7 Myths About Career Exploration in High School


5 Myths about Career Exploration blog picAround 2004, as a parent with kids approaching high school, I found myself curious about the “state-of-the-art” in career exploration and coaching that the students would receive. As a corporate organizational development consultant and executive coach, focusing mainly on adults either in career transition or executive/high-potential development, I had some insight into “talent” and success in life and work.

My adult clients would ask me to coach their “graduating senior in college” who hadn’t figured out what they wanted to do with their life. That was a warning sign to me – not about the person but about the system. How could a student go all through high school, choose a major, complete an undergraduate degree in college and not have a clue about what they wanted to do? What was the root cause of the failure? What was being done to help students and why was it not working?

Fast forward to 2013, and nothing has changed. Students continue to struggle with who they are and how their personal talent design connects to career choices and educational strategy. In some ways, it comes down to something even broader – learning how to make big decisions. But I am finding the same assessments used in 2004 are being used today. And schools are letting technology deliver career coaching.

Based on what I am seeing and hearing from school administrators, parents and students, I’ve put together a list of myths that are in desperate need of being corrected. These myths are prevalent with teachers, counselors, school boards and parents. See if you carry some of these myths as your own beliefs:

  • Myth #1 The high school has this covered. They’d like you to believe they’ve got career exploration covered. Even community colleges and universities want you to think they’ve got it covered. Be wary of the high school’s use of buzz words and descriptions of programs. For example, “all students take one or more career assessments to help them identify careers” may be technically true as a task they have the students complete. Ask your son or daughter what they thought of the assessment results. Ask them to show you the report. Ask them how the results are being used and what are they doing for career exploration. And for the bottom line question, ask them if they feel they are getting appropriate and tangible support for identifying and evaluating personal career options.
  • Myth #2 The assessments used by your high school are valid and insightful. The best way to check this myth is to take the assessments yourself and check your reaction to the report. As for technical information about the validity and reliability of the assessments, the school’s website will point you to the organization’s website that produces the assessments. With a little digging, you’ll find some kind of statement about validity and reliability. Some assessment companies will actually state “this type of assessment does not fit the criteria for validity and reliability studies”.  Taking the assessments yourself will surely enlighten you to the horribly designed assessment that is expected to “tell” your student which careers will be best for them. But even if you were to accept the quality of instrument as credible, what insights has it produced for the student?  What insights has the student learned about themselves after taking the assessment?
  • Myth #3 Counselors and teachers are focused on this. Ask a counselor about the amount of time they focus on coaching students in making career decisions and they will start explaining (after they stop laughing) how their day, week and semester is spent. It isn’t focused on coaching students in career decisions. Some counselors are leaving schools because their job isn’t about helping students, its about pushing paper.
  • Myth #4 The paid-with-tax-dollars school-site subscription to a cloud-based software program (Naviance, XAP, etc.)  is focused on helping the student find their path in life. Actually, many of these site-licensed “portals” are administrative tracking systems to help teachers be more productive. It is possible they also help students to be more productive with the college application process too. However, the primary focus isn’t on helping a student gain insight into who they are and what they want to become (even though the web-based marketing lingo sounds like they do focus on this). These systems are more focused on workflow management, specifically, “the process of getting students into college”. Who cares if the reason they are going to college is faulty or once they get there they change majors 3 times and graduate in 5 years. Put the ladder on the wrong building and you get to the top of a building with no purpose for being there.
  • Myth #5 High school students are too young and immature to focus much on career exploration or make any kind of career choice. This one is mostly on the parents. All I can tell you is if you think this, you are wrong. I am consistently amazed at the level of engagement and deep thinking that students put into developing a future direction, career exploration, choosing a major, choosing the right college for what they want to do and setting goals for themselves. Even those students that start the Career Coaching for Students program with less maturity quickly shed that cover and engage effectively. Watch for the colleges and universities to  empathize with the “high school is too early to know what you want to do with the rest of your life” thinking. The standard language at on-campus college visit presentations is to tell the student and parents it is perfectly fine to come in “undeclared” and take a year or two to decide what to study. Sure, you can start taking the “required Freshman classes” and a few electives to see what floats your boat. In the meantime, some students are figuring out a lot while still in high school and walking into college with a clear plan that may include double majoring, targeting specific companies for internships and obtaining summer jobs that will give them experience that makes them a top prospect upon graduation. In the meantime, being undeclared seems like a slow path to nowhere, and let’s not to mention the extra expense (thousands of dollars) for changing majors and extending the college stay by just one semester. Oops, I guess I did.
  • Myth #6 High achieving students don’t need as much career exploration support. One of the most challenging (and exciting) situations in coaching students is when the student is “All American” (or “All Canadian” for my Canadian readers). You know the type – very high GPA, active in sports, band, club officer, outside activities, loved by the teachers, respected by the administration, etc.).  The fact that these special individuals have so many capabilities, they have the most choices available to them. Many of these report feeling that they are expected to just know some how what they are going to do. The pressure to have a career direction figured out “on their own” is tremendous. From where I sit, there is no class of students that holds some special psychic ability to know what they want to do. All groups of students from under-achievers to over-achievers need professional career coaching.
  • Myth #7 Career exploration and planning is a “nice to have” but not the primary purpose of high school so it doesn’t deserve the funding or attention in high school. Many research studies have shown a clear connection between a student’s clarity about their future and their level of engagement in school. The result – higher academic achievement. If a student is under-performing academically, there is a good chance it is because they don’t see the potential in themselves and how that potential relates to a future. Many parents have reported back to me that their son/daughter raised their GPA the very next semester after going through the Career Coaching for Students program. But it doesn’t stop there. Students who were never on the academic honor roll in high school, and went through the Career Coaching for Students program their senior year were found two years later to have been on the Dean’s list at college every semester. The studies say this happens with credible career coaching at the high school level. Our experience is saying the same thing.

Carl Nielson is an organizational development consultant, executive development coach, career coach and author of the Career Coaching for Students program for high school students. For information about career direction and job search coaching for college students, check out Career and Success Skills Mastery for College Students and Recent Grads. Assessment and coaching packages start at $349 – checkout the Summer 2013 special offer.

2 responses to “7 Myths About Career Exploration in High School

  1. Pingback: How to Have an Effect on Student Achievement | Student Career Exploration and Planning Blog

  2. Carl,
    This was a fantastic summation of the current conventional wisdom on young people and career planning. Thank you for articulating it so succinctly.

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