Is There A Test to Determine What Major or Career Would Be Right for My Child?

Is There A Test to Determine What Major or Career Would Be Right for My Child? I get this question every month. In the spring, families are faced with course selection decisions for the next school year and feel as if kids are forced to make decisions about the future sooner than necessary. During the fall, parents of seniors are concerned to see so many colleges ask for intended majors on applications for admission. Is there a test or process that could guide students in these decisions? Parents of college students see choice of major or career as an immediate issue. While most students can enter college undecided and explore options during their freshman and sophomore years, changing majors after that time can delay graduation and add to the cost of a college education. So how can we help our students discover their interests and talents in an appropriate way? I wish there was a simple test that could give every family a clear answer. But that is a little bit like wishing for magic beans. There are steps students and families can take to explore interests, possible careers, talents, personality traits, and other factors. I’ll outline four possible areas:

  1. Personality, Interest, and Career Testing
  2. Course Exploration
  3. Activity Exploration
  4. Career Exploration

Personality, Interest, and Career Testing

There are tests students can take to help identify personality traits, interests, and potential career paths. Here’s why I’m not a fan of most tests: In order to provide reliable results, you need to have quality data and an in-depth analysis of the results. Too many families are relying tests to provide answers, but they are not monitoring the input data or results. Quality Data What do I mean when I say you need to have quality data? The results provided by any of these assessments are only as good as the input from the client (the student in our case.) Picture the typical teenager answering question after question:
  • Which do you prefer— people or things?
  • Would you rather play it safe or take chances?
  • Do you like, dislike, or are you indifferent to the work of a
    •          poet
    •          computer programmer
    •          landscape architect
  • Do you enjoy giving presentations?
  • Would you like to repair a dishwasher?
Some questions might be easy for any student to answer. But others are not. How would you know if you like or dislike the work of a landscape architect if you have no idea what a landscape architect does? If you want to imaging yourself as a prominent and respected physician, you might answer all questions imaging yourself as a doctor— never mind you hate science classes and faint at the sight of blood. In other words, many students give answers on these tests which are not wholly accurate— some due to lack of experience and exposure and some due to wishful thinking taking the place of honest self-reflection. Analysis When career, personality, or interest tests are administered by a qualified professional you SHOULD receive guidance and counseling to help students understand how to answer questions (quality data) and how to interpret results. I remember taking some of these assessments when I was in college. I didn’t receive very good guidance on how to interpret or use the results. In about 20 minutes I was given the printouts and asked if I had any questions. I got very little out of the entire experience. I’m not alone, too many students miss out on appropriate guidance and counseling to make their results useful. I’m not saying all testing is flawed, but you need to know the limitations and seek out a qualified professional if you want these types of assessments to guide your future plans. For more on this issue, listen to this episode of The College Prep Podcast. Over the years I have found exploration activities are a better way for students to explore interests, possible majors, or future careers. There are many ways for teens to explore options.

Course Exploration

One possible way for students to explore is through the courses they take. In many cases these will be elective courses at school— a good place to start, but typically limited. Most high schools don’t offer courses in film, archaeology, forest management, philosophy, civil engineering, industrial design, etc. I encourage my clients to look for online course options to explore a wide range of topics beyond what they can find at their high schools. The options you can find online for no or low cost are more extensive (and possibly more interesting) that what you can register for at your high school. Some popular online course sites include: On some of these sites you will find courses from professors at well known universities. A lot of courses are not-for-credit and are considered MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses.) To learn more about MOOCS: And how students can use MOOCS to get ahead: You may find other online courses geared towards middle and high school students. A few summers ago my daughter took an Abnormal Psychology class through the Duke TIP program. She was disappointed in the class interaction and the way the material was presented, but she enjoyed the subject matter and confirmed her interest in psychology. I mention this because not all online programs are created equal and it may take a little trial and error to find your favorite. Just remember, the goal is to explore the subject matter, not to find a favorite instructor or try to complete an entire series online.

