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How to talk about upskilling at a performance review or job interview

So you’ve completed an online course or training. Here’s how to use it as a selling point for that new job or promotion.

How to talk about upskilling at a performance review or job interview
[Photo: Halfpoint Images/Getty Images]

Did you acquire a new skill or two in the last couple of years? If you answered “yes,” you’re in good company. During pandemic lockdowns, many workers seized an unprecedented opportunity to take time they once spent commuting and devote it to attending online classes. A 2020 OECD brief on COVID-19 reports that the spike in interest in such classes was a global phenomenon, with search terms related to “online learning” and “e-learning” increasing up to fourfold in various countries in the pandemic’s early months.

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Once you’ve completed a class, however, one obvious question looms: Now what?

While some people pursued online coursework as a way to explore hobbies and passions, others were specifically interested in improving their job performance. The good news is that, no matter which group you fall into, you can leverage your recent education to advance up the career ladder—provided you know the right way to talk about it.

Whether you’re preparing for your next performance review or applying for a new position, now’s a great time to consider how to discuss your recent upskilling endeavor with supervisors and hiring managers. Here are a few tips to get you started:

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Don’t: Downplay the significance of completing a class. When taking an online class, especially in a subject seemingly unrelated to your profession, it’s tempting to be overly modest. You may want to catch yourself saying, “Oh, I just randomly decided to do a thing.” But pursuing a multi-week course is much different than taking off for a weekend trip to bungee jump. Seeing it through requires long-term commitment, a strong work ethic, and time management skills, especially when you’re balancing it against other responsibilities. Emphasizing all that helps you stand out as a strong, dependable candidate.

Don’t: Admit to tilting the balance on work/life to complete training. There’s such a thing as being overcommitted to your education. If you were late on a work deadline because you were busy perfecting a soufflé for your baking class, offering up that admission is unlikely to impress your current or would-be employer. This may sound like obvious advice, but in the course of ordinary conversation, it’s easy to slip up and confess something you shouldn’t. Therefore, keep your professional surroundings in mind and don’t let your guard down too much.

Don’t: Share your plans of an exit. When an adult decides to upskill, it’s often with their fantasy career in mind. Maybe they’re imagining transitioning from accounting to web design, or from lawyering to calligraphy. Authenticity is a good thing, but don’t be so authentic as to spill the beans to your supervisor or hiring manager—they won’t look upon you favorably if your end game includes ditching their industry to pursue your dreams.

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Now that you’re clear on how to avoid putting your foot in your mouth, here are a few steps I recommend you can do:

Do: Bring up your training. Let’s be honest: Not everyone is going to take the time to review your self-evaluation or résumé in acute detail. This is especially true in the era of the Great Resignation, when managers are spending countless hours recruiting new employees and bending over backward to keep the ones they have. To make your achievements known, it’s important for you to personally raise the subject instead of waiting for the person you’re talking to bring it up.

Do: Review your new skills before holding a discussion with managers. Maybe you finished your class just before that big job interview or performance review, or maybe it’s been a couple of months. Either way, it wouldn’t hurt to give yourself a refresher on what you actually did during the class so you can drop some impressive details in real time. The last thing you want to do is find yourself searching your own memory during a critical conversation with a hiring manager or supervisor.

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Do: Explain how the class relates to job performance. Sometimes, making the direct connection between your work and the class you chose is easy—no one’s going to be surprised, for instance, when a financial analyst decides to brush up on her Excel skills. They might be more skeptical, however, if that same analyst says she’s pursuing training in a creative field, like songwriting or food photography. Blow skeptics away with this fact: Creative activity that’s unrelated to work can actually help workers perform better at their jobs, according to a study published in The Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. (Bonus tip: Casually noting this finding in conversation will suggest to employers that you’re well-read, too.)

The bottom line is that, by taking the time and energy necessary for upskilling, you’ve embodied a growth mindset that managers love. Your initiative and commitment speak volumes about your potential as an employee, and smart employers will hear that message loud and clear.


Matt Cooper is the CEO of Skillshare, an online learning community.

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