Useful tests to direct your choice of a college major and career

April 7, 2021

Amanda Hannon

So, you’ve made it to college. You know what required courses to take, you can basically find the library and bookstore, and you know where the dining hall and student gym is, even if you don’t always use the latter like you had planned. But, do you know what your end goal is?  

Many students find themselves at a loss for how to plan out their college coursework. They realize they haven’t yet identified what major they will choose, let alone what their desired career path is. The good news is that many universities have resources available to help students plan out their career path, and that many resources are available online. In this article, I discuss some of the options used when I worked as a Major and Career Advisor at Florida State University’s Career Center. 

Getting started 

It can be helpful to consider the different factors that go into choosing a career. This will help simplify the process in many ways. Much of the existing research on this topic breaks things down into the following 4 elements: 

  • Interests – What do I enjoy doing, what are my interests?  
  • Personality – Who am I and how do I relate to others? 
  • Strengths – What are my strengths and talents?  
  • Values – What is important to me? 

1. Interests assessments 

Interests assessments help students and others determine their interests. Specifically, what field of work they might enjoy and thrive in based on what they find enjoyable in life, and on what drives their curiosity. Taking one of these assessments should help you narrow down your potential interests. This information can then be applied in choosing a college major and career.  

A widely used and respected interest assessment is Strong Interest Inventory. A bit of a backstory here is that this assessment tool was initially developed in the 1970s after psychologists realized that, compared to people who are not satisfied with their occupation, people who are satisfied with their line of work share common interests with one another. The psychologists then worked to develop a test that could help people determine their likes and dislikes, compared their findings to the likes and dislikes of people who were already employed and satisfied with their employment, and then used this information to help students make career-related decisions. 

Results from this assessment will include information related to basic interests, general occupational themes, occupations, and personal style. Basic interests outline activities that you likely enjoy completing in your work or leisure time. General occupational themes, also known as Holland codes, identify broader categories of interests than basic interests, which are more specific. You will also obtain information related to what occupations align with your interests and what your preferred personal working and learning styles entail. Overall, this assessment is near perfect for anyone who is just starting to consider a college major or career.    

2. Personality assessments 

While there are multiple personality assessments in the world of psychology in general, the one that tends to provide the most helpful information regarding major and career decisions is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, more commonly known as the MBTI. This theory operates from the premise that people can be understood based on a 4-letter type or code, and there are 16 possible types based on the letter combinations. The code is achieved by measuring people along a possible spectrum of preferences, and these preferences are paired based on the attribute they are measuring. Listed below are 4 preference pairs that make up the MBTI: 

  1. extroversion vs introversion 
  1. sensing vs intuition 
  1. thinking vs feeling 
  1. judging vs perceiving 

The first possible letter or preference you will receive in your MBTI code is either extroversion (E) or introversion (I). This is also sometimes described as your attitude and helps to capture how you attend to the world around you, which could encompass a tendency of turning to others (E) or turning more inward (I). A helpful question here is how do you prefer to recharge and where do you get your energy? If you find yourself tired at the end of a gathering of peers and needing time alone, you may be more introverted; on the other hand, if you find yourself energized at the end of a party, and looking forward to the next social event, you may be more extroverted.  

The second possible letter or preference is either sensing (S) or intuition (N), and this describes how you gather information about the world around you. This can be thought of as what information you tend to trust or rely on the most, with S relying more on the five senses— so what you can actually see, hear, experience— and N relying more on intuition and imagination. If you find that you look for facts and are more pragmatic about solving problems, you may lean more towards sensing; however, if you tend to need to process information more slowly and use your own internal experiences and gut to guide you, then you are using intuition.  

Third, we have thinking (T) vs feeling (F), and this tends to be relatively straightforward in terms of what each letter symbolizes. This preference describes your decision making and how you seek resolution to the information you have taken in via sensing or intuiting. Those who are more inclined towards T will work to be impartial and base their decisions on truth and logic while individuals more inclined towards F will instead focus more on human values and the impact their decisions have on others.  

The last possible preference is either judging (J) or perceiving (P) and describes how a person responds to planning and goal setting as well as life in general. If you find yourself needing everything planned out and wanting more predictability, you are likely more of a J type. However, if the idea of having to preschedule your plans and having to decide your long-term goals makes you more anxious, then you are likely more of a P. Another way to think about this is that J’s will prefer structure while P’s tend to prefer flexibility and spontaneity.  

Ultimately, your 4-letter code says a lot about who you are as well as how you interact with and understand the world around you. It can also help you clarify how you make decisions and how you prefer to approach your time and your life. While it is not an exact science, in many ways this information can be helpful in deciding on a major or a career in terms of how well your choice will fit your particular type. 

3. Strengths assessments  

It can also be helpful to consider what your talents or strengths are when choosing a career path or major. The Clifton Strengths Assessment, also called the Clifton Strengths Finder is an assessment that helps you identify areas that you excel in to help guide your career decisions. It works by assessing your strengths across 4 different domains:  

  1. Executing – your ability to achieve goals and accomplish tasks 
  1. Influencing – your ability to communicate ideas and influence others 
  1. Relationship building – your ability to form and strengthen relationships 
  1. Strategic thinking- your ability to make decisions and solve problems 

Each domain has various strengths associated with it that may coincide with your own areas of talent. For the executing domain, this area includes strengths such as achiever, consistency, focus, and discipline. The influencing domain includes strengths like communication, self-assurance, and competition. The relationship building domain includes strengths such as empathy, includer, positivity, and adaptability. And finally, the strategic thinking domain includes strengths like analytical, futuristic, and learner.  

After taking the assessment, you will be presented with your top 5 strengths which are discussed in-depth and can help guide you in terms of what aspects of your future career and work environment to seek out, as well as to avoid. This can also be helpful in considering a college major, as you will learn about the skills and talents you possess that can enable you to excel in terms of coursework.  

