Skills 101: Your Technical & Tangible (Hard) Skills

Aside from language skills, we don't talk much about study abroad hard skills. But they’re the easiest skills to understand: 

Hard skills are basically any of the tangible skills, abilities, or competencies you get out of an experience.

In other words, you didn't know something. Then you took a class or practiced a skill. Now, you know how to do it. The key questions are:

  • Could someone test me on this skill?
  • Is there a way to measure how much I know?
  • Are there standards (or norms) to compare me to?

If you can answer "yes" to all of these questions, it's a hard skill. Now, you're probably wondering, what's a "study abroad" hard skill. Well, let's get into it.

Lots of students pick up great hard skills on study abroad. The trick is, most people don't know what they are. Here's a run down of 5 kinds of technical, tangible, hard skills you can learn or improve

In colleges and universities, the classic conversation about hard skills tends to be employer-centric and (more specifically) all about white-collar office jobs. 

However, the reality, because your life consists of 168 hours each week (not just the 40 in an office), it’s important to think of these skills a lot more broadly than just how they look on your resume. As you try to figure out your skills, constantly challenge yourself to think about ways you can use them in various parts of your life.

Want tips on ways to use your hard skills outside of work? Check out our article:

So, what skills did you gain?

Language: The Most Talked About Hard Skill

When you look up a list of study abroad skills, you’ll quickly find that under the hard skill category, usually the only skill listed is language.

That’s unfortunate, but it kind of makes sense. A lot of these lists are meant to be one-size-fits-all blurbs (despite the fact that study abroad experiences can be so extremely diverse). As a result, the only really common hard skill is language.

Note: if you went to an English speaking country, don't feel left out. You can check out our article on global English skills.

If you chose to work on your foreign language skills, the hope is that you'll be able to improve you skills. Maybe you'll score higher on a language proficiency test. Or you'll be more fluent when you interact with clients, customers, and community members in their native tongue.

We’ve covered language a lot on this site, so we'll focus more on the 4 other other types of hard skills you could have picked up. But first, let’s talk a little bit about how hard skills are measured.

Measuring and Quantifying Hard Skills

Measuring hard skills is a little dense to explain, so why do we take a simple example: knitting

Study abroad hard skills are difficult to measure and quantify. So, here's a simple example of how you can talk about your hard skills before and after study abroad, using knitting. You can use this explanation whether you're a professional knitter or a hobbyist. 

Let's say that you're an aspiring knitter. And before you studied abroad, you could knit a little bit.

You specifically chose to study in Peru because they have the most beautiful (and softest) alpacas in the world and they do some pretty funky things with knitting techniques.

[This may or may not be true.]

Anyway, you went abroad to Peru and took knitting classes. Someone even taught you a super cool way to add "magical" floating balls to all of your scarves. Of course, while this technique was all the rage over in Peru, it hasn’t quite made it back to your hometown yet.


now, This Is How measuring skills works

Here’s the thing. When you’re talking about your knitting skills you would quantify your skills like this (and please note, these are not technical terms):

Before Study Abroad: here are the skills you started out with...

  • baseline skill: you could start the first row, (aka something every person who knits has to be able to do)
  • building block skills: you could also do the two most common stitches that make up 80% of all patterns
  • familiarity with tools: you had very limited experience with yarn and needles; yarn: lightweight wool (only); needles: size 5 straight needles (only)

After Study Abroad: here are the skills you picked up along the way...

  • intermediate skills: you learned 5 more stitching techniques
  • advanced skills: you can make little balls that look like they’re magically floating in the air
  • (but) specific limitations: you only know how to attach those balls to scarves and nothing else
  • additional tools: you now have experience knitting on more sizes and shapes of needles + other specialty tools; plus you have experience with several more types of yarn

Because knitting is generally the same all over the world, you probably could have learned every one of those skills in your home country except for the advanced skill (with the floating balls).

In theory, you could call all of these new skills study abroad skills, because study abroad was why (and how) you learned them. But an easier (less stressful for you) explanation would probably be:

“I’m a knitter with knowledge of a lot of specific intermediate skills (list them). PLUS I can do this awesome floating ball thing that is only popular in Peru.” 

Does that make sense?

Here are some general questions to ask yourself about your skills

  • What baseline skills do I have?
  • Which building blocks have I completed?
  • What are my advanced and intermediate skills?
  • What tools can I use?
  • etc.

The more advanced your skills, the less anyone will question whether you have the basics. Be be careful, a lot of people skip (important) basic steps in a rush to become more advanced, so be clear when you break down your skills. You don't want to miss anything.

Now, let’s get to the 4 types of hard skills you could have developed while studying abroad.

1- Improve an old skill

This is exactly our knitting example.

Maybe you took a biology or a physics class while abroad that counts as a substitute for some prerequisite back home. Now you can move up to the next level.

One reason this isn’t completely “objective” is that even in the same country, different schools teach different things and in different ways. So it’s possible that you learned things to make you even more advanced than your classmates. Or you may have missed an important unit that your classmates (at your home college) learned and you’ll have to catch up. Or you learned the same (basic) content but in a radically different way.

Who knows, but make sure to keep the differences between what you learned and what you would have learned in mind. Learning things that none of your other classmates got a chance to learn might end up being gold (for you) later on—especially if you plan to write a senior thesis or apply for a competitive research project.

2- Skills not at home college

If you go to a school that focuses a lot on theory and abstract concepts, you may have wanted to take a few classes that were practical. Or vice versa. For instance, you might have taken a course called “Communication in a Digital World” back at home. So, you decided to take “Graphic Design: Creating 2-d Images” while you lived abroad.

The same rules about “objectivity” from #1 apply here. Because you’re in another country, the material could be similar or very different from what you may have learned at another school back home. Continue to note those differences.

3- Skills you never learned before

This is also a lot like our knitting example.

Maybe you took a random pottery class, because there was a studio close to your house. Or you might have joined a club and learned how to do really complicated AV stuff with special equipment.

For this example, we’ll assume that you learned on the exact same equipment that you would have used in your home country.

If you learned on a one-to-one exchange (i.e. the exact same things you would have learned in your home country and nothing else), you might not want to explicitly call this a “study abroad skill.”

But if you can bring a little something extra, that (special sauce) is worth noting. For example: Can you design, do pottery, or work AV in English and in another language? Like the knitting example, is there something about what you learned that’s unique to your study abroad country?

Maybe you use all of the same soundboards and equipment, but the structure of the broadcast is different. Or radio stations in your study abroad country time their commercial breaks in a more efficient way.

4- A new (or improved) technique

So, this is like #3, except you didn’t use the exact same equipment you would have used in your home country.

If we go back to our knitting example, knitting needles are knitting needles. But not all people use the same software or technology and equipment. Also, some standards and principles are different in certain countries.

For our graphic design example, let say you learned on a software platform that isn’t really common back home. You might be able to claim that you have the all the building block skills (many of which are “universal”). You might even be able to say that you can create cool designs using intermediate techniques. But what if a company or an organization requires you to know how to use their equipment?

You’re going to have to find a work around.

It’s the same if you’re a accounting major from the United States and all of your classes abroad used the International Financial Reporting Standards (not the system we use in the U.S.).

It’s pretty obvious that this will not directly translate.

This situation may be one reason why some people only think about language when they talk about hard skills. They don’t want to get into the complexity of situations like this and trying to help you make your skills translate.

But, again… there’s always a work around.

5- Skill unique to your country

If your study abroad country was really different from your passport country, chances are you learned some unique things. Maybe you learned how to roast a pig on a spit. Or you can drive using complicated techniques that would be absolutely deadly at home, but were necessary for survival abroad.

These may be things you would never randomly learn in your home country unless you were really looking for it (or unless that’s part of your culture).

It may seem odd to hear, but hold on to at least some of those skills because you never know when they may come in handy again.

What's Next?

The most important thing with hard skills is that they are easy to forget and lose (or at least get rusty on). Continue to work on all of the skills you want to keep. And if you haven't already, pick up our skills inventory, so you can learn more about your complete package of study abroad skills.