7 Soft Skills for High School Students
November 9, 2023
In today’s technology-centric and data-driven world, it’s easy to focus on the hard skills and competencies that you believe your child may need to land college acceptances and job placements, which may include coding languages, data analysis proficiency, or foreign language mastery. However, in order to succeed in college–and in any given career field, for that matter–your child will need to possess a certain set of soft skills that will help them problem-solve effectively, navigate diverse settings, and understand how to relate to others. Over the past decade of working with teens, we’ve found that certain soft skills are most indicative of a student’s ability to thrive in the college setting and beyond. Read on for our list of the top seven soft skills for high school students.
What are soft skills?
Before we dive in, let’s define what soft skills are. According to the National Soft Skills Association, soft skills are rooted in emotional intelligence. Typically, they refer to the skills we need to collaborate with others and navigate challenging situations, such as communication, leadership, teamwork, stress management, and conflict resolution.
As such, soft skills for high school students are notoriously difficult to measure or quantify, although many researchers have tried. For example, in a working paper that was released in 2020 by the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, researchers from Northwestern and the University of Chicago asserted that promoting interpersonal skills and work ethic has a greater impact on educational outcomes than raising test scores. In 2017, David Deming, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education published “The Growing Importance of Soft Skills in the Labor Market,” another working paper that delves into why soft skills are viewed as increasingly important across various sectors. Moreover, over the past fifteen years, there has been increased attention on qualities like grit, empathy, and adaptability, among others. Strong research and anecdotal evidence indicate that the possession of such skills leads to better educational and professional outcomes.
What is the difference between hard skills vs. soft skills for teens?
Hard skills are the opposite of soft skills; they are measurable, quantifiable, and testable. They often refer to technical proficiencies, such as computer applications or programming languages, but can also refer to copywriting, marketing, and foreign language expertise. Moreover, hard skills are typically quick to assess. If someone asks you if you speak Spanish and you say “sí,” they might follow up with “Qué hora es?” If you answer “Me llamo Jillian,” it will be abundantly clear that you don’t, in fact, speak Spanish. Similarly, certain internships or courses might require Python proficiency. If, when you’re asked to write code, you turn into Homer Simpson frantically searching for the “any key” key, your lack of coding expertise will be sadly–and instantly–revealed.
Why are soft skills for teens important?
In relation to college applications, reviewers hope to observe these traits in the work students have done. They also assess students’ soft skills from the way they interact, whether verbally or in writing.
That said, it’s important to note that “soft skills mastery” is not another task to cross off the college application checklist. Rather, it’s a set of life skills essential to independence as well as relational and professional success. Soft skills for high school students are observable through the way they interact with others, show up in different spaces, and solve problems. As such, these skills are often a good indicator of what type of classmate, roommate, and community member they’ll be.
How can teenagers develop soft skills?
Like most skills, soft skills are best developed through practice and modeling. Extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, doing household chores, and simply attending school are excellent ways to develop soft skills. Moreover, middle school and high school present many important opportunities to practice and make mistakes in a safe environment. That said, mastering just about any skill on this list will likely take months–and potentially years–of practice. Let’s dive in.
Soft Skills for High School Students #1: Communication
No matter what career your child decides to pursue in the future, they’ll need strong communication skills within their personal and professional lives. Before they find themselves in front of a boardroom, though, they’ll first need to make their own doctor’s appointments, schedule meetings with professors and advisors, inquire about and interview for jobs, etc. A few ways to help them practice:
- Let your teen answer and send their own emails to ask questions and resolve problems about their homework, classroom assignments, scheduling conflicts, and college applications.
- Let your teen make and answer calls to set up doctor and dentist appointments.
- Let your teen handle extracurricular scheduling issues–such as coordinating pick-ups and drop-offs with friends, when appropriate.
Such opportunities are often self-correcting in that your child will receive fairly instant feedback. Perhaps they’ll have to repeat an unclear question several times to the doctor’s office receptionist, send a follow-up email when they haven’t received a response from their coach, or have to wait for you to pick them up if they forgot to ask a friend for a ride home. These small interactions are often quite powerful and provide your teenager with important insight that they can use next time.
