Problem Solving and Analytical Skills
How to develop and demonstrate your problem-solving skills
We all solve problems on a daily basis, in academic
situations, at work and in our day-to-day lives.
Some of the problems that are typically faced by students
Putting together an argument for an essay
Debugging a computer program
Dealing with an awkward customer when working
part-time in a shop or restaurant
Thinking about how you are going to manage 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.
Any job will also bring problems to be faced. It is important to show to a recruiter
that you have the right skills to resolve these problems, and the
personal resilience to handle the challenges and pressure they may bring.
You need to be able to:
Evaluate information or situations
Break them down into their key components
Consider various ways of approaching and
Decide on the most appropriate of these
Problems can also be
opportunities: they allow you to
see things differently and to do
things in a different way:
perhaps to make a fresh start.
Solving these problems involves both analytical and creative skills. Which
particular skills are needed will vary, depending on the problem and your role in the
organisation, but the following skills are key to problem-solving:
A workman hearing about this, came up with another solution. He got a powerful
industrial fan and pointed it at the assembly line. As each soap box passed the fan,
the empty boxes were blown off the line. Moral: the simplest solution is usually the
A large cosmetics company had a problem that some of the soap boxes coming off
the production lines were empty. The problem was quickly isolated to the assembly
line, which transported the packaged boxes of soap to the delivery department: some
soap boxes went through the assembly line empty.
The management asked its engineers to solve the problem. They spent much time and
money in devising an X-ray machine with high-res monitors manned by staff to watch
all the boxes on the line to make sure they weren't empty.
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 to come
up with ideas for resolving the problem and find fresh approaches
Not everyone has these two types of skills in equal measure: for this reason, team
working is often a key component in problem-solving.Further skills, such
as communication, persuasion and negotiation, are important in finding
solutions to problems involving people
Whatever issue you are faced with, some steps are
Identify the problem
Define the problem
Examine the options
Act on a plan
Look at the consequences
This is the IDEAL model of problem-solving.
The final stage is to put the solution you have decided on into practice and check the
De v elo p i ng yo u r a na l yt ic a l a n d pr o bl e m - so l v in g sk i ll s
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, etc;
Computer games – the best of these can involve strategic planning, critical
and statistical analysis and assessing the pros and cons of different courses of
‘Practical’ interests such as programming, computer repairs, car maintenance,
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 „microshelter‟ for an architecture project; setting
up a lab experiment.
Th er e a r e s ev e r a l st a g es t o
so l vi n g a p r o bl em :
1) Eva l ua t i ng t he p r o b le m
Clarifying the nature of a problem
Gathering information systematically
Collating and organising data
Condensing and summarising
Defining the desired objective
2) M a na g i ng t h e pr o b l em
Using the information gathered effectively
Breaking down a problem into smaller, more manageable, parts
Using techniques such as brainstorming and lateral thinking to consider
Analysing these options in greater depth
Identifying steps that can be taken to achieve the objective
3) D ec i sio n -m a ki ng
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
See our page on decision-making skills
4) Re so lv in g t h e pr o b l em
Providing information to other stakeholders;
5) Ex a m i ni ng t he r e su lt s
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.
Problem-solving skills and graduate jobs: what do
Analytical ability, problem solving skills and using initiative are among the top ten
skills for recruiters of graduates. 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 somethingand 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 (e.g. in scientific research) 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
“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
“We are looking for innovative minds and creative spirits ...”
“We need ambitious graduates who will respond with enthusiasm to every issue
These quotes from employers‟ job adverts on graduate websites are all asking for
essentially the same two things:
The ability to use your own initiative, to think for yourself, to be creative
The ability to resolve problems, to think logically and/or laterally, to use
ingenuity to overcome difficulties and to research and implement
These qualities help graduates to make a difference to their employer, whether that
employer provides a service or manufactures a product.
How will they assess these skills?
On a p p l ic a t io n fo r m s
If analytical or problem-solving skills are a key part of the job, there is likely to be a
question on the application form which asks you to give evidence of
your competency in these areas, such as:
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
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;
Describe a time when you provided a new or different solution to a problem;
Give me a specific example of a time when you used good judgment and logic in
solving a problem;
Describe a difficult problem that you have solved. State how you decided which
were the critical issues, say what you did and what your solution was. What
other approaches could you have taken?
Give an example of a problem you have solved that required analysis. What
methods did you use and what conclusions did you reach?
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.
Ev id e nc e yo u c o ul d gi ve t o a n e m p lo y er t o c o nv in c e t h em t ha t
yo u ha v e p r o b l em - so lv i ng s ki l ls
Examples could come from your course, extra-curricular activities such as
student societies, school, work or work experience, year-in-industry placements,
travel or other sources.
