How to Find Your Perfect Career

Four approaches to identifying individual preferences, talents and natural aptitudes that can help students match personal interests with academic majors.

Why would Malia Obama be taking a gap year between finishing high school and starting college? Maybe she wants some personal time or a chance to sample varied work and potential career experiences to help plan her coursework and studies before she arrives at Harvard? Whatever the case, she is just one of the many college-bound students who is taking a one-year hiatus from academic studies to allow for nonacademic activities.

Although some may consider it a stretch, or even disrespectful, to compare a discretionary gap year to the forced time off for once-enrolled college students returning to school after substance abuse treatment, in fact, there are close parallels: Students arrive on campus with a sharper sense of academic purpose. They know deep things about themselves that required total removal from the routine flow of student life to learn. There is an energized internal motivation to succeed academically and socially. Self-discovery helps align students’ interests and aptitudes with college majors and work-study opportunities. These differences help emerging adults in collegiate recovery programs achieve higher average GPAs and better retention rates than students who have not had time away to reflect, renew and refocus.

Students who have trouble getting traction in college often flounder because they lack a real purpose for being there. College is just what you do after high school, right? They leave home without much of an idea about what excites them academically. They soon discover they have no clue what to major in, what they need to learn or what skills to acquire to become economically independent and socially engaged upon graduation. Without that direction, they often begin to float in their new, stressful, unstructured collegiate world. Aimlessness quickly can become dangerous.

A proven way for any returning student to find and narrow career options during the academic planning process is to undergo career interest testing prior to re-enrollment. This is different than conventional aptitude testing such as the SAT or ACT. By identifying personally important non-academic talents, interests and aptitudes before returning to academic coursework, the student is better able to organize his curriculum around classes and mentors to acquire the skills, experiences and introductions needed to find gainful and satisfying employment after graduation.

Imagine yourself standing on top of a large hill with an unobstructed 360-degree view. You can descend in any direction. How frustrating, however, to get halfway down one side and realize it isn’t what you wanted. You climb back to the top and set off in another direction. Suppose this one isn’t right, either? You trudge back to the summit and, perhaps tired and discouraged, begin to pick your way down a different path. Isn’t this just like the wandering, aimless student?

Career interest testing can help tell you what direction you should take from the first step. It won’t guarantee exactly what you’ll find at the bottom, but it should prevent you from going in the completely wrong direction. If you can rule out 270 of the 360 degrees available to you, you’ll save lots of time and effort as you move forward. On your journey, you’ll likely also meet people who have many of the same interests as yourself.

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