Soft Skills for High School Students #2: Feedback
Giving and receiving feedback could be considered a subset of “communication skills.” However, we’ve broken it into its own category based on its importance in both academic and professional settings. Recently, the Wall Street Journal published an article investigating the changes that some companies are making in their feedback procedures, which include adjusting their terminology (“feed forward” versus “feedback”) and inquiring about employee preferences, such as whether they’d rather receive feedback in writing or in-person.
While receiving constructive feedback can be nerve-wracking, your teenager can simply think of it as a piece of information that they can choose to use or not use. Of course, there may be natural consequences associated with not using feedback–particularly in the professional world. Consequently, high school is an excellent time to practice learning how to deliver feedback and receive it from others. A few tips:
- Help your teen understand that it’s normal to feel nervous about receiving feedback and/or to have mixed feelings about the feedback that has been received. This does not necessarily mean that the feedback is untrue or inaccurate.
- In order to fully absorb feedback, encourage your teen to pause before responding–whether at home, on the field, or in the classroom.
- Use “I” statements that focus on your own emotions and experiences when giving feedback to your teenager, and encourage them to do the same when giving feedback to others. For example, “I feel confused about this section” is often better received than “You didn’t do a good job explaining this.”
Soft Skills for High School Students #3: Interpersonal/Social
Unless the dorm fairy blesses your teenager with a single, being a college student is often synonymous with having roommates. Thus, one of the best types of skills that your child can develop is learning how to be in a shared space with others. Teens should know that leaving their old takeout container on top of their desk for four days and piling dirty laundry in the direct center of the room’s only available floorspace is a one-way ticket to Roommate Conflict-palooza. And in addition to having roommates, your teenager will be joining new friend groups and extracurricular activities. How should you help foster the development of these soft skills for teens?
- Expect and encourage your child to enroll in extracurricular activities and volunteer opportunities–whatever form those take. Across the board, we’ve noticed that the students who are deeply involved in particular activities are also those who have had the greatest opportunity to work with different types of students and mentors.
- Encourage your child to take on increased levels of responsibility in one or two of their most important activities. Leadership roles, in particular, are excellent for exposing teenagers to new types of perspectives and ways of interacting with others. Also, it’s great to take on a first leadership role in a familiar, supportive environment.
- If possible, encourage your teen to work part-time in high school. Learning how to navigate supervisor, coworker, and customer interactions is one of the best ways to learn people skills and professional etiquette. However, part-time jobs need not be related to your child’s future career. We’ve seen plenty of students gain tremendous value and perspective from bagging groceries, working as waitresses, and being baristas.
Soft Skills for High School Students #4: Stress Management & Problem-Solving
It’s impossible to avoid experiencing stress, particularly during the emotional rollercoaster of teenage and young adulthood. It makes sense that this time period feels fraught–our children’s brains do not finish developing until their mid-late twenties. Given that their prefrontal cortex is the last to develop–the part of the brain that is responsible for executive functioning–emotional regulation and expression are skills that they are very much still learning. Good stress management is also highly correlated with solid emotional resilience, meaning that we want our children to display and tolerate a wide range of emotions, ideally in healthy ways. (Although it should be noted that the “healthy” part comes with time and maturity.)
Soft Skills for High School Students (Continued)
But it’s difficult to watch our children struggle. As they grow up, it can be even harder to understand when to allow them to struggle and when to step in. It’s also difficult not to project our own experiences, emotions, or fears on our children. As world-ending as things seem right now–to you or your teen–struggling in an extracurricular activity or class project is a very safe environment with relatively low stakes. Accordingly, here are several ways you can help build stress management-related soft skills for teens:
- If you don’t absolutely need to step in, try letting your teen problem-solve on their own. It can help them build important skills for the next time they face a similar situation. For example, did their English teacher give them an unrealistic timeline for a group project? Resist the urge to email or call, and let your teen take the lead.
- If your teen is stressed, try asking them if they’d like advice or if they’d simply like to vent. This can be a good way to test how serious the problem is.
- If your teen consistently feels burnt out or struggles to cope, and you believe it is interfering with their mental health, seeing a therapist can help build skills in emotional resilience.
