How to Demonstrate Critical Thinking and Problem Solving on Your Resume

Dana Guterman
Updated: July 24, 2020

You’ve probably heard that hiring managers spend less than 10 seconds on each resume. And during that brief time, they’re looking for certain must-have skills—skills that pop up in job and internship postings again and again. That’s because employers know what they want in new college hires, so they look for certain essential competencies. According to NACE’s Job Outlook 2019 survey, one of the top four competencies employers look for in new college hires is critical thinking/problem solving. The other three are teamwork/collaboration, professionalism/work ethic, and oral/written communications.

These soft skills show that a candidate is prepared for a successful transition to the workplace. But how do you prove to potential employers that you truly possess these traits? In this article, we’ll show you how to demonstrate your critical-thinking and problem-solving skills on your resume.

You can read about how to demonstrate other essential resume skills in the guides below:

 

What is critical thinking/problem solving?

Being skilled in critical thinking and problem solving means that you seek solutions to issues in an effective and orderly manner, based on facts.

Every job has problems to solve and challenges to overcome. Individuals with strong problem-solving and critical-thinking skills take a methodical approach to these issues, using data and evidence to inform their process and asking smart questions rather than believing everything they’re told. Being able to think critically about situations means you form judgments and make decisions based on reason, often in an innovative or creative way.

 

Why are critical thinking and problem solving important in college hires?

In today’s fast-paced world, businesses encounter complex new challenges every day. There’s also a huge amount of information available to everyone—and not all of it is accurate. Interns and employees who can actively work through issues on their own to arrive at sound solutions make life easier for their supervisors and colleagues.

Most people can make a decision when needed. But when someone thinks through a problem critically and works through it step by step, they’re more likely to reach the best decision. That’s because they ask questions, look at evidence, analyze their own biases, and consult with others. When you add all that up, it’s far more likely that a person with strong critical-thinking skills will take effective action that yields a successful outcome. And that’s good for the business and the bottom line.

In addition, critical thinkers and problem solvers tend to be inspiring and enjoyable to work alongside. Because they examine their own biases and take into account differing opinions, they’re usually open-minded, respectful, and reasonable.

These competencies are particularly important for college hires. Interns and entry-level workers who can think critically and solve problems need less hand-holding, and they can offer fresh opinions and ideas. At the same time, they’re flexible and willing to listen.

Problem solving and critical thinking are useful in any role, but they’re frequently listed as key skills for the following categories:

  • Data science
  • Finance
  • Marketing and communication
  • Engineering
  • Nonprofits
  • Web/UX design
  • Advertising
  • Consulting

 

Examples of critical thinking/problem solving

Since so many companies use an applicant tracking system (ATS) to scan resumes for key qualifications and skills, you need to carefully read the job description to ensure you’re including the right terms. To find these keywords, simply look at the skills listed as “Requirements” or “Preferences” in the job posting. You can read more about relevant resume skills here.

For critical thinking and problem solving, other keywords might include:

  • Analyzing
  • Research
  • Attention to detail
  • Active listening
  • Decision making
  • Creativity
  • Experimenting
  • Innovation
  • Communication
  • Open-mindedness
  • Adaptability

You can use all these terms to highlight your critical thinking and problem solving throughout your resume and cover letter.

 

Example resume bullets that highlight critical thinking and problem solving

If a job description emphasizes critical thinking, problem solving, or any related terms, you want to include keywords related to these areas in your resume. But you can’t just list “problem solving” as a skill; it means nothing. Instead, you need to include specific examples of when you demonstrated these competencies in the past. To get past the ATS and impress the hiring manager, try to incorporate the keywords themselves as well as specific past examples.

Consider situations in which you’ve thought outside of the box or worked long and hard to increase efficiencies. Maybe you successfully navigated a tricky situation with a customer. Maybe you used your creativity to make something work despite a limited budget. These are all examples of critical thinking and problem solving that you can include on your resume. You want to prove that you have a history of carefully and creatively thinking through issues to arrive at the best solution.

Example 1: Software engineer intern

Software Engineer Intern, Velcor Computer Designs
Boise, ID (Dec 2019–Present)

  • Partnered with QC team to perform experimental software runs, ending the need for outside assistance and saving the company over $20,000 in past six months.
  • Instituted new coding verification protocols (Nov 2018), which led to a 12% reduction in reported coding errors.
  • Write SQL queries and statements to analyze, investigate, and resolve application errors.

To demonstrate problem solving and critical thinking in your resume, focus on keywords and numbers. This candidate mentions several key skills associated with these areas, including analyzing, investigating, performing experimental runs, and instituting new protocols. All of these tasks speak to an ability to analyze and evaluate problems to arrive at sound solutions.

Example 2: Resume summary

Resume Summary
Chemical engineer with expertise in troubleshooting systemic validation issues, developing manufacturing resolutions, and presenting findings to managers and inspectors. Field experience in operating and maintaining electromechanical equipment and systems. Technical skills include C++, MS Office, MS Visio, AutoCAD, BioKM, and MATLAB.

By highlighting problem solving and critical thinking in your resume summary, you feature these key skills right away. A true critical thinker knows how to troubleshoot problems to find creative solutions—just like this applicant.

Example 3: Demonstrating problem solving through awards

Received $10,000 innovation grant towards biodegradable plastic research from EJC Company, beating out over 250 other candidates.

Awards showcase your best and brightest accomplishments, so they’re the perfect way to highlight key skills. In this example, the applicant showcases related keywords (“research” and “innovation”), along with how many other candidates they were up against. The amount of competition proves that this grant would only go to someone with superlative critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.