Analytical skills: the ability to make sense of data

Graduates who demonstrate their analytical thinking during a job interview or assessment centre will stand out from other candidates.

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The best way to demonstrate your analytical skills in your interview answers is to explain your thinking.

Here’s a simple definition for analytical skills: they are the ability to work with data – that is, to see patterns, trends and things of note and to draw meaningful conclusions from them. (Note: contrary to popular opinion, data includes information and facts of all types, not just statistics.) This analysis is then used to solve problems, to make business decisions or to provide recommendations to colleagues, clients and bosses.

The competency is essential to business success. It’s not surprising, then, that ‘excellent analytical skills’ is frequently listed as an essential requirement on graduate job descriptions, person specifications and job adverts. The good news is that if you have completed a degree you will have honed your analytical skills. All degrees are designed to develop critical thinking, which is, for all intents and purposes, analytical skills by another name.

Are you analytical in the right way for the job?

Different degree subjects give experience of different types of information. English literature students, for example, read texts critically to form a qualitative argument or analyse the reliability of sources, while engineering students often use the quantitative results from models to further their experiments or research projects.

Different sectors and professions, too, will use information differently. Someone well versed in qualitative research may be short on the experience that will convince recruiters that they are sufficiently numerate to work confidently with lots of quantitative data. However, many of the analytical skills tests recruiters use aren’t based on your previous experiences but on how you perform there and then.

How are your analytical skills likely to be tested in your graduate job application?

Online aptitude tests , often the second stage of the application process, assess your ability to analyse a situation and make a judgement. Situational judgement tests (SJTs), numerical tests and inductive reasoning tests are the most likely to focus on your analytical skills. Our commercial partner AssessmentDay has a number of free and paid-for practice tests available for graduates.

How will your analytical skills be tested at a graduate job interview?

Your analytical skills are more likely to be extensively assessed via an assessment centre exercise (see below) rather than via an interview question because this is the type of skill that is easier for a recruiter to judge when a candidate is actually demonstrating it instead of just talking about it. However, your analytical skills may be being partially assessed if you are asked a competency-based interview question about solving a problem. For example:

  • Give me an example of a time when you ran into an unexpected obstacle on a project. What did you do?
  • Give me an example of a difficult problem you had to solve outside of your course. How did you approach it?
  • Tell me about a time you worked through a problem as a team.

To demonstrate your analytical skills when answering these sorts of questions, you will need to explain how you completed a realistic assessment of the situation, and explored and evaluated options.

You might also be asked commercial awareness or hypothetical interview questions that call on your analytical skills. These will vary according to the job, but could include:

  • What do you think is the biggest challenge facing us in the next 12 months? (You will need to have analysed the company’s performance and business plans, have an idea of its competitors and have a sense of how the economy and wider political events could affect the business.)
  • What would you do if there was conflict between team members you were managing? (This is most likely to be asked in interviews for trainee management jobs. You will need to show that you can analyse the motivations and behaviour of the people involved in conflict.)
  • How do our products compare to those of our competitors? (This is most likely to be asked in interviews for consumer goods and retail jobs; you need to have analysed the market to answer this well.)
  • If you had £100m, where would you invest it? (This is most likely to be asked in interviews for finance and investment jobs. You will need to show that you have analysed the current financial situation and the behaviour of the markets.)

The best way to demonstrate your analytical skills when in an interview is to explain your thought processes when giving an answer: show off your logical approach and critical thinking abilities.

How will your analytical skills be tested at a graduate assessment centre?

At an assessment centre, analytical skills are most likely to be tested via a case study exercise, either in a group or individually. It’s likely that you will be given a dossier of information and you will need to assess the contents and use it to make recommendations to a client.

Your analytical thinking will also be on show if you are asked to give a presentation : the assessors will be interested in what information you choose to include and how you structure it.

Other analytical skills tests will vary according to the role and the employer. For example, it is common for aspiring solicitors to be given what’s known as an ‘article interview’. Candidates are supplied with some written information, such as a newspaper article, and are then asked questions on it in their interview. The analytical skills of would-be engineers, meanwhile, are usually tested by being given a technical problem (such as, in civil engineering, being asked to design an element). Similarly, a candidate for a software engineer or programmer job might be asked to find errors in a piece of code or to write a product specification for a hypothetical client.

Check out our sector-specific careers advice for more on what to expect when attending interviews and assessment days for different professions.

How is data analysis used in different jobs?

The way in which graduates use their analytical skills – and the types of decisions that they will make or contribute to – will vary considerably according to their profession. For example:

  • Solicitors use analytical skills throughout their career, whether to work out how legislation and case law affects a client’s transaction, to judge if something is a relevant piece of evidence, to explain situations to clients, to assess whether contractual obligations have been reneged upon or to research the background of a case.
  • Marketing executives most often use analytical skills to assess customer research and the performance of marketing campaigns – that is, to discern what is popular and to forecast future trends, using a range of metrics (such as social media interactions) and data tools (such as Google Analytics).
  • Data analysts can find work in a range of sectors, including consulting, retail and marketing, but the role is often technology-focused and requires a computer science or statistics-based degree. As well as analysing and interpreting data, much of the role involves presenting it in an understandable format for non-technical colleagues or clients.
  • Insurance underwriters take into account demographic data and financial models to decide whether to accept an application for insurance cover.

Analytical skills versus problem-solving skills: is there a difference?

Analytical skills are closely aligned with problem-solving skills and the two are often conflated in person specifications, but in fact they are separate and distinct sets of competencies. Sound analysis of a situation is an essential stage of problem solving, but you can use analytical thinking for purposes other than solving a problem: for example, by forecasting the likelihood of future events.

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