How to Demonstrate Willingness to Learn [Resume, Interview]

Patrick Ward Patrick Ward Follow May 12, 2021 · 9 mins read
How to Demonstrate Willingness to Learn [Resume, Interview]

Willingness to learn is a highly desired quality for employers, even when hiring experienced mid-career candidates.

I’ve worked with hiring managers from major FAANG companies as well as fast-growing startups, and they have one thing in common: an interest in candidates who can learn and adapt quickly on the job.

In this post, I’ll break down how you can demonstrate willingness to learn through real-world examples for your resume, interviews, and networking efforts.

What to expect from this article
  • 9 specific ways to demonstrate willingness to learn on a resume and in verbal interview settings
  • Why employers value “lifelong learners” for productive teams

How to Demonstrate Willingness to Learn on a Resume

Resumes are frequently the first impression a hiring manager has of you, and it’s an excellent place to showcase your willingness to learn.

Here are three ways to do so without just writing “willing to learn” at the top in bold font:

1. Use the “before and after” framework

There is a saying that every screenwriter knows very well: Show, don’t tell.

The best resumes don’t feature a laundry list of tasks and responsibilities; instead, they highlight the problem and solution delivered by the candidate.

Try applying this formula to your past job, education, and volunteer experiences:

By doing {action}, we fixed {problem} and delivered {result}

Here’s an example from a resume of a recent graduate who had a work-study job in their college admissions office:

By asking visiting students to fill out a questionnaire, we identified the most interesting parts of the campus tour and restructured the tour to start and end on a high note. Changing the structure of the tours drove 11% higher application completion among prospective students coming through our office.

Takeaway

Show how your willingness to change or optimize a process in previous roles drove specific, quantifiable results; and the learnings you took away from it.

2. Highlight unique combinations of skills

A web developer who knows Python isn’t particularly surprising. A web developer who knows Python and enthusiast-level skills in Adobe Illustrator?

This is more interesting — particularly if highlighted in portfolio pieces — because it proves that the applicant is open to learning skills outside the obvious in their industry.

As an added bonus, unique combinations of skills can also narrow the pool of applicants for jobs that need a specific combination that’s not common. For example, data science students with an artistic bent can often find unique career opportunities in data visualization or data journalism.

Takeaway

Highlight unique combinations of skills to show willingness to learn skills outside your direct discipline.

3. Highlight the bottom half of the resume

Students who graduate with certificates are a dime a dozen; students who graduate with multiple volunteer, intern, and extracurriculars under their belt are far less common.

Interviewers call this the “bottom half of the resume,” meaning the part that gives a glimpse at what the applicant is actually about as a person.

When interviewing dozens of candidates, it’s easy to lose track of them. This is where you can stand out and hook into their memory. People like people who have energy and enthusiasm; so if you’ve taken a Sign Language class on the weekends or volunteered at your local animal shelter, be sure to include it on your CV!

Takeaway

Soft skills are good, but demonstrating them through volunteering and self-directed educational experiences is better.

How to Demonstrate Willingness to Learn During an Interview

If applying to a new job for which you don’t have the needed experience is stressful, then the interview is the pinnacle of all that anxiety.

Any interview is stressful, with a study by Harris Interactive finding that 92% of Americans find a job interview stressful in some way.

All the more reason to be well-prepared for the interview with as many examples of your willingness to learn once you’re hired. This is applicable whether the interview is in person, by phone, or by video chat.

1. Ask questions, and plan them in advance

Don’t be afraid to ask questions: sitting there too scared to say anything will never impress. It will also show up your insecurity in not having the required experience. You need to ask (many) questions about the company and what your role will be in it. Doing this achieves three things:

  1. You come across as confident.
  2. It shows you’ll ask questions when you don’t know something on the job.
  3. It shows you did your homework regarding both the company and the position prior to the interview.

Employers want to hire people who are up to date on the state of the industry, and will continue to self-educate as their career progresses.

