The Promise (and Peril) of Career Tests

Risk Analyst

Stuart Miles,

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to take a test or two and find your best job fit? Frequently I hear from clients the fervent hope that one or more career tests will point the way to a dream job, or at least one for which they are best-suited.

Thinking like this leads to over-rating test results, as was the case with a client who implored me to move up the timetable to share the report of his career “test,” saying:

 “The results of this test are very important to me for the purpose of reassuring me that the path I am on is the correct one.”

As his counselor, I felt on-the-spot less for delaying than for not setting appropriate expectations. It helped my client, and it might help you to place career tests in correct perspective by examining these facts:

  1. An assessment is not a “test.” A more fitting term than “test” for these career measures like the Strong Interest Inventory is assessment. Use of the term assessment also scales back expectations of how definitive the outcomes are (e.g., not even close to the accuracy and predictive value of a medical diagnosis).
  2. They suggest, not prescribe, career options and self-insights. Assessments should help broaden one’s options by suggesting one or more fields worth looking into or exploring for potential further education or career entry. That can be a worthy gain for the investment.
  3. Group tendencies are not individual predictors. The most individualized aspect of an assessment is the client’s name on it! Results are derived from placing an individual into a group that answered the questions the same way. In the case of the Strong Interest Inventory, it starts with placing you into one of 6 interest themes, or in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, one of 16 personality types. The characteristics of your group may fit you and offer insight into tendencies; other times you may fall out of the group because you may differ in important ways that are not measured by the assessment.

I shared these caveats with the above client, and also cautioned that career assessments do not have predictive validity—they cannot accurately predict if you will like or actually fit a particular occupation. Rather, career assessments help by indicating patterns (such as interests) and tendencies (such as personality preferences).

How and when are assessments useful? Often desire for and use of “tests” occur at changes in life stage: you are in college and wonder what to major in; you are embarking on a first career and do not have a clue what jobs exist as potential matches. Or like my client who is a lawyer, you may be in midlife and wonder what else may be out there, and/or whether the current career is still the best fit. I have utilized career assessments with clients at all of these stages and more, including career re-entry after divorce, job termination, release from the military, and for retirement planning.

Two of the popular fee-based career assessments (among more than 300) to consider:

  1. Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). A personality instrument, the MBTI is probably one of the most used assessments by career counselors, career centers and managers. The MBTI gives you a sense of your personality preferences, or type: where you get your energy, how you like to take in information, how you make decisions, and how much structure you like in the world around you.  MBTI preferences not only suggest specific careers that might suit you, they also give you valuable information about what kind of workplaces might be best, what your working preferences are, and how you can best relate to others at the office.
  2. Strong Interest Inventory. Essentially a sophisticated interest matching exercise with a great jobs database, the Strong asks your degree of interest in various activities and roles then matches your interest pattern with those in over 100 specific occupations. You learn your dominant interest patterns and receive a list of the top 10 occupations that match your interests.

Finally, most measures, particularly the MBTI and Strong, are likely to offer more insight and take-aways when administered by a counselor who is certified in the instrument as I am. Usually I spend an entire 60-minute session in collaboration between counselor and client to decide whether the results fit. Once validated, we review and explore the possible meanings of each section of the instrument.

Besides background expertise with these and other standard instruments, most career counselors will lead you through a variety of other inventories, card sorts, exercises and practices like journaling; most importantly, they conduct a thorough intake to find out what you like, don’t like and where your inherent interests may lie. In this way, we address other pieces of the puzzle such as career values, transferrable skills, leadership style and workplace culture preferences.

Back to my client who appeared over-invested in the test results: He was encouraged and taught the most important aspect of assessment – to reality-test any career notions to obtain firsthand impressions of how well a role or company might actually fit. How ironic, too, that one of his assessments recommended the occupation of “career counselor” – who better for the client to explore that than with a career counselor!