career exploration

Career Exploration: How Helpful are Career Clusters and Personality Assessments?

My teen daughter sends me links to BuzzFeed career quizzes. All. The. Time. She finds them funny….and clearly, like most teens, she is trying to figure out a career that’s right for her. Her attempts at career exploration can lead to some pretty funny results that make us both chuckle.

Jump in the time machine for a moment and go back to your high school days. How did you choose your career? College major? Maybe you followed in your parent’s footsteps? Maybe you choose a major you thought was interesting, but didn’t really know what kind of career fit with that major?

Whatever it looked like for you, today’s high school students receive more support than we did. And, the trend is moving toward more career exploration instead of less, although it can be sporadic. We wanted to look at the good things schools are doing, as well as give some guidance about where they are falling short so you can support your kids well.

Career Cluster Inventories

All our lives, we’ve been asked and have asked others this question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Today’s schools have taken to using several online tools to try to answer this question. One popular approach is career cluster inventories.

Students as young as 5th grade have taken quizzes like this. Many Ohio schools (including our local Olentangy district) use the career cluster offered by Ohio Means Jobs. (Click to try your hand at it!) The ACT exam also uses a career cluster inventory when your student registers for the first time to take their test. Naviance includes their own similar profiler and is used by many schools in the college application process, .

How does a career cluster inventory work?

You are presented with a series of activities like “building kitchen cabinets” or “going fishing.” You think about that activity and indicate the ones you enjoy doing.

Behind the scenes, the software evaluates your responses and directs you to a “career cluster,” like Finance or Manufacturing. The US Department of Education has identified 16 career clusters. Students explore careers inside that cluster that are tied to their interests.

Pitfalls of Career Cluster Inventories

Career cluster inventories are categorized based on broad industry groups like agriculture, business management, STEM, or manufacturing. Some careers can live in several different clusters, and that can be confusing to teens. Additionally, the pathway careers can be wide ranging. Look at the finance cluster – it includes careers as varied as bank teller, fraud examiner, and financial advisor.

More importantly, though, is the single biggest stumbling block for relying too much on career cluster inventories: the questions are based on your INTERESTS. You can see that the skills, strengths, and values needed to be a bank teller, fraud examiner, or financial advisor are vastly different!

So, while a student may have some very broad fields of INTEREST, they may be no closer to choosing a career and college major that suits them!

A prominent study revealed that career cluster inventories “represented a very restricted range of interests.” In that study, the Career Cluster Institute acknowledged that no tool like this can make statistical claims of reliability.

Personality Type Assessments

Some school districts, like our local Dublin district, include personality assessments in their career work. This is good news – they recognize that more information could be helpful to students.

Many of these assessments are based on the Myers-Briggs style of assessment. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was created to classify people according Carl Jung and his theory of personality types.

Dangers of Personality Assessments

Even these assessments can have stumbling blocks. Chiefly, it’s not scientific in the ways you might expect it to be. (You can read about some critiques here.) In summary, the assessment is based on theories (even Jung himself said they were just theories), and it completely ignores negative personality qualities.

At the end of the article linked above, the author notes that “individuals are enormously complex, with personalities beyond precise measurement.” Very true! Tests like these can offer suggestions to consider, but all are cloaked in general statements about a person (you are an introvert or you make decisions based on feelings). Without the meaningful connection of that information to the person’s life, there’s little actionable value. And, again, it’s a 30 minute online test – no face-to-face conversation or time for reflective consideration.

So, do they help, or not?

We interview many students after they’ve taken these quizzes and assessments. Most find the results frustrating or even humorous. How could they think I would like to be a park ranger or bus driver?

As adults, we are used to taking these assessments. We have experience in the working world and years of understanding our strengths and interests. Essentially, we know our right answers.

Our kids have a different experience. Often, their answer to many of these questions is “it depends.” Ask a student if they like to work in groups, and they may say “sometimes yes and sometimes no.” No online or written assessment can help a student think through the nuances (when is it “yes” and when is it “no”) and make connections about their strongest traits. All they can do is pick the closest-to-right choice. Sigh.

Assessments force students to fit their experiences into pre-set categories instead of fully honoring that everyone has a unique story to tell.

How Can Parents Support Their Students?

Sit down and talk with your student. Review the tools/results used by the school and discuss what guidance they provided afterward.

Hopefully, the information they gained is a good starting place. These activities may have caused your student to think a bit.

However, if they were frustrated or confused, MORE work is needed to shine that flashlight on who they really are and to learn ALL the ways they might connect their strengths and interests to jobs (and ultimately to the educational path to get there). Students who can connect their real preferences and strengths to college majors are more successful.

How Does At The Core Help?

Assessments can only be a jumping off point for further discussion and not the entire process. Because the quizzes and assessments do not fully meet the needs of our high school students, we support students as they dig into this thinking. That’s why we do Guided Self Assessment for those students seeking to learn more about themselves and how to connect that knowledge to careers and majors.

You can read more in depth about this process—how it works, our expertise, etc.–in our blog, Choosing a Major, Picking a Career, Understanding Yourself: We Have a Tool for That.

Guided Self Assessment does more than scratch the surface. Just like our name says…we get At The Core! This career and self exploration can be the most meaningful work they do in their teen years. We don’t make students answer questions within a time limit. Students do not have to select between the couple of options they are given.

Online inventories and assessments (YouScience is another one making the rounds) are designed to just provide some limited data. That data can be very hard to interpret and use. In our family meetings at the end of Guided Self Assessment, we connect the student’s skills, preferences, interests, personality characteristics to several suggested careers. Students clearly see how the career is tied to their traits. In our discussions, the students recall the conversations in our interviews and make lasting connections. Without skilled facilitators to interpret the results of an electronic assessment, the information reported about the student doesn’t feel connected. Guided Self Assessment connects those dots and more.

Because in the end…

You can “save on college” all day long. You can answer the “career fit question” on a superficial level. But if your kiddo does not know WHY they are going to college, they can flounder and dabble and float through (at $25k+ per year) and come away with nothing that moves them toward work they will love.

And we think that is completely unacceptable. Start with deep self knowledge, move into career exploration, and then investigate your educational path to move toward those careers. That’s exactly why we do what we do.


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