As such, it’s critical that you bring up industry trends and events during verbal interviews. Particularly if you’re new to the industry, showing an awareness of the following proves that you’re willing to learn and earn your place:

  1. Who the major players and competitors are
  2. What technologies are changing or disruptive to the company
  3. What are people at the company discussing on LinkedIn?

3. Stay relaxed and practice active listening

Few things demonstrate willingness to learn quite like doing so in person, during the interview. The best part is, doing so is simple: just listen when the interviewer talks, ask questions, and don’t interrupt when they give answers.

Active listening is surprisingly rare, and interviewers appreciate candidates who are easy to talk to and don’t get “bubbly” under pressure.

  1. Be confident — but not overbearingly so
  2. Remember that an interview is a conversation with purpose
  3. Breathe!

Why Willingness to Learn Matters To Employers

Hiring employees can be very stressful for employers. Getting it right with new people can be difficult to get right in today’s fast-evolving job market. One of the best ways in which an employer can assess a potential employee is to quantify their ability to learn new skills and become acquainted with new technologies and work systems.

Enter what is called the Learnability Quotient (LQ), which is defined as, “an individual’s desire and ability to quickly grow and adapt their skill-set to remain employable throughout their working life”. Bottom line: as with emotional intelligence (EI), LQ has become an important metric by which candidates can be assessed for their employability. Flexibility is key - and you need to be able to show that.

This new emphasis on factors such as LQ shouldn’t be surprising: the so-called ‘skills gap’ between needed skills in the job market and what prospective employees can offer continues to grow. This was the finding of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in its report New Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning Through Technology, released in 2016 and surely even more relevant today. The WEF devised the ‘16 skills’ needed for graduates to navigate the modern job market, which boil down to Curiosity, Critical Thinking, and Desire to Learn.

The skills needed for today’s markets are hugely different to those a mere generation ago, which is why social and emotional learning (SEL) has become so important.

Indirect methods of demonstrating willingness to learn

Experience comes in many guises. You may not have the exact experience required for a certain job, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have other forms of experience that an employer may still find appealing. Blogging, hosting podcasts, and other online initiatives can also boost your employability, while also being a way to learn new things as you host.

Freelancing Experiences

Seeking out freelance experiences means that you are:

  1. Self-motivated
  2. Have the ability to learn ‘on-the-go and on your own dime,’ so to speak.

Freelancing is great for recent graduates in particular because it shows willingness to learn as well as willingness to roll up your sleeves and do real-world, practical work.

There is also the growing perception in the business world that freelancers are often also highly talented. A 2018 Forbes article had a title which said it all: Why More Companies Want To Hire Freelancers (Hint: Talent Has Gone Indie).

Very often companies will want to bring that talent fully on board. In fact, some of the most talented people on our team at my company Rootstrap were acquired using exactly this approach.

Freelancers already number 57 million in the US and will comprise a majority of the American workforce by 2027 — possibly even sooner.

Join A Professional Community

Being a member of a professional online community can also be a great way of building atypical experience which still looks good on your resume.

This is particularly true of the IT industry, for example, with a host of communities available such as Dynamite Circle, Indie Hackers, and highly robust and active Substacks and even Reddit groups for your specific niche or industry.

They can be a great way to grow your knowledge, collaborate with colleagues, and show that you’re an engaged self-driven learner in your field.

Experience In Other Forms

Niche certifications can prove learning beyond high school or generic college basics and are also indicators to employers that an applicant has a self-development ‘road map,’ itself an indication of career ambition. They also demonstrate a key specialization and, thus, an ambition to take your skills set to the next level.

The IT world is particularly ripe in this regard, given the sheer diversity and depth of the field. Network security is an example of an IT niche with a slew of certifications, including the Cybersecurity Analyst+ (CySA+), SANS GIAC Certified Forensic Analyst (GCFA, and ‘gold standard’ Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certification.

Ultimately, an employer deciding to hire you is taking a bet on you. You will still need to prove yourself once employed, of course. Experience will come with time on the job. Showing a willingness to learn will at least give you a chance at getting through the door.

Patrick Ward
Written by Patrick Ward Follow
Hi, I'm Patrick. I made this site to share my expertise on team augmentation, nearshore development, and remote work.
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