From One SA Pro to Another: How to Build Noncognitive Skills

The Importance of “soft” skills to Student Success

Soft Skills Serve Success

The path to a dream job used to be clearcut: From kindergarten on, one obtained good grades, went to college and began working in a preferred profession. Over the past several years, this formula has begun to change, putting more importance on “soft” or noncognitive skills.

Students and their future employers both focused primarily on traditional academic skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic. A student’s perceived success would depend on scores from tests or other similar means of measuring intelligence. However, more and more studies show that soft skills play a greater role in student and career success than previously realized. These skills—more behavioral in nature than a “hard” skill such as typing or math—include time management, persistence, grit and adaptability. One study found that kindergarten-age children who exhibit traits such as sharing are more likely to obtain a college education and find a high-paying job.

In the Workplace

Employers expressed concern that many job seekers lack the necessary noncognitive skills so critical for success in school, at work and in life. According to an article on, some employers will hire an employee with the stronger soft skills over a counterpart with the greater “hard” skills. This same article listed the six most critical soft skills as:

  • Honesty and integrity
  • Strong work ethic
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Self motivated
  • High energy/positive attitude
  • Team player

Perhaps there’s a disconnect between employers and future employees where the one looks for soft skills, and the other puts more emphasis on grades and test scores, thinking those results will win them a dream job. Employers say one way to develop soft skills is through volunteer work, and many search for these experiences on resumes in addition to analyzing social media profiles.

If you can build it…

Once students recognize the need for improving soft skills, the question becomes how to learn and/or bolster them. Support professionals can assist students in building up their goal setting, motivation and other soft skills as part of an advising or coaching program.

Evaluating a student’s core belief is an important start to assessing soft skills, says InsideTrack Coach Kate Mills. She determines this in part by asking questions such as: What keeps you going after getting a bad grade on a test? Are you able to ask for help? How do you manage your time?

“I want to understand where that belief comes from, the skills a student already has in place, and what they use currently so I can better understand where the gaps are,” she said. The next step is to fill in those gaps by helping students develop habits for success. In an article on Getting Smart, CEO Tom Vander Ark, agreed that building and reinforcing positive habits is a valuable step to improving non-cognitive skills.

Celebrate Success

Mills also emphasized the importance of celebrating success which will help enforce positive behavior.

If your student manages one stressful situation well, then the more likely he or she will tackle the next one in the same manner. Mills also points out that students can use developed skills from academia in other parts of their lives and vice versa. Time management is as important for strong study habits as it is for a busy parent trying to manage multiple schedules.

Improving noncognitive skills won’t be an overnight fix, but the more students add asking for help, motivation and teamwork to their arsenal, the more they will succeed in college and in their career. More and more schools and companies have begun exploring ways to teach soft skills. Institutions will always have a chance to make a direct and meaningful impact on the lives of their students through traditional academics or by building out their noncognitive skills.

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