Soft Skills for High School Students #5: Time Management
Your teen is likely balancing a number of competing responsibilities and interests: classes, friends, sports, clubs, after-school jobs. Learning how to prioritize and manage one’s time is often an ongoing endeavor. (Raise your hand if you continue to be the friend who is always ten minutes late.)
Soft Skills for Teens (Continued)
However, time management skills go beyond being punctual–it’s often a critical factor in how students manage projects and homework. Do they often work ahead of schedule, or wait until the last minute? If the latter, do all the reminders, calendars, and Post-It notes in the world have little impact? If you’re feeling the stress of your teen’s procrastination, know that the root cause of procrastination may have little to do with time management. Instead, it may have more to do with complex behavioral factors.
In The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, Alice W. Flaherty delves deeply into the factors surrounding procrastination, noting that complicated punishment and reward responses may drive it. For example, perhaps your child procrastinates their college personal statement until the last minute because of their anxiety about pressing “submit.” This response has little to do with their time management abilities. So, what can you do to assist?
- Many people who struggle with procrastination work well with externally imposed deadlines. There’s not much you can do to control or set these for your teen, but encouraging them to determine deadlines in conjunction with a teacher, peer, or other mentor can help hold them accountable.
- Try to help your teen find an organizational system that works–and let them see how you manage your time, too. It might be a virtual calendar, paper calendar, paper chain, color-coded Post-It note system, phone reminders, etc.
- When and if possible, let your child run late and have to navigate the natural consequences of doing so.
Soft Skills for High School Students #6: Work Ethic
When Miranda Priestly fires Andy in The Devil Wears Prada, she laments Andy’s “so-called work ethic.” (Andy couldn’t figure out how to airlift her boss out of a hurricane.) The American society’s obsession with working–and working ourselves to the bone to complete seemingly impossible tasks–is not what we’re referring to when we talk about work ethic. Working constantly without breaks is a recipe for burnout. A good work ethic, however, is usually a set of healthy behaviors. It includes the drive to take initiative, to go above and beyond, to be proactive when something needs to be handled (within reason, of course).
This can be a hard balance to achieve and a challenging skill to learn (or moderate, in the case of high-achieving and perfectionistic students). What can we do to help develop these soft skills for teens?
- Model it for them! As parents, we are the best teachers of what type of work-life balance we’d like our children to have.
- Help your child map out the steps to completing a particular task or project, or connect them with someone who can. Part of developing a good work ethic is experiencing the positive pay-off of achieving a particular result.
- Encourage your child’s effort, and help them remain positive and flexible in the face of challenges.
- When your child commits to a reasonable slate of activities and courses–reasonable being the key word here–expect that they’ll follow through with their responsibilities, even if it’s difficult to do so at times.
Soft Skills for High School Students #7: Conflict Resolution
Whether at home, with friends, or with a teacher, conflict is never a fun experience. Many go out of their way to avoid it at all costs. Conflict can be fairly low-stakes: not seeing eye-to-eye with your partner on your PowerPoint design scheme or disagreeing with a teammate over a particular play, for example. It can also be quite high-stakes, particularly if related to hot-button or emotionally charged beliefs or perspectives. Handling conflict appropriately is often directly related to one’s stress management skills and emotional resilience, so it makes sense that navigating it may feel difficult for your child. Here are a few tips:
- When someone else is speaking, it’s easy to focus on what we might say in return rather than paying close attention to the other person. Encourage your child to be an active listener and ask questions before responding.
- Empathy plays a strong role in good conflict resolution. Encourage your child to think about the other person’s point of view and why they might have that perspective.
- Reflect on the way your family handles internal conflict, and if there are any changes you might make or want to model in this area.
Soft Skills for High School Students – Final Thoughts
By encouraging our teens to take on a varied slate of academic and extracurricular opportunities, by modeling the skills we want them to learn, and by providing them with plenty of practice, we are helping to support the development of a variety of essential soft skills. Parenting a teen and preparing them for the next stage in their lives can feel both overwhelming and rewarding. Luckily, your teen will naturally learn the skills they need to be successful by simply having opportunities to be involved and by having caring adult mentors who want to see them thrive.
Interested in learning more about how to help your teen navigate the transition from high school to college? Check out the following blogs: