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4 Digital Soft Skills College Freshmen Need to Succeed

Digital Soft Skills Header
Welcome to college, class of 2021! A time of excitement and anxiety, independence and responsibility, and more late night burrito runs than I’d like to admit. I remember the night before moved in: I didn’t sleep. I tossed and turned to the point that I made myself sick. Sick with the excitement and anxiety of the unknown, looking forward to independence yet concerned for the load of my courses. My freshman year wasn’t perfect; I quickly had to acquire social and academic skills my high school teachers didn’t cover.
Fast forward a couple decades, and there is another skill gap not covered in curriculum for graduating seniors. Digital literacy skills are becoming more in-demand during college and in your career, and most likely you’ll have to learn them on your own – not in a college classroom. Sure, some majors are already tied to digital skills. A computer science major needs to know how to code, excel is a must for any business or economics major, and a graphic designer needs to know how to use Illustrator and Photoshop.

What are Digital Soft Skills?

However, no matter your major, there are digital “soft skills” that can be very valuable during your college experience, including the internships and campus involvement roles that will carry over into post-grad careers. Together HR does a great job of explaining the difference between hard skills and soft skills:

“If hard skills can be defined as ‘knowing how to do’, a set of knowledge and expertise and the ability to apply them properly to certain business, soft skills represent something different… Often they are defined as ‘knowledge, skills and attitude’, a kind of behavior that is more social, shared, participatory, and responsible.”

Why do we need soft skills? According to a study from Beyond, recruiters actually value soft skills over hard skills. This infographic from the Wadwhani Foundation does a great job breaking down the study’s findings:
Hard skill vs soft skill infographic
Obviously, soft skills are kind of a big deal and can be acquired without take an extra course or adding a minor. Here’s my list of the 4 digital soft skills the class of 2021 (incoming college freshmen) needs to succeed in college and beyond.

1. Digital Focus

How many times have you checked your cell phone in the last hour? Your Snapchat story feed? Your Gmail? University students are inundated with digital distractions, and tuning them out is harder than ever.
Digital Distractions
There’s a lot of value in unplugging. For my Leadership in the Digital Age course at Florida State, I challenge (ie require) my students to unplug from social media for at least two days. Students mentioned feeling anxious about what they were missing and habitually reaching for their phones to check social media. However, when they unplugged, they had a minute to step back and examine their relationship with social media and make adjustments for the future.
Sociologist Clifford Nass was a leader in research about the cognitive effects of multitasking, including digital multitasking, finding that “the heaviest multitaskers — those who invariably said they could focus like laser beams whenever they wanted — were terrible at various cognitive chores like organizing information, switching between tasks and discerning significance.” He also noted that the top 25% of Stanford students fell into that category.
Students who can focus digitally have a distinct advantage over their multitasking peers. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, says that “focus is the new IQ,” especially when considering the negative effects of multitasking and frequent task switching. He emphasizes the benefit of hard focus, where the individual buckles down and does everything in their power to eliminate distractions. Yes, that means muting notifications and avoiding social media sites like the plague.
One simple way to deal with digital distractions is taking an analog approach; after all, notifications just don’t pop up on good old pen and paper. Another way is to set up website blacklists that you can turn on when in periods of focus. Apps like Freedom and Anti-Social keep you from visiting the websites that keep you from your work.
College YouTuber Shelby Church recommends the Self Control app in the video below, which is chock full of general study tips and methods to stay focused while studying:


2. Digital Decision Making

Every online interaction you have contributes to your overall digital identity. Your digital identity is everything from the comments you make to the photos you take, and includes everything from online portfolios to social media profiles. Yes, that means those selfies with the crazy filter on your Snap Story are a part of your digital identity.
As you might be able to guess, any hiccups made online stick with you and become part of your digital identity. YouTuber Katherout compiled her list of YouTube regrets, which I highly recommend checking out. Her mistakes weren’t salacious, but they’re a great reminder of how past social media posts don’t go away. How can you learn from your missteps to strengthen posting going forward?

Back in high school, the stakes of a less-than-appropriate post weren’t very high. A regrettable photo might mean embarrassment or gossip, but you probably wouldn’t get kicked out of school for it.
In college, the social media game changes. While you have a new-found freedom from high school, you also now carry the responsibility of being a member of that campus community. While no university has time to follow and scroll through every students’ social media pages, if something harmful is brought to their attention they may have to act.
Think back to earlier this summer, when 10 prospective Harvard students had their admittance rescinded over inappropriate memes and messages sent through Facebook messenger. Students need to be able to examine the effects that their posts can have on public perception – good and bad. The New York Times even released an article giving advice on how to keep your college admission by leaning on digital literacy, which you can check out here. Personally, I like the grandma rule: If you wouldn’t want your grandma to see it, don’t post it.

Girl on Computer
That’s not to say that every digital footprint or touchpoint needs to be cold and corporate – I mean you are in college!

Digital identity awareness in college is about being congruent with who you are and what you want in your future.

Is what you are posting on Instagram fueling that pathway or placing roadblocks?  There are tons of resources out there for students looking to develop their digital identity, including a few posts here on my blog.

3. Applying Empathy Online

Think about the last time you got into an argument on Facebook or saw an argument in the sub threads of Twitter. Was it anything like how you argue with someone face-to-face? Reading through digital comments can feel like wading through a minefield of rage and capslock. Trolls are abundant, and people seem to be lacking one of the most important skills out there: empathy.
Social Media Regret
Ari Saperstein makes an excellent point in his Tedx talk: “We’re half as empathetic as the generation before us… and I don’t know if we care.” He stresses the importance of empathy as a skill that we build, and I’m inclined to agree. Without empathy, especially online, we lose valuable connections and can make some major digital identity mistakes.
When examining how online interactions change our empathy and reactions, Christopher Terry of the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy noticed that people lacked empathy and were more likely to descend into vitriol during digital discussions. Terry calls this effect “online disinhibition,” citing relative anonymity, the asynchronous nature of online communications, and the lack of nonverbal cues as influencing factors in online negativity.
If you’re not employing empathy in all aspects of your life, you’re missing out on valuable empathy development. Considering the other person involved in the discussion helps keep nasty comments and posts at bay. By engaging empathetically online, students can avoid interactions that would negatively impact their digital identity, tying back to soft skill number one.
Check out the fabulous Lilly Singh, known on youtube as Superwoman take down the jerks of the internet – but heads on some graphic language 😉

A study from the Center of Creative Leadership found that “empathy is positively related to job performance” and that “Managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses” (William A. Gentry, Todd J. Weber, and Golnaz Sadri). Students who employ empathy in all spaces, especially in the digital world, have a unique advantage over their less empathetic peers. As it turns out, being a good person both online and in-person can help you get ahead in the professional world!

4. Digital Problem Solving

There are some digital tools that every student will probably use at least once before graduation. Think the Microsoft Office Suite or library databases. Perhaps the most useful tools help facilitate collaboration, like Google Docs and Google Drive. Some students are using Google Docs as a collaborative note-taking tool, and students like Shep McAllister have some great tips on how to make sure that collaboration works. This is a great example of digital problem-solving.
Students Collaborating
Digital problem solving is all about using digital tools and platforms in unique and unexpected ways. Best of all, digital problem solving doesn’t have to be big or complicated. The students who use Google Docs as a collaborative note-taking tool didn’t have to change the platform to make it more useful. They made the platform work for them, not the other way around. Thomas Frank has great advice on how to use digital platforms to stay organized based on his real experience as a college student. Digital problem solving for the win!
Speaking of Google, even something as simple as performing a Google search to solve problems counts as digital problem-solving. Amy Cavender specifically mentioned an instance where she used Google to overcome a WordPress issue, setting up her advice for students to develop digital skills. Her most important piece of advice? It’s good to be stubborn and not give up in the face of adversity or difficulty.
Perhaps the most important part of digital problem solving is using digital tools to overcome problems. A talented digital problem solver doesn’t give up in the face of adversity. Instead, they’ll go online and find tools or platforms to make their lives easier.
Developing these four digital soft skills will help students become the digital leaders who will stand out among their peers, in the classroom, workplace, and beyond.
What are other soft skills you believe college freshman need? Make sure to comment below!
To stay up to date with this research, as well as all my digital leadership educator efforts, subscribe to my monthly newsletter below!

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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