to follow is to be polite, positive, and attentive. Find a communication style that works for you, and remember that it's a two-way street: A good communicator is a good listener, too.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinkers use sound reasoning to analyze issues, make decisions, and overcome problems. Skilled critical thinkers are experts at personal judgment, problem-solving, and time management.

  • Why It Matters: Employers will want to know how you use the tools at your disposal to meet goals, especially when there are obstacles in the way. A tight deadline, limited resources, or challenging assignments are a chance to problem-solve and troubleshoot solutions.
  • How to Improve: Take time to evaluate your work. Being more aware of your mental process will help improve your efficiency and the quality of your work. If you keep running into the same issue, such as missing a deadline, figure out why it's going wrong and fix it.


Skilled collaborators understand the importance of teamwork, camaraderie, and unity in diverse workplaces. They can create relationships with coworkers regardless of their race, culture, gender identity, age, religion, or lifestyle. They also support diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace.

  • Why It Matters: Employers count on collaboration between team members to accomplish objectives. If you're not willing to work with others toward a common goal, you won't be much help. Because workplaces are becoming more diverse, collaborators who can find value in different people's contributions and perspectives in a team environment will be a far better asset than those who only value their ideas.
  • How to Improve: Set your ego aside and focus on the mission at hand. While you shouldn't be afraid to share your thoughts and ideas, it's important to recognize, respect, and trust your teammates' abilities. They also depend on you holding up your end of the bargain.
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Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.

Header Image Credit: Patcharida | Getty Images

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