4. Values assessments

Finally, it is important to understand your values when deciding on a college major and future career. Values can be defined as the factors are important to you in terms of your work setting, relationships, roles, etc. A simple and relatively straightforward assessment to help determine your values is the Work Values Inventory. This measure will help you identify your top 5 values and specifically assesses values in the following areas: 

  1. Core values – e.g., achievement, balance, independence 
  1. Work environment – e.g., fast paced, flexible, high earnings 
  1. Work interactions – e.g., competition, diversity, friendships 
  1. Work activities- e.g., analytical, challenging, creative 

You respond to each value by ranking it as either— always important, sort of important, or not important— and then determine your top 5 values by picking from the values you ranked as being always important. This information can help you identify what components of a future career are necessary for you to have greater work and life satisfaction.  

As an example, let’s imagine your top 5 values included achievement, high earnings, challenging, competition, and independence. These elements tend to align in many different work environments, and you might consider a job working as a broker for a Fortune 500 company or an attorney at a reputable law firm. There are other possibilities of course, but those 2 positions would be sure to embody the 5 values listed. Values assessments are another excellent starting point for anyone who is seeking more information about their best options in terms of a future career or college major.  

5. Assessments that tap multiple areas 

In addition to assessments that primarily focus on one area to help inform major and career choices, there are assessments that tap into multiple areas simultaneously. One of these types of assessments that I recommend and use in my own work with clients is the Self-Directed Search (SDS). The SDS considers a person’s goals, skills, interests, and activities as well as other personal attributes that impact career choices. This assessment was developed by John Holland who posited that 6 different personality types can help to define both people as well as career and work environments, and these include the following:  

  1. Realistic (R) —the Doers— prefer working and creating with their hands and jobs that are outdoors and active 
  1. Investigative (I) — the Thinkers— prefer solving problems and jobs that are analytical and scientific  
  1. Artistic (A) — the Creators— prefer being expressive and jobs that are creative, such as writing, photography, and acting 
  1. Social (S) — the Helpers— prefer working with others and jobs such as teaching, counseling, and caretaking 
  1. Enterprising (E)—the Persuaders— prefer influencing others and being leaders and jobs in the political or business world 
  1. Conventional (C) — the Organizers— prefer efficiency and order and jobs that entail working with numbers and computers   

At the end of the assessment, you will receive a 3-letter code, also known as a Holland code, that will inform you about how your interests, skills, and personality align with various careers and thus, majors. For example, say you received the code ASI (which just happens to be my Holland code). This code means that I am primarily artistic, with social and investigative traits coming in 2nd place and 3rd place, respectively. Careers that are a good match for me and anyone else with this code would include counseling, teaching, writing, and many careers in the creative arts. While some codes, like my own, are a little more unique, others tend to offer up multiple possibilities in terms of possible major and career options.  

A couple of other assessments that I want to briefly mention are Focus2 and SIGI3. Focus2 aims to help you choose your major and make career decisions. It is comprised of 5 different assessments in one, and includes measures of your work interests, personality, leisure interests, values, and skills. Upon completion of the assessments, you will obtain feedback which includes a list of occupations that match your overall combined results in these areas.  

SIGI3, which is the acronym for System of Interactive Guidance and Information, is similar to Focus2, in that it also assesses multiple areas to determine the majors and careers that best match your identified preferences. The areas assessed with SIGI3 include values, interests, personality, and skills. After you have completed these assessments, you will then be guided to information on educational requirements, common work activities associated with each career, and potential salary ranges. This is another amazing tool in terms of its breadth and depth of assessment and feedback, and in my mind, would be an excellent resource for anyone who is serious about identifying an appropriate, relevant, and satisfying major and/or career. 

6. Other helpful assessments 

While unique compared to the other assessments listed, another tool that can be useful for any students feeling stuck in terms of picking a major or career is the Career Thoughts Inventory (CTI). This assessment is based on an approach known as cognitive information processing theory or CIP, which posits that making effective career related decisions relies on an individual’s ability to effectively process information in the following 4 domains:  

  1. Self-knowledge 
  1. Occupational knowledge 
  1. Decision making skills- includes communication, analysis, and execution 
  1. Executive processing- includes self-talk, monitoring, and control 

This measure also helps to uncover potential negative thought patterns that may be having a detrimental impact on one’s ability to not only choose a major or career, but also to feel confident about those choices. This then enables individuals to work on challenging such thoughts which should increase their ability to make career and major-related decisions.   

After completing the CTI, you will obtain an overall or total CTI score with higher scores indicating a greater number of negative career thoughts and lower scores indicating fewer negative career thoughts. Results also include a breakdown of specific areas of negative or dysfunctional career thoughts including decision-making confusion, commitment anxiety, and external conflict.  

  • Decision-making confusion refers to the inability to complete the decision-making process due to confusion or lack of understanding of how to make career related decisions.  
  • Commitment anxiety refers to difficulty in committing to a specific major or career based on your anxiety about the potential outcomes of such commitments.  
  • External conflict refers to the difficulty you might encounter when you are receiving input or pressure from other people about what major or career you should choose.  

Each of these areas can offer valuable insight into what barriers or obstacles you might need to address before moving forward with these decisions.  

Final thoughts

There are multiple options in terms of deciding on a major and career, and these options can at times be overwhelming and confusing. Thankfully, we have a vast number of resources available to help offer clarity and to guide you in determining what future career options are a good fit. You can seek some of these assessments online or if you can look for support and more information from the career or advising centers on your campus. The main thing is to find support when you need it and to remember that this process takes time, but it can offer valuable tools and insight to help you feel more confident when choosing a major and career.  

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