3 min read

Funding a Career Test Doesn’t Mean You're doing Careers Education

Funding a Career Test Doesn’t Mean You're doing Careers Education

Why and how tests should be used with caution, and in context.

This article by Liv Pennie was first published in Education Today, August 2022, and has been updated in response to recent discussions with educators on expectations around career tests.

Liv challenges schools to consider the perils of promoting 'The Answer' through tests, when they can squash creative exploration and student agency, which are absolutely crucial to our students as they shape their future.


I rarely meet an adult who doesn’t have a funny story about a career suggested to them during a career test in high school.

‘You’re a… (drumroll)... nurse!’

For many, the test results induce anxiety and are as random as the Hogwarts Sorting Hat. We’ve seen students demand to re-sit their test because the results are ‘wrong’, and tune out of any follow-up conversations.


Despite this, there are many schools that centre a career test as the main event in their careers program. Box. Ticked. When there’s not much time in the curriculum for careers education, it’s easy for schools to see careers tests as a quick, simple, and cost-effective way to ‘do’ careers as efficiently as possible.

Tests based on interest matching should be used with caution

Sure, some tests are valid, reliable and even useful, particularly for those young people who are struggling to decide on the best next step in their learning and life.

But many are flawed in design, coming up with ‘answers’ or career recommendations that are dangerously narrow or limited.

There’s added pressure when parents view these tests as reliable, ‘scientific’ information about their child that will provide guidance and direction for their future. If their child isn’t given a role that they deem ‘at the right level’ for their child, there’s a real risk of dismissing or even discouraging their child’s career ambitions. Parent reaction to test results can have a serious impact on student wellbeing, and schools must be ready to help their students navigate these often turbulent waters.

Tests based on interest matching have been proven again and again to have little predictive power over future happiness or success. Use them with caution, and never rely on them as your entire career program.

Here are some of the most common dangers and pitfalls when it comes to the (in)famous high school career test, and how to avoid them. 

Pitfall 1: Using a test as the 'Source of Truth'

Careers aren’t linear, but career tests often make students feel like they are, or should be.

Testing to determine what a student is going to ‘be’ puts huge pressure on students. It’s not only stressful, but it’s the wrong question to ask. It implies that a job is the most important part of a person. It tells students that their job is the only thing that will define who they are when they get older.

It also implies that a single path is the standard, when in fact, the opposite is true.

Research by Professors Jim Bright and Robert Pryor found that 80–100% of people say that an unexpected event or events changed the course of their career. A test that offers a single, direct career path or singular goal isn’t an accurate reflection of real life.

It’s important that young people don’t feel pressure to make one choice and stick to it.

Educators should use uncommitted language to show that they are making a low-stakes career choice ‘for now’ or that they can ‘try on for size’ – and we need to be absolutely clear to students that they can change their minds.

Changing your mind isn’t a failure, it’s actually a sign of growth and maturity: you know yourself and the world better, so you now have a better idea, more realistic, more suited to who you are.

Flexibility, self-efficacy and the courage to design their own careers are crucial skills young people will need for the future world of work. Careers education must show students that a single ‘career path’ isn’t the ultimate goal.

Pitfall 2: Encouraging students to take a back seat in their own careers

Tests that give students career recommendations fail to develop skills and thinking about how to explore, design and navigate your future. It’s passive in the extreme.

Schools should not rely on tests as a crutch to help young people sit back and get ‘an answer’ about their future.

Tests should only be used as an additional source of insight after students have already learned how to explore widely, assess the influences acting on them, and think deeply about options for their future.

Careers education should teach students to make active choices, overcome obstacles, revise ideas and learn about what motivates them and the types of environments they want to work in. It should show that people grow, learn and change in their careers – and give them the confidence to take control over those shifts.

Pitfall 3: Waiting for Inspiration

‘Inspiration about your future is due for all students in Week 9, Term 2, of Year 10.’

Ridiculous, right? The truth is, inspiration cannot be scheduled for a later date.

It's vital that educators and parents alike begin having career conversations with young people a lot earlier than they might expect.

BECOME Education’s data shows that 80% of Year 5 and 6 students are thinking about their future life and career often or all the time, yet less than 10% have discussed their ideas with a teacher. Whether students are inspired, stressed or ambivalent about their future, proactive schools should be on the front foot in having these conversations regularly as soon as possible, teaching students to explore and shape their future themselves.

Doing the test in Year 9 or 10 with no prior career education typically means that students still lack quality self-awareness and the critical thinking skills to work through the results carefully.

In contrast, a school that puts students in the driving seat from an early age can give them agency over their own future. As a result, young people will grow more resilient and hopeful about the challenges and opportunities life will throw their way.

Careers on Screen

Careers on Screen

Recently we asked on social media what movies and TV shows people thought made great examples for career development (and why). We got lots of...

Read More
Beware of the Shortcuts

Beware of the Shortcuts

The case for slowing things down when it comes to K12 Careers Education Traditionally in Career Development, it's all about efficiency -- especially...

Read More
Designing a career development program: a case study

Designing a career development program: a case study

Recently we checked in with Andrew McEwan, Deputy Principal of Holy Spirit College Fitzgibbon, Queensland. Their experience can offer some insights...

Read More