Virtually all jobs—even those that primarily involve manual labor—require workers to exercise their cognitive skills—their “thinking skills,” in other words. While not all employers use the phrase “cognitive skills” in job descriptions, it is important for job seekers to be able to demonstrate that they have the types of cognitive skills the employers want.
What Are Cognitive Skills?
Cognitive skills include the ability to learn, to process and apply knowledge, to analyze and reason, and to evaluate and decide. They are generally based on abilities that seem to be inborn, in that some people can develop abilities that others cannot. At least, not without considerably greater effort. And yet cognitive skills must be developed and practiced to reach their full potential. In other words, it is possible to become more skilled, with a little work.
Examples of Cognitive Skills in the Workplace
Employers are likely to look for cognitive skills in an applied form. That is, no one will ask in an interview, “can you think?” but the interviewer may ask how well the candidate can do specific tasks that require thinking.
The following, therefore, is a partial list of applied cognitive skills as they might appear in a job description. When preparing for an interview, for each task you wish to highlight, be sure to prepare specific examples of occasions when you did that task in a professional context. Do not expect the interviewer to take your word for it that you have certain skills.
Digest Reading Material
It means reading and understanding a text, thinking about it, or analyzing it. Exploring literature in a scholarly sense is one example. Reading a manual and then adapting the processes described in a new situation is another.
Draw Inferences from Patterns of Events
If the copier breaks every Friday, what is causing the problem? Something is because such a pattern is unlikely to occur by chance. If you can notice the pattern and identify and resolve the issue, you can save your company time, money, and frustration. This sort of reasoning can be very valuable to an employer.
Analyze Problems and Evaluate Options
Anyone can apply a standard solution to a standard problem. But, deciding which of several possible solutions is appropriate takes some real thinking. As does the act of deciding which of several problems to attempt to solve first.
Brainstorming means coming up with a long list of possible solutions without stopping to analyze which ones might be correct. Although analysis itself is a good and necessary skill, being able to suspend it temporarily is also important. Brainstorming leads to solutions and usually accompanies ideas like creativity and team building.
Focus Attention on a Task
Staying focused is an undervalued skill that not everyone has. For some people, staying focused means attending to only one task at a time. Others get better results by juggling a group of tasks, either because all are related and require each other in some way, or because rapid cycling among different tasks relieves boredom. In either case, the important thing is to be able to work efficiently until the task or tasks is done.
Observation is another undervalued skill. Some specialized forms of observation can be learned, such as following a scientific protocol or using a pair of binoculars. However, the cognitive skill of observation means being able to notice something and then pay attention to it. Frequently, observation is easier if you are familiar with the phenomena in question. For example, a trained birder can often count the number of bird species singing in a chorus, even if the species are unfamiliar, where an untrained person hears only undifferentiated noise.
When You’re Job Searching
When you're job searching, take the time to discover what cognitive skills the employer is seeking. In many cases, you'll find them as “keyword phrases” under the “Preferred Qualifications” section in the job posting. Reference the skills you have that are a close match to the employer's requirements in your resume and cover letters, and during job interviews.
Scan the lists above to help you identify the skills that most closely approximate the qualifications for a prospective job. Because many employers use automated applicant tracking systems to rate the resumes they receive, try to mention as many of these “keyword” cognitive skills in your resume as you can.