Analysing data from a project or experiment
Working as a “troubleshooter” 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
Put t i ng t h e e vi de nc e o nt o a n a pp lic a t io n fo r m
Give an example of a time when you have successfully resolved a complex
1: Describe a situation from the last five years when you demonstrated effective use
the skill you have chosen:
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.
2: What action did you have to take?
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.
3: What was the result of your action?
Our team achieved second place in the local competition and progressed to the
regional final, where we came fifth out of 25 teams.
Th r o u g h p sy c h o m et r ic t est s
The most common of these tests involve verbal and numerical reasoning: you may
also encounter diagrammatic reasoning and critical thinkingtests. They may be
administered online at an early stage of the selection process, or at first
A study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests you are more likely
to succeed if you solve a difficult problem on another person‟s behalf rather than for
yourself. One of the problems was:
A prisoner was attempting to escape from a tower. He found a rope in his cell that was
half as long enough to permit him to reach the ground safely. He divided the rope in
half, tied the two parts together, and escaped. How could he have done this?
interview or assessment centres. There is a great deal of information about these
Students were asked to think of either themselves or a stranger stuck in the tower.
66% of the students who imagined a stranger in the tower, found the solution
compared with 48% of those who envisaged themselves in the tower. THe authors
said if we imagine that our problems belong to someone else, we might find
better solutions. The solution, by the way is to split the rope lengthwise.
A t i nt er v i ew
Fur t h er q u e st i o ni ng o n t h e a ns w er s g iv e n o n yo ur a pp li c a t io n
fo r m
If your application form has included competency-based questions such as the ones
above, you can expect the employer to ask for more detail 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.
H yp o t h et ic a l q ue st io ns
Competency-based questions ask you about actions that you have takenin the past:
hypothetical questions ask you about the course of action you might take in the
event of some fictional situation, often work-related.
"How would you deal with a staff member who persistently arrives late and
takes regular, unauthorised, breaks from work for a cigarette?”
"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
"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
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 …?”
“Have you thought about ….?”
“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
For further information on handling hypothetical questions,
Te c h n ic a l qu e s t io n s
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 as in the examples below:
“The scenario was that we were in charge of lighting a theatre. We were given
different conditions as to what type of problem could be caused by various faults
in the lighting plan and who this problem would affect e.g. lighting technician,
stage manager or director. There was only ever one problem with the lighting
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”
“I was asked to suggest a route to synthesise ethylene glycol – one of the
company’s products” (Chemistry graduate interviewed by petrochemicals
“If I were organising a national cancer screening campaign, what standards/
precautions/ feasibility/ practicality checks would I do before implementing the
scheme?” (Medical physicist)
“They asked technical questions mainly to work out my thought process on
problem solving, there was no correct answer as long as they were logical and
eventually you had to come to a point where you gave up and admitted
(Graduate interviewed for IT support post with NHS trust)
See our science interviews page for more on technical questions.
Et h ic a l q ue st io ns
These are particularly common in interviews for medicine and law. Some typical
examples may include:
Should all class C drugs be legalised?
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
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?
Martin Luther King said "I have a dream", not "I have a plan.
It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer.
Leaders are problem solvers by talent and temperament, and by choice.
Problems are only opportunities in work clothes.
Difficulties are opportunities to better things; they are stepping-stones to greater
experience.... When one door closes, another always opens.
Every exit is an entry somewhere else.
There are no foolish questions and no man becomes a fool until he has stopped asking
The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly
dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions.
It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.
The mere formulation of a problem is far more often essential than its solution.
For every failure, there's an alternative course of action. You just have to find it. When
you come to a roadblock, take a detour.
Mary Kay Ash
When life gives you a lemon, make lemonade.
If you really want something you can figure out how to make it happen.
The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Whether you believe you can, or whether you believe you can't, you're absolutely
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the
world. Indeed it's the only thing that ever has.
It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one.
The best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.
Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just stand there.
The human mind is like a parachute - it functions better when it's open.
The man with a new idea is a crank - until the idea succeeds.
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.
Ca s e st ud y int e r vi ew s
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 the following:
How many cars are there in the EU?
How many laptops will be purchased in the UK in 2020?
Why are manhole covers round?
Alternatively, you may be asked questions related to the issues facing real-life
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
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?
Th r o u g h g r o up t a sk s a n d di sc us s io n s a t a ss e ss m ent c e nt r e s
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 (as in
the final two examples) be more active and practical:
“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 islands
Candidates for a place at medical school were given background information on
ten patients and asked to select five of them who would receive a kidney
“We were provided with information on four sites that were possible locations for
the construction of a nuclear power station. This information included material
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”