Students applying to universities in the West are constantly bombarded with articles and advice that stress the importance of demonstrating one peculiar skill on applications: Critical Thinking.
After coaching so many Chinese students on their applications for the past five years, I’ve been amazed to discover how many are well aware of these “two words, sixteen characters.” The majority of students that come to Course West have already decided they must include the words “Critical Thinking” on their CV or personal statement. Many will even make sure they have at least one letter of recommendation from a teacher mentioning that they have the all-important “Critical Thinking Skill”.
But Critical Thinking is more than just a fancy phrase, and university admissions officers are well aware that Chinese applicants are being instructed to jam those two words into applications anywhere and everywhere. It’s become so prevalent that admissions officers are rolling their eyes whenever they see “Critical Thinking” mentioned in applications without adequate demonstration or explanation of the skill.
While most Chinese students are well aware of this “Critical Thinking” skill, few have mastered how to demonstrate it on an application.
So today, I’m going to show you what critical thinking really is and how you can demonstrate it honestly and compellingly.
You can forget about all the definitions you’ve seen on the internet or in a book. I know you are sick of unhelpful definitions and so am I. Let’s start by taking a look at a hot issue that always evokes a lot of debate in the West.
Thinking critically through controversy
I’ve heard from Chinese friends that the Chinese people are often interested in the issue of gun control in the United States. Most Chinese media outlets are intensely critical of the U.S government for not being able to exert stricter gun control or ban all guns in public. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that most American media outlets are in agreement with that criticism.
After hearing so many news stories about shootings and other violence in America, you may also think that banning guns would be a good thing for the American people. And if you’re accustomed to following the majority opinion expressed on various news outlets around the world, you are likely to be supportive of gun control, too.
But even in the United States, where media organizations enjoy the full freedom to report anything they want or express any opinions they want, there are many widely-held and credible opinions that you won’t find in a mainstream newspaper or TV news program. An opinion stating that gun rights and private gun ownership are a benefit to society is one of those.
Outside the box on guns
Let’s try thinking outside the box on this controversial issue and exercising our Critical Thinking muscles. Even if you disagree (and you probably will), the ability to see and articulate an opposing side of an argument is a sign of that highly valued skill.
To begin, while the media is quick to report on the deleterious effects of gun control, the pro-gun rights opinion holders might remind you that newspapers aren’t in the habit of reporting on prevented burglaries, carjackings, rapes, and even murder by ordinary, law-abiding men and women armed with guns. In fact, in places where gun ownership is high in America, criminals may often be deterred by the thought of their would-be victims carrying guns or other tools of self defense.
Gun rights proponents might also remind you that even in countries where guns have been banned for many years (including China), criminals are still able to occasionally kill or intimidate innocent people with guns, knives or other weapons that they obtain illegally. In fact, many cities in America have local laws that make it virtually impossible to own guns. Yet in many of those cities, gun violence is much higher than in cities where owning a gun is inexpensive and easy.
Americans and other Westerners are unique in that they tend to be naturally skeptical of their own government. They know that even in places where government is efficient and reliable, the police and other first responders aren’t always capable of arriving at the scene of a crime before it’s too late. So, many Americans choose to take personal protection into their own hands. As a result, many Americans prefer to own at least one gun.
The Verdict: Critical Thinking muscles need constant exercise
From the previous example, you may understand a little better exactly what it means to be a Critical Thinker. To always examine a subject critically, you should be able to look at any subject from multiple angles (the more angles the better!) and articulate a reasoned opinion from that angle or perspective, even when you disagree—especially when you disagree!
Practice being a contrarian or “devil’s advocate” in debates among friends or even in formulating your own opinions in private or in your inner monologue. In other words, turn “Critical Thinking” into a habit like brushing your teeth or bathing.
How to use Critical Thinking to enhance your application
Now, after knowing what critical thinking really is, let’s see how should we use it in our university applications.
Your personal statement gives you the opportunity to write about you, your goals, and your experiences. Instead of simply providing the personal anecdote or opinion that you think the university admissions office wants to hear, try choosing to write about something that makes you stand out. Demonstrate your ability to think differently but clearly and rationally.
Even a deeply unpopular opinion that’s written and reasoned well will usually be given more credit by admissions officers who will admire your bravery and ability to think outside the mainstream.
Portray yourself as the unique, creative, and bold person you are. Be confident yet humble, and make you and your application stand out amongst the plethora of others competing for a seat.