Should You Use Online Personality Tests to Help Students Choose Majors?

We recently came upon a blog post that raises the question of whether or not college career counselors should use online personality tests to help students choose their major. The author comes down on the side of “yes they should,” with caution that the assessments used should be reliable, valid, fair (unbiased), and suitable for the purpose of guiding career decision making. That’s all good advice and consistent with our goal at PathwayU to leverage science to create a computational engine that guides learners to discover their purpose and make better career decisions.

 

To pick a nit, the author lumps “interests” and “personality” together as the intended focus of assessment. As an example of a personality test she recommends tests based on John Holland’s RIASEC model of vocational interests. Personality and vocational interests are not the same. Let’s deal with the concepts of personality and personality tests. Your personality refers to characteristics of yours that are relatively stable across time and situation. For example, if you are introverted, you will tend to be shyer or more withdrawn in class, work, and social situations. Intuitively, we might believe that many careers are a good fit for some traits (e.g., extroverts love sales and introverts prefer working at the library). Unfortunately, with the occasional exception of optimism and emotional stability, personality traits are not good predictors of career satisfaction. So if we want to use science-supported assessments in career-decision (as the author contends), we should be ignoring personality tests.

 

In contrast, congruence between interests and occupations is a strong predictor of a number of important outcomes including grades in school, career satisfaction, and even income. Interests refer to stable preferences for activities or contexts related to goal-oriented behaviors. In short, interests are how we like to spend our time. I am often asked to speak to college freshmen about why they should become management majors. I surprise them by telling them "I am going to do no such thing!" I suggest that if they enjoy following routines and seeing everything in its place, they should think about being accountants. If they like being creative and expressing themselves, they should think about going into marketing. But, if they like communicating with people and starting or carrying out new projects, they should probably consider management as a major. Find a major (and a career) that matches how you like to spend your time. It’s that simple.


When you discover how you like to spend your time, it’s a lot easier to find a major and a career that you’ll enjoy and find meaningful. In summary:

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