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Written by Susan ShorSusan Shor

Core competencies: What are they and how should they appear on a resume?

17 min read
Core competencies: What are they and how should they appear on a resume?
Artwork by:Pablo Cammello
What’s the difference between a core competency and a skill? Which should you choose and how should you present these abilities? We answer those questions and more below.

Perhaps the most difficult task in developing a resume is deciding exactly what you are best at. Certainly, the skills you list will depend on the job description, but when it comes down to it, your core competencies define you as a professional.

Since hiring managers are likely to scan this easy-to-read section first, it’s paramount that you curate your core competencies with thought and intention. If they don’t find what they are looking for here, they are unlikely to read on.

You may choose to list your core competencies on your resume, but you also may be asked the question, “What are your core competencies?” in an interview. In that case, be prepared to expand upon the list with examples from your professional life.

In this blog, we will guide you to hone your core competencies and give yourself the best chance at getting the job you desire by offering examples and exploring the following topics: 

  • What are core competencies?
  • Methods for choosing core competencies for your resume
  • Core competencies on a resume
  • The best answers to the question: What are your three core competencies?
Core competencies
Core competencies

What are core competencies?

Like any other set of language that relates to a specific topic, the language of job hunting can be confusing. What’s the difference between core competencies, skills, and qualifications? You may think of these as a nested set. 

What are core competencies?
What are core competencies?

Broadly speaking, core competencies are the characteristics that define you as an employee and allow you to stand out from the competition. Core competencies tend to be soft skills or those personality traits that drive your job performance. They give prospective employers an idea of the type of thinker, communicator, and leader you are.

For example, you may have knowledge of the Microsoft Office suite, but does that define you? Probably not. It may be a qualification for the position you seek or an expert-level skill you have acquired, but it’s unlikely that when asked to describe yourself, you reply with “I’m an Office expert!” You may, however, say “I make efficient use of my time, partly by taking advantage of spreadsheets and other Office tools.” That’s the difference between a skill and a core competency. Your competency is time management or efficiency and your skill is Microsoft Office expertise.

What are the types of core competencies to list on a resume?

You may choose to emphasize core competencies over skills if you know your strengths lie in those higher-level abilities, if you are applying for a position that requires them, or if you simply want to present a bigger picture of your successes.

Just as your skills and qualifications are career and role-dependent, so too are your core competencies. The attributes that make you a great manager may not be as important if you are applying for a role as an independent contractor. That means that adjusting your core competencies list every time you apply for a different job is a must.

You may already have a master list of all your skills and attributes. If so, use that as your starting point for brainstorming your core competencies. If not, this is the perfect time to create this useful list.

Once you have an exhaustive list of all your abilities, you may begin to organize them into categories.

Behavioral traits

Behavioral traits tell hiring managers how you function in a work environment.  If they are looking for a fit for the team, listing one or more of these attributes will help them understand the role you might play.

Here are examples of behavioral core competencies:

  • Adaptability
  • Flexibility
  • Persistence
  • Innovative thinking
  • Detail oriented
  • Calm under pressure

Thinking style

How do you approach projects and problems? The way you think is a core competency because it comprises several skills, including the ability to break down problems, get organized to find solutions, and communicate your ideas to others.

Here are core competency examples in thinking style:

  • Strategic: you can see the critical factors and variables that influence future decisions
  • Decision-making: you have the confidence to make choices and follow through
  • Analytical: you can take apart a problem and study options
  • Creativity: you come up with original ideas
  • Results-focused: you know the goal and stay focused on achieving it
  • Problem-solving: you see the problems and are able to find solutions

Leadership traits

Leadership comes in many styles. Even if you’re not applying for a management role, you may want to or be asked to take on a leadership role within a committee or on a project. Defining the core competencies you have as a leader helps round out the picture of you as an employee.

Here are examples of core competencies in leadership style:

  • Team-building: you know how to create a team that works well together
  • Influence or support-gathering and garnering cooperation: you have ideas and know how to get the team on your side
  • Ethics: you set an example by following your principles
  • Vision or big-picture thinking: you know how to step back and see the whole process, not just your part.

Interpersonal relationships and communication

You may have the best ideas of anyone in the company, but if you lack allies or can’t effectively explain them to others, it won’t matter. The way you relate to customers, colleagues, direct reports, and other stakeholders (or parents if you are a coach or teacher) can be the key to your success. 

But first, successfully describing these core competencies on your resume can be the key to getting the interview.

