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The Importance of Critical Thinking in Grad School (and Everywhere Else)

January 2023

Philosophers such as Plato and Socrates have waxed about the art of critical thinking for ages. The ability to make well-informed, conscious decisions based on information and thoughtful reflection before acting or expressing an opinion is a skill that has always been highly valued. In today’s landscape of information overload and dubious sources, the art of critical thinking has become more challenging. Some would even say it has become a lost art.

However, in the worlds of graduate school and employment, the ability to think critically has become an important soft skill that both graduate program admissions committees and companies are looking for.

Why is critical thinking so important?

The ability to think independently from outside forces, including those in positions of power and authority, is a valuable skill that can lead to innovative ideas, productive and engaging debate, and promote leadership skills that are invaluable both in the classroom and the workspace. Contemplating a topic in an objective way, evaluating various points of view, and recognizing the strengths and weaknesses within an issue, all enable an individual to successfully navigate say, a challenging graduate program or a leadership position within a company.

In fact, 60% of hiring managers feel that critical thinking is the most lacking soft skill among college graduates. And, despite its allegedly inadequate levels amongst students, it’s also one of the most desired when looking for a successful candidate. It allows you to engage in effective problem solving, decision making, productive and sound judgements of peers, professors and clients, and to focus on the facts in any situation without becoming distracted by debatable influences or sources.

If you just blindly accept every piece of information you are presented with without vetting it and analyzing its worth and legitimacy, then how can you expect others to trust your decision-making, leadership or research skills? And the benefits to having and employing these skills will certainly extend beyond the classroom, lab or office and into your personal life as well as you navigate the information onslaught that likely invades your phone and computer daily.

This is why many universities and companies are beginning to assess soft skills, such as critical thinking, as part of a holistic evaluation of a prospective candidate.

How to become a critical thinker

Much of the groundwork for critical thinking can be learned at both home and in school from a very young age. This, of course, would depend on whether you were raised to question things or just do as you were told. The school system, from the elementary level on, is also an environment in which critical thinking skills can not only be taught — but encouraged. Teaching and reinforcing critical thinking skills from an early age benefits students when they eventually enter the higher ed world.

As you contemplate grad school, you may feel that your critical thinking skills could use some improvement. There are plenty ways to teach yourself how to be a better critical thinker using a number of resources from books to mini courses to situational prompts.

Ensuring your critical thinking skills are up to par won’t just make you a more viable grad school applicant but may in fact help you choose the best program for you. In general, accepting things at face value without any introspection or investigation can be detrimental when forming opinions or deciding to act on something. As a true critical thinker, you aren’t only questioning outside opinions and information, but your own opinions as well. You put everything you know, or think you know, on trial to come up with a conclusion based on intelligent contemplation and facts.

The bottom line

Think of critical thinking skills this way: If a plate of smoking hot food is set before you, you don’t just start eating because the person who put it in front of you told you it was safe to consume. You test it first and make sure it won’t burn you. If you apply that same logic to the information that is put in front of you, whether learning in a classroom, working as a professional or watching the news, you will feel more confident in your decisions and opinions, as will those around you.

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The term holistic refers to the fact that something or someone is a whole entity rather than just made up of individual parts. The concept of holistic admissions is much the same.