Are Reasoning, Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Writing Critical to Success in College and Careers?

college readyness
Like all undertakings, there are levels of difficulty that will “weed out” certain individuals from participation. I intentionally used the term, “weed-out,” in the previous sentence because this post has to do with college and career success. Walk on any college campus in America today, ask any undergraduate which are the weed-out classes in their respective field of study, and you will see how quickly they provide you with an answer. Back when I attended UC Santa Barbara in the late nineties, Biological Sciences majors had to make it past first quarter Bio. Out of the entire series, three total courses, I recall that Bio 101 was the hardest of all to pass. There were over four hundred students who would start the sequence. The class was only offered at 8:00 A.M! Campbell Hall would fill-up each morning with groggy, possibly hung over freshman. As a morning person, I had an advantage. People who struggled getting up early, like my roommate, missed multiple days of class. Now you can watch lectures from the comfort of your dorm room, thanks in part to the video. Still, professors and universities find ways to dwindle the supply of would-be majors so that only the cream-of-the-crop makes it to the advanced level courses. Making tests incredibly hard at the introductory level, implicitly discouraging success by recommending all students take an additional non-credit tutoring course and making you feel like a “number,” are some ways professors and universities get enrollment down to more manageable levels.

PARCC Test Practice: Online Resources for Your Children

Clearly, there is more to college success than being able to reason, think critically, problem solve, and write. I tell you this with certainty because my former roommate and long-time friend had the necessary skill set, yet he flunked Bio 101 two times! Today my friend is a tenure track professor of Immunology at the University of Maryland. How could someone who is currently on the cutting edge of creating a vaccine for salmonella infections have failed at simple first quarter bio while an undergrad? I will tell you.

Your first year of college is about survival. You may be on par with every other freshman in being able to reason, think critically, problem solve, and even write. It’s the hidden skillset where everyone is different. What’s the hidden skillset? Transitioning from high school to college involves making some necessary adjustments where time is of the essence. The sooner an undergraduate freshman makes the transition, which is to remain intact until they graduate, the better their odds of not being an attrition data point. College upperclassmen all share the ability to 1) Manage their time 2) Manage their stress 3) Cope with test anxiety and 4) Make responsible, independent decisions. These are life skills! You can have a genius level I.Q. but it won’t matter if you cannot fit within this behavioral paradigm. When and if the college student graduates, all but skill number three (coping with test anxiety) transfer to the workforce.

Life skills like those listed above are the foundation of success in any venue. Because you’re not getting paid for a service while, at college, no one expects you to have these essential life skills. In fact, hardly anyone cares if you’re an absentminded slouch. The consequences of not keeping an orderly schedule of your day’s activities, bills to pay, places to go, and so on, will be felt by you alone. In contrast, at a job, an employer would also bear the burden of your lack of punctuality, erroneous decision-making, etc., and for that you will pay the price with a possible termination. What’s more critical to the success in college and career is firstly having the behavioral skills necessary to perform the basic requirements. Using the analogy of being a patient at a hospital, not having life skills is like being in a state of perpetual Critical condition. In comparison, having great life skills moves you into the Intensive Care Unit or I.C.U. What eventually gets you out of the hospital, i.e., thriving, is how well (how much better than others) you can reason, think critically, problem solve, and write. Distinguishing yourself from the competition is all about your intellect and intellectual abilities. And these are not critical to the success in college or career, for we have all seen less “capable” people rise above our level. Alas, there is no way of weeding out business organizational culture typical of hierarchies where often it’s not what you know, but who you know that determines your career’s heartbeat.

In a sense though, reasoning, critical thinking, problem-solving, and writing is like our body’s immunity once invaded by a pathogen. As my college roommate turned professor would say, our immunity is remarkable at keeping us healthy despite incessant attacks by viruses and bacteria. While attending college, students come across a myriad number of academic and even social challenges; students who can best reason, think critically, problem solve, and write will be the “healthiest” on paper (grades). I have many other professor friends, and their biggest gripe right now is students who can’t write technical papers!

The past several years, high schools have shifted senior English to include courses that address the skill of expository writing. Gone are the days of focusing entirely on novels and the accompanying essay assignment. Now students must be able to read, understand, and respond to non-fiction; they must be able to write technically sound, scientific-like papers. Without this ability, college students of the 21st Century will struggle. Similarly, you can’t write technical papers without having sound logic. That’s where reasoning, critical thinking, and problem-solving come into play. Companies want solutions that can be clearly communicated! Career success will depend on a person’s ability think independently, work collaboratively, find solutions for teams or customers, and express these in an intelligible manner. What do Shakespeare and J.D. Salinger have to do with any of this? Nothing! To survive college and career, you must have life skills. These life skills, as mentioned above, will pave the way for your success path. But they will not walk your college or career journey for you. How you travel from point a to point b involves your mind’s health; it involves your mind’s workings. A healthy 21st Century mind can reason, think critically, problem solve, and write technical papers. The better you are at it, the more money you’ll make!

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C. Osvaldo Gomez

C. Osvaldo Gomez has been a high school Assistant Principal for ten years in CA. He's been featured in newspaper for his work as an educator. He's also a published author of creative short fiction, and blogger at where he writes about his investing and entrepreneurial experiences for educators and other professionals.