What Employers Want: Critical Thinking

With today’s post I’m going to start a series about some of the most common skills that employers say they want, what that means for you when you apply for jobs that ask for those skills, and how you can demonstrate that you have them! For this first post, I’m going to tackle one of the more common skills that everyone believes to be important, but that doesn’t have a clear definition: Critical Thinking.

According to an article by Melissa Korn in The Wall Street Journal, the mention of critical thinking in job ads has doubled since 2009. Many colleges and universities, especially those focusing on the humanities and liberal arts, will tout critical thinking skills as one of the primary things that their students develop. But what do people actually mean when they talk about critical thinking skills?

I thought a good place to start to try to get a handle on this was The Critical Thinking Community, an organization whose website begins by saying, “Critical thinking…the awakening of the intellect to the study of itself.” That’s not a particularly helpful definition, but they do go on (and on and on) to provide a lot more detail about what they (and others) have said on this topic, and then come up with a somewhat more helpful definition: “Critical thinking is that mode of thinking—about any subject, content, or problem—in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them.” The crucial part of that definition, to my mind, is toward the end of the sentence: “the structures inherent in thinking. . .” Just exactly what are those structures? And how does one develop them? The University of Michigan has an excellent, easy-to-read, comprehensive list of what I think is meant when talking about structures of thinking, so I’m going to share that list with you here and make some suggestions for how to incorporate these critical thinking skills into your next job interview.

Analyzing: Thinking about different aspects of the topic or concept. Taking it apart and looking at the individual pieces and how they relate to one another. You may be able to answer questions by talking about how you analyzed a situation before taking action.

Applying standards: Using established rules or criteria to evaluate whatever it is you’re thinking/talking about. You may be asked to talk about something you’re proud of, and you can respond by telling them not only what you did, but by citing some sources that validate your pride. For example, if you were given a merit-based scholarship, you can describe some of the criteria on which that scholarship was based, naming the organization that granted the scholarship as the source of the criteria.

Discriminating: Comparing and contrasting the thing (concept, situation, item) to other similar things. This might be a good skill to emphasize if you’re asked about your experiences with teamwork: you can talk about the different attributes of the team members and how each one contributed to the project.

Information seeking: Looking for more information about a topic (and knowing where to look!). There are at least two ways you might demonstrate information seeking skills; you can describe a situation where you had to keep digging for more information or you can use this concept to help you respond to a question you can’t answer! That is, you can say, “I don’t really know, but I can find out by using XXX.”

Logical reasoning: Basing your thoughts and decisions on evidence. You use logical reasoning to answer questions that begin with “Why?” For example, if you’re asked why you want to work for an organization, provide evidence based on your familiarity with that organization (which you will have researched thoroughly before the interview!). You can talk about the mission, the location, the product or service, the management style. . .whatever it is that caused you to apply in the first place (but don’t talk about wanting the job because of pay or benefits!)

Predicting: Looking ahead (planning) and imagining outcomes (consequences). When you talk retrospectively about something you accomplished, you can explain how you planned for it and anticipated the outcome. You can also demonstrate this skill by talking about what you hope to accomplish, such as if you’re asked where you see yourself in five or ten years.

Transforming knowledge: Changing the original, perhaps by adapting it to a new situation, application, or purpose. You’re demonstrating that you can transform knowledge when you explain how the skills you’ve learned through earlier experiences can benefit this organization, thereby transforming the knowledge you have from the classroom or from other jobs and using it in this new situation. You have also transformed knowledge when you have improved something, so if you can find a way to talk about improvements you have made (to a product, process, service), you can show the employer that you know how to apply your knowledge in new settings or to new uses.