Problem-solving and analytical skills

We all solve problems on a daily basis: in academic situations, at work and in our day-to-day lives.
  • Putting together an argument for an essay
  • Dealing with an awkward customer when working part-time in a shop or restaurant
  • Debugging a computer program
  • Managing your budget to keep you going until the end of term
  • Working out why your printer won’t respond
  • Developing a strategy to reach the next level of a computer game

All jobs involve problems that need to be solved. It’s important to show that you have the right skills to resolve these problems, and the personal resilience to handle the challenges and pressure they may bring.

Solving these problems involves both analytical and creative skills. The skills required can vary, depending on the problem and your role in the organisation, but the following skills are key to problem-solving: analytical ability, lateral thinking, initiative, logical reasoning and persistence.

Analytical and critical thinking skills help you to evaluate the problem and to make decisions. A logical and methodical approach is best in some circumstances: for example, you will need to be able to draw on your academic or subject knowledge to identify solutions of a practical or technical nature. In other situations, using creativity or lateral thinking will be necessary to come up with ideas for resolving the problem and find fresh approaches. Whatever issue you are faced with, some steps are fundamental:

  • Identify the problem
    • Clarifying the nature of a problem
    • Formulating questions
    • Gathering information systematically
    • Collating and organising data
    • Condensing and summarising information
  • Define the problem
    • Managing the problem
    • Using the information gathered effectively
    • Using techniques such as brainstorming and lateral thinking to consider options
    • Analysing these options in greater depth
    • Identifying steps that can be taken to achieve the objective
  • Examine the options
    • Deciding between the possible options for what action to take
    • Deciding on further information to be gathered before taking action
    • Deciding on resources (time, funding, staff etc.) to be allocated to this problem
  • Act on a plan
    • Implementing action
    • Providing information to other stakeholders; delegating tasks
    • Reviewing progress
  • Look at the consequences
    • Monitoring the outcome of the action taken
    • Reviewing the problem and problem-solving process to avoid similar situations in future

At any stage of this process, it may be necessary to return to an earlier stage – for example, if further problems arise or if a solution does not appear to be working as desired.

Developing your analytical and problem-solving skills

Most problem-solving skills are developed through everyday life and experience. However, the following interests and activities may be useful in demonstrating a high level of these skills - this may be particularly important when applying to employers in areas such as engineering, IT, operational research and some areas of finance:

  • ‘Mind games’ such as cryptic crosswords, Sudoku, chess, bridge
  • Computer games – the best of these can involve strategic planning, critical and statistical analysis and assessing the pros and cons of different courses of action
  • Practical interests such as programming, computer repairs, car maintenance, or DIY
  • Working with sound or lighting equipment for a band, event or show
  • Academic study: evaluating different sources of information for essays, designing and constructing a shelter for an architecture project; setting up a lab experiment

Problem-solving skills and graduate jobs: what do recruiters want?

Analytical ability, problem-solving skills and using initiative are among the top ten skills recruiters want graduates to demonstrate. They want people who will take the personal responsibility to make sure targets are met, who can see that there might be a better way of doing something, and who are prepared to research and implement change - people who don’t panic or give up when things go wrong but who will seek a way around the problem. These problems may be similar to academic problems or may be more practical problems such as those involved in people management.

These skills can be asked for in a variety of ways.  Many job ads will simply ask for candidates who can take the initiative or have the ability to resolve problems. Others, however, may not make it so clear.  You have to learn to interpret phrases like:

  • “Someone keen to take responsibility and with the confidence to challenge established practices and come up with new ways of working…”
  • “An enquiring mind and the ability to understand and solve complex challenges are necessary…”
  • “We are looking for innovative minds and creative spirits ...”
  • “The ability to use your own initiative, to think for yourself, to be creative and pro-active...”
  • “The ability to resolve problems, to think logically and/or laterally, to use ingenuity to overcome difficulties and to research and implement solutions...”

How will they assess these skills?

On application forms

  • Describe a situation in which you analysed data and solved a complex problem
  • Describe a complex problem you have faced and the steps that you took to solve it
  • Describe a setback in your life and say what you did to overcome it. What lessons did you learn from this?
  • Describe a time when you demonstrated creativity in solving a difficult problem
  • Give me a specific example of a time when you used good judgment and logic in solving a problem

When answering these questions, cover the process you used to solve the problem rather than just outlining the problem itself. Give examples of how you used initiative/creativity, or made effective use of resources, in solving the problem. It is also useful to say what you learned from this process, especially if the problem was not resolved to your complete satisfaction.

Evidence you could give to an employer to convince them that you have problem-solving skills:

  • Analysing data from a project or experiment
  • Working on a computer helpdesk
  • Advising a client at the Kent Law Clinic
  • Implementing a new filing system in an office job
  • Acting as a student rep
  • Dealing with staff problems or unexpected staff shortages in a part-time job
  • Coping with living on a limited student budget

Example from an application form

“Give an example of a time when you have successfully resolved a complex problem.”