Here are examples of core competencies in interpersonal relationships and communication:

  • Conflict resolution: you’re an excellent moderator and understand how to come to compromises
  • Persuasion: you are a convincing communicator
  • Excellent writing: your written messages are clear and informative (or persuasive)
  • Attentive listening: you are present when others speak and contribute to their ideas
  • Effective information exchange: you can take in information from others as well as offer ideas; the exchange leads to better solutions.
Expert tip

Industry Knowledge and Certifications

If your career requires very specific knowledge and you have the expertise or specialized certifications or qualifications, you may consider these as core competencies as well. For example, if you are an engineer with Six Sigma certification or a teacher who has studied a reading curriculum, these are core competencies.

How do you decide which core competencies to list on your resume?

The goal here is to get the interview. You’ve made a master list of your core competencies which includes some or all of the above, or others we haven’t mentioned. Now what? 

Examine the job advertisement again. What are the qualities your prospective employer seeks and which of your traits do you believe will fit the role you desire best? Next, research the company, institution, or facility you are targeting. Find out as much as you can about the culture and philosophy. If independent thinking is highly prized, focus on your competence in problem-solving, but if teamwork is of the utmost importance, play to that strength. Don’t exaggerate or fudge who you are or you may end up in a job that’s a bad fit for you and your employer, but aim your resume – including your core competency section – directly at the job you seek.

Finally, take a step back and think about how you want to present yourself. Your core competencies should offer a well-rounded look at your professional personality. Ask a trusted colleague to describe your greatest strengths or look back at your last performance review for another outside opinion.

One final word of advice: Don’t overwhelm recruiters with a long list here. Choose up to ten, but only if you want to include industry knowledge or certifications. 

How do you list core competencies on a resume?

Your core competencies section can take the place of your skills section, as long as you give it a prominent role. Since your core competencies give an overview of your professional acumen, you want to make sure that recruiters take immediate note of it.

Depending on how many competencies you will name and the layout you choose (Resume.io offers dozens of expertly-designed resume templates if graphics is not your forte), you may even subdivide your list into the categories above to make for easier reading.

Listing your core competencies is not enough. Employers will want concrete examples of how you have applied those attributes. Use the bullet items you create for your employment history section to demonstrate how your abilities led to professional successes. You should also discuss one or two in your summary. 

Expert tip

Maintain a consistent message

The core competencies on your resume should guide the message you relate throughout not only this piece of your application but your cover letter as well.

You will make a much better impression on the hiring managers if you make a strong case for your three or four greatest strengths. Mentioning every skill, attribute, and “nice to haves” from the job listing comes off as insincere and doesn’t give a picture of who you really are.

How do you answer the question: What are your three core competencies?

Your stellar application package got you the interview. Now you need to prepare for the interview questions. Preparation will help you stay calm during the interview and also limit awkward pauses while you think through an answer. While there’s nothing wrong with pausing to think, too many silent moments may give the impression that you’re lacking in confidence. If you’re not confident in your abilities, why would the hiring manager be?

One common question you may be asked is: What are your three core competencies? The number may change, but in essence, your interviewer wants to know what overarching qualities you will bring to the team.

The best advice we can offer is to stay on message. You’ve already decided how to present yourself and it got you a meeting with the hiring manager. It’s fine to say something like, “As I mentioned in my resume, I am an analytical thinker who knows how to communicate my plans to my team.” Then, offer an example of how you did just that.

If this question comes in the middle or toward the end of the interview, you should have some idea of what the hiring manager is looking for. You may have even asked about the structure of the organization or what the specific role comprises. That gives you the advantage of being able to slant this answer (without tipping over into falsehoods) to fit the job. Always remember that hiring managers have a problem that they need to solve. They are missing a member of the team, a skilled professional, or a new trainee who can make the problem go away.

What are organizational skills?
Related article
What are organizational skills?

The requirement for ‘good organizational skills’ is almost a given for any job posting, but what does this actually mean? Do you need to be the type of person that plans meetings months in advance or are there other ways to show you take charge.

Key takeaways

  • Core competencies are qualities that encompass several skills or knowledge.
  • Think of your core competencies section as much more than a list of skills. Instead, create an overall picture of you as a professional.
  • Core competencies may take the place of your skills section, but you may also combine the two and use subheadings if your layout and space allow.
  • Use your resume as a guide to answering the interview question: What are your core competencies?
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