Activity Exploration

You can think of course exploration as more of a textbook approach to topics; activity exploration encourages hands on work. Start with activities offered by your high school. Do you enjoy learning and participating in the activities with the robotics club, DECA (business), HOSA (health sciences), etc? But, just as with courses, the possibility for exploration activities at your high school will be limited. You may already be familiar with some exploration programs beyond what is offered at your high school. Boy and Girl Scout curriculums are based on students exploring a variety of topics and possible careers. Girls can work on Journeys based on their interests; boys can earn merit badges. Similar opportunities can be found in many community based organizations. My family has found summers to be the ideal time to explore. From programs online, to classes at the local museum, and week-long camps held on college campuses, my son and daughter have gotten a taste of many subject areas and possible majors and careers in those fields. Of course, not all interests may be covered by organized programs. I’ve worked with a number of innovative students who have make their own activities. One young lady applied to dozens of local and regional publications hoping to get an internship writing about fashion. When only one paper responded (and told her no) she decided to start her own fashion blog. She approached it as seriously as she would any internship or job and developed an experience that turned out to be far more valuable than any program she could have signed up for. So use your imagination and think big. Exploratory activities can come in many forms.

Career Exploration

After a student has done a little course or activity exploration, the next step is to see if an interest in one area translates into an interest in a particular major or career. Sometimes interests are not good matches for future employment. The student who loves performing in high school theater productions might benefit from the experience, but decide not to major in theater in college or try to pursue a career in theater. It is ok to develop interests that build appreciation or skills, but don’t necessarily translate into jobs. Students trying to select a potential college major or begin on a path towards a particular career should explore to see if that field is a good fit. The next step is to find a particular job within that field that matches a student’s interests, talents, and abilities. Let’s consider a high school student with an interest in medicine. He or she should take classes and participate in activities to confirm (or deny) this interest. After some initial exploration, it would be good to delve further into possible careers. “Doctor” is an incredibly broad career goal. What type of doctor? Family physician, anesthesiologist, psychiatrist, orthopedist, cardiologist, etc.? What about other alternatives within the field of medicine. Medical research? Physician assistant? RN? Physical therapist? Pharmacist? The more students can learn about the different options within any given field, the better. Some careers may require more education (more years to become a MD than an RN) and some careers may be better suited to different people. My cousin is a doctor. But he was born with kidney problems and is on his second transplanted kidney. Because of his own health risks, he is better off working in a job that does not expose him to contagiously sick people every day. He works in the field of genetic testing and research— a good match considering his interests and needs. How can high school students get this type of career exploration? You might find some opportunities at your high school. In my area, many high schools have built a “clinical rotation” program for high school seniors interested in health professions. Students take prerequisite courses in 10th and 11th grade and as seniors they spend two periods a day off campus at various rotation sites. In a given week a few students will be at each of the locations: pharmacy, physical therapy, hospital, general practitioner’s office, ophthalmologist’s, etc. Students see first hand how a variety of heath professionals work. If you don’t find opportunities at your school, look in your community. Is there someone you could shadow for a week? Ask teachers and friend’s parents if they know someone in your field of interest. Are there professional organizations in your community? Can you attend meetings or join as a student? This could allow you to meet a number of professionals and keep up on the trends in any industry. In college, take full advantage of the career center. Find internships. Ask your professors for help exploring options. Do not wait until your junior or senior year to start thinking about your next steps. Finally, it has been my experience that most adults, when approached professionally, are happy to share their experiences with students. Maybe you can meet for coffee and get their advice. Here are some of my starter questions for these types of conversations:
  • How did you get to be in your current position?
  • What types of classes did you have to take?
  • What do you love about your job? What don’t you like?
  • If I wanted to follow a similar career path, what advice could you give me?
  • Do you know of any other resources that might help me (professional organizations, internship programs, etc.)
Keep in mind, that your goal in meetings like this is information, not to secure a job or get someone to put in a good word for you for an internship.


Now you might understand why earlier in the article I referred to career and interest tests as “magic beans.” Too many families are looking for a test to give them all the answers. There are no magical assessments that can take the place of the full range of exploration students can and should do.  ]]>

aptitude tests, career planning, college major, interest inventories

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