In the sixth form, I took part with two friends in a “Robot Challenge” competition. The brief was to design and build a robot that could perform a dance routine synchronised with a music soundtrack.
My responsibility was to control the movement of the robot through the sensors and actuators. This was a complex task because of the number of movements that the robot was required to execute and the different stimuli to which it had to respond. In addition, the robot proved particularly sensitive to changes in light levels and I needed to experiment with a number of adaptations to discover the optimum balance between responsiveness and reliability.

Our team achieved second place in the local competition and progressed to the regional final, where we came fifth out of 25 teams.

Through psychometric tests

The most common of these tests involve verbal and numerical reasoning: you may also encounter diagrammatic reasoning and critical thinking tests. They may be administered online at an early stage of the selection process, or at first interview or assessment centres. (link to Psychometric testing pages)

At interview

If your application form has included competency-based questions such as the ones above, you can expect the employer to ask for more detail at interview, about the problem or the situation and the way that you went about finding a solution. Be prepared to be asked about alternative ways in which you might have gone about tackling this problem and what you would have done if things hadn’t worked out.

Hypothetical questions

Hypothetical questions ask you about the course of action you might take in the event of some fictional situation, often work-related. There is usually no right or wrong answer to these questions: the interviewers are seeking to assess your logical thinking and common sense. You may need to ask questions to clarify the situation and gather more information. You can expect your answers to be challenged, the interviewers asking questions such as “Yes, but what if …?”, or “Have you thought about ….?”, or “Why would you do that …?”
This doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with the answer you have given – just that the interviewers are trying to find out how you have arrived at your solution to the problem. They may also be testing you out to see how you cope with pressure and how well you can argue a point.
Although the situation is hypothetical, if you have been faced with any similar situation in real life you can use this, and the way that you handled it then, to support your answer.

  • "You are working on the till in a retail store when a customer’s credit card is refused. The cardholder is a regular customer who is trying to buy a present for their mother’s birthday the following day. How would you deal with this situation?"
  • "Your manager regularly leaves you in charge of a small office in his absence. The other staff regularly complain to you about the way he runs things, and how irritated they are by his interference in their day-to-day work - what do you do?"
  • "You work in a company that manufactures meat pies and pasties. Sales have been falling for several years and you are asked to come up with ideas to revive the company”

Technical questions

These are most commonly asked at interviews for science, engineering and IT posts. They may relate to your previous relevant work experience or to a student project, or may relate to hypothetical situations:

  • “The scenario was that we were in charge of lighting a theatre. We were given different examples of what type of problem could be caused by various faults in the lighting plan and who this problem would affect. It got harder as different conditions were added to the original ones and you had to take more and more information into consideration, such as: certain lights need to always be turned on first; some lights need to be warmed up in the breaks; different lights create different effects.”
  •  “If I were organising a national cancer screening campaign, what standards/precautions/feasibility/practicality checks would I do before implementing the scheme?” 

Ethical questions

These are particularly common in interviews for medicine and law. Again, there is often no right or wrong answer, although you should be aware of the legal and regulatory framework behind these questions. You will be expected to put both sides of the argument before giving your opinion and can expect to be challenged and asked to justify your opinion.

  • Should doctors be authorised to remove organs from a dead person without obtaining consent from their relatives?
  • A patient urgently requires a bone marrow transplant but the only suitable donor is her brother, who has severe physical and mental disabilities. Can this brother donate?
  • Should conjoined twins be separated even if it is almost certain that one of them will die in the process?
  • Since the victims in rape cases have anonymity, should the same anonymity be granted to the accused?

Case study interviews

This type of interview is often used for graduate positions in management consultancy and investment banking. Case questions are business problems designed not only to test your logical and analytical thinking skills, ability to solve problems but also to make you think on your feet. Often there are no right answers to these types of questions, but they give the selector an idea of how you think, your reasoning skills, how you react under pressure and your common sense.

The problems may be brief (sometimes seemingly bizarre) “estimation” or “brain teaser” questions such as “How many cars are there in the EU?”, or “How many laptops will be purchased in the UK in 2020?”, or “Why are manhole covers round?”

Alternatively, you may be asked questions related to the issues facing real-life clients:

  • A manufacturer of umbrellas, based in the west of Ireland, wants to expand into mainland Europe.  What issues should they consider? What risks might they face?
  • A parcel delivery company plans to offer a new service where customers can hand a package directly to one of the company's drivers instead of taking it to a depot. What issues need to be thought about?

Through group tasks and discussions at assessment centres

Almost all assessment centres will involve a strong element of group work. These tasks may involve the group sitting around a table discussing a problem or may be more active and practical. The decision reached by the group is likely to be less important than the way in which the group works together to reach its decision – these tasks aim to test your team-working and negotiation, as well as your problem-solving, skills.

  • “We were asked to come up with a business proposal for building a computer network between an imaginary group of islands, to be presented to the island’s government.”
  • “We were provided with information on four sites that were possible locations for the construction of a nuclear power station. This included information on the environment, the local economy, transport links and the estimated costs of construction. We had to select one and recommend it to the Secretary of State for Energy, giving the reasons for our decision.”
  • “We were given a task involving Lego bricks - we had to work out how many bricks we wanted to use to build the tallest tower possible at the lowest cost.”
  • “A large part of the Army Officer selection process takes place outdoors – the teams of candidates have to negotiate an obstacle course using ladders, ropes, poles and planks.”
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