Why Soft Skills Are a Game Changer in Business School Admissions and Beyond

What do we mean when we use the term soft skills?

Soft skills refer to personal or professional attributes – like communication, empathy, and resilience. The term originated in US military manuals in the mid-to-late 20th century to distinguish these interpersonal skills from the technical skills required to operate machinery or weapons. As technology advances, soft skills have become increasingly crucial. While technical skills can become outdated, soft skills are transferable and an asset for nearly any profession. 

This week on the Holistic Success Show, we welcome Geoff Coons, Associate Director of the Full-Time MBA program at Smith School of Business at Queen’s University, to discuss how soft skills in business education sets students and graduates apart from the crowd.

Why are soft skills so critical?

“What else do you bring to the table?”

This is the question posed by Geoff Coons to his MBA students. To gain admission to an MBA program, students typically bring strong academics and some level of professional experience after their undergraduate studies. Furthermore, a significant number have completed either GMAT or GRE tests, which Coons views as the essential prerequisites for entry.

The real distinguishing factor, the “what else,” is where the importance of soft skills becomes evident.

The MBA field is highly competitive, and its job market is even more so. Beyond what is documented on paper, such as resumes and transcripts, students set themselves apart when they exhibit soft skills such as:

  • Strong teamwork abilities
  • Engaging with a career or executive coach to identify areas for improvement
  • Practical verbal and written communication skills
  • Leadership capabilities
  • Cultural sensitivity
  • Active listening skills
  • A drive to make a social impact
  • A fitting sense of humor

The soft skills they bring to the table distinguish students and make them appealing to prospective employers.

What do employers say about soft skills?

What does the practical application of soft skills look like? While we often hear about the importance of teamwork, what specific qualities are employers seeking when they request these skills?

Based on Coons’s conversations with employers, they are looking for individuals who can both coach and be coached effectively. When new employees come on board, employers expect to see evidence of well-developed client-facing skills. This includes assessing their ability to deliver effective presentations in person and online, as well as their capacity to harness multimedia presentations to enhance their messages. Regarding communication skills, employers seek individuals who can make compelling and logical arguments. They also value problem-solving abilities and negotiation skills.

At the core of all these requirements lies an employee’s willingness to confront their own weaknesses and continue their growth journey. Employers highly value a growth mindset, where individuals actively engage in their development by collaborating with mentors, professors, or coaches to address areas where improvement is needed.

Why are soft skills important for undergraduate programs?

Unlike technical skills that often require specific education or experience that an undergraduate might not have access to, soft skills can be developed anywhere.

Consider younger students—they lack extensive work experience but can make an impact. Demonstrating these skills positions them for future success as students and professionals. They can join clubs, engage in community service and public speaking, and even assist with research. Part-time work alongside academics is valuable for some. Each person’s abilities and time management vary.

Demonstrating these qualities benefits young students in both graduate studies and post-undergraduate careers.

How do soft skills help students in-program?

Coons often advises his MBA and undergraduate students to choose their focus wisely and excel in it. Some students tend to overcommit to various activities, which can dilute their efforts.

Instead, it’s critical that students respect their limited time and prioritize effectively – after all, there are only 24 hours in a day. Learning time management early is crucial. Enhancing skills alongside coursework, projects, and teamwork boosts a student’s profile and builds confidence.

This process helps define their personal brand. Justifying and planning activities based on their goals is essential. Students who intentionally pursue such activities can lead to meaningful outcomes, not because others are doing it or due to counselor recommendations. Having a well-structured plan from the beginning is beneficial.

The MBA program at Smith School of Business has strong student relationships, primarily through their Career Services Group’s coaching model. However, this coaching model relies on a consistent, ongoing relationship. It’s similar to going to the gym—you don’t get fit in one visit but by consistently attending over months. Students who excel in any area, like career coaching, demonstrate noticeable growth over time.

Do you see a correlation between soft skills and future success?

Coons refers to it as “seeing beyond five feet in front of your face.” How can you impact your future team, class, program, or company meaningfully? It applies whether you’re working in a non-profit in your community or within a corporation.

Coons says that there are certain alums he’s worked with at Smith over the past decade that have left a lasting impression. These alumni possess “soft skills”—emotional intelligence, the ability to work effectively in teams, and strong client-facing abilities. These skills, beyond academic strength and professional work experience, are crucial. Students who excel in these areas can build successful careers over many years, often either advancing within a specific company or venturing into new opportunities.

In the MBA world, graduates typically go up or out in one of two directions. Going up means climbing the corporate ladder within a company or industry, while going out involves exploring new roles or industries, often through networking. The key takeaway is that if you cultivate these skills, build a robust network, and continue to build on your successes, your post-MBA journey can lead you in numerous exciting directions.

Listen to the full Holistic Success Show episode with Geoff Coons!