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Problem solving skills

Problem solving: the mark of an independent employee

Line managers don’t like hiring graduates who will come running every time they’re out of their depth. If you can step up with a solution, you’ll stand a better chance.
Problem solving is a vital skill in daily life, which is why graduate employers are so keen on it.

Even when it isn’t specified in the job description, many employers will look at your problem-solving skills at various different stages of the application process. This could be anything from psychometric tests to group activities or one-to-one interviews.

Problem solving is all about using logic, as well as imagination, to make sense of your situation and come up with an intelligent solution. It is connected to a number of other skills:

  • Level headedness and resilience are important for assessing a situation, and reassessing it if you fail the first time
  • You will need analytical skills, creativity and logical thinking to reach a solution
  • If you’re in a group you will also need good teamworking skills

Problem solving examples

Whether you are putting together an application, or preparing for an interview, having examples of problem solving experience is a good idea. You will need to explain how you identified the problem, came up with a solution and implemented it. Quantifiable results are good, and obviously the more complex the situation, the more impressive a successful result is.

If you were forced to tackle the problem as part of a team, explain how your role was important in ensuring the positive solution, but also explain how your group worked together. This could be an opportunity to promote your teamworking skills as well.

If you’re set a problem as part of the graduate recruitment process, you could try using the IDEAL model, described by Bransford and Stein in their book Ideal Problem Solver. It breaks down what you need to do to solve a problem into stages:

  • Identify the issue
  • Define the obstacles
  • Examine your options
  • Act on an agreed course of action
  • Look at how it turns out, and whether any changes need to be made.

How do I phrase it on a job application?

Do say: ‘I had to find a solution to complex obstacle X. By carefully allocating resources Y and using innovative ideas Z I was able to overcome it.’ – Use actual examples. Explain the problem, say what your resources were and what ideas you came up. Consider using the STAR model. Think about the Situation you faced and the Task you had to complete, the Actions you took, and the Results you achieved.

Don’t say: ‘I was forced to deal with a tricky situation. Thankfully, because I am a total legend when it comes to problem solving, it wasn’t too difficult for me.’ – If you don’t explain how you solved the problem, then the skill cannot be assessed. Discussing the nature of the problem, as well as the aptitude of the solution, is important in demonstrating problem-solving abilities.

How to develop problem solving skills

Problem solving is a vital skill in daily life, which is why graduate employers are so keen on it. Dealing with any of the following situations will help you gain problem-solving skills without even realising it, and you may be able to use this in your graduate job applications or interviews:

  • Sorting out a problem with your computer
  • Resolving a dispute with a tricky landlord in order to get your deposit back
  • Satisfying a difficult customer
  • Finding a way round a funding shortfall in order to pay for travel or a gap year
  • Turning round the finances of a struggling student society
  • Organising a student society’s trip overseas, overcoming unforeseen difficulties on the way.

You can develop your problem solving skills by getting involved in extracurricular activities and volunteering, for example through the #iwill campaign which promotes social action among young people aged 10 to 20. Puzzles and games such as Sudoku and chess and can also strengthen your ability to think strategically and creatively.