High School and Beyond

Information on how to help your teen become career and college ready.

Posted Mar 30, 2015

Flickr Creative Commons/Flazingo Photos
Source: Flickr Creative Commons/Flazingo Photos

As a parent, you understand the desire to help your child succeed in the world and have the best future possible. Many parents dream their child will be successful, obtain postsecondary education, excel academically and most of all: find a career that is rewarding and satisfying. After all, isn’t that the American dream? If you are like many parents, you may feel overwhelmed, at a complete loss, and not know how to begin navigating through the process of helping your teen become career and college ready.

To help guide parents through this tedious process, I turned to experts in the field from The Career Key, Dr. Lawrence K. Jones, Founder and President and Juliet Jones, Vice President. The Career Key is a highly reputable organization that has helped hundreds of thousands of teens world-wide to clarify their interests, identify matching careers and college majors, and make good decisions about them. With over 40 years in the field, Dr. Jones and Juliet Jones know what it takes to help youth prepare for life after high school.

The Career Key was first launched by Dr. Jones on the Internet in 1997 while he was at North Carolina State University.  It offered the first valid, measure of the Holland personality types on the Internet, as well as other helpful, unique features.  The goal behind the Career Key has been to offer practical, professional-quality, self-help based in the best practices and science in the field, that is affordable to all.

Flickr Creative Commons/Evonne
Source: Flickr Creative Commons/Evonne

Answers to questions about how to help your teen plan for high school and beyond:

At what age should parents begin to help their child narrow down his/her career interest?

It is important in children’s development to freely explore a variety of activities in a supportive environment… this includes the activities they discover that they don’t like.  In this way, they develop a clearer sense of who they are and what interests them;  this development is especially important in middle school.

In general, studies show that students’ interests begin to crystallize around the eighth grade.  At this point, they begin to make educational decisions that will affect their future career opportunities.  Students can benefit from taking a scientifically valid measure of the six Holland personality types (also called interests)—Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional.  These types, and Holland’s theory, give them a way to think about themselves and relate their personality to careers and college majors.  It helps them both expand and explore the options that are likely to fit them.

How important is it for teens to be career and college ready?

Of course, parents will want their child to be as well-prepared as possible.  One area often overlooked is the development of teens’ so-called “noncognitive skills.”These include behavioral (dependability, working effectively with others, adapting, managing stress) and education and career skills (self-knowledge about one’s interests, likes and dislikes, knowledge about occupations and majors, decision making skills, etc.) Research shows these skills are related to education and employment success.

Parents play a major role in helping teens develop these skills, especially because many schools are not adequately doing so. You can see this reflected in their primary focus on standardized test scores and poor funding for school counseling. A recent research report by ACT®, the college admissions testing organization, explains why noncognitive skills are so important for career and college readiness.

Parents may also find Dr. Laurence Steinberg’s recent book “Age of Opportunity, Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence” a helpful resource for ways to teach and develop teens’ noncognitive skills.

Flickr Creative Commons/GotCredit
Source: Flickr Creative Commons/GotCredit

How important is it for teens to be aware of their interests and skills before graduating from high school? 

Knowledge of interests and skills is crucial for later success.  Numerous studies show that the degree of match between students’ Holland personality types (interests) and their major are significantly related to the grades they earn, whether they stay in their major, and whether they graduate on time.  A similar relationship holds for career success and satisfaction.  

In all jobs you are hired to perform skills.  All workers need the “Foundation Skills” for success.  They need to be knowledgeable about skills—know what they are and be able to communicate them effectively.  And, perhaps most important, they need to know what their “motivated skills” are—the ones they enjoy doing, feel proud of—as this gives them a vital clue as to the career direction in which they are most likely to be successful and satisfied. 

How important is it for teens to have job experience or an internship before graduating from high school?

In general, it is more important for teens to do activities or an internship related to interests and hobbies than to get a paying job. Taking time to explore new and interesting online learning, group activities, sports, and volunteer projects will teach more valuable job skills for future career success than a low-level part-time job (the most available to high schools students) in retail or fast food which requires little creativity or self-direction. Jobs during the academic year also take valuable time and energy away from schoolwork. The greatest value springs from what the teen learns from the experience—not just having something to put on a college application or resume.  High school is a great time to develop marketable job skills like leadership, ability to work with a diverse group of people to accomplish a goal, creative problem solving, and other foundation skills.

Flickr Creative Commons/Simon Cunningham
Source: Flickr Creative Commons/Simon Cunningham

How has the economy changed for teens today as opposed to when their parents graduated from high school?

Twenty or more years ago, it was still possible to graduate from high school and get a job with a living wage.  It was also possible to follow a clear education path from high school to college to a good paying job upon graduation.  But the effects of globalization, the expansion of computers and automation, and the Internet’s impacts have truly changed opportunities for teens in both positive and challenging ways.

Employers today value a more select, complex foundation of knowledge and skills—ones that cannot be outsourced or automated.  Skills such as creating new ideas to solve problems, working in diverse groups and complex pattern recognition are a few examples. In the next five to ten years, the need for these skills is likely to accelerate.  Already there are big gaps between what skills employers want and what students think they know, according to a recent report commissioned by American Association of Colleges and Universities.

Unfortunately, most schools train students for the old economy and do not have the resources to teach these new skills very well. Parents can contribute to the problem by failing to recognize how things have changed since they chose their career and major. Instead of teens exploring and engaging creatively with subjects and projects of interest, they (and their parents) ask for formulas or checklists, such as “what specific courses/activities/things must I do and study to be successful?” Parents can and do play an important role in supporting their teen’s development “outside the box” for greater resilience and adaptation in the new economy.

Name one thing you would encourage parents to do today to help their teen with academic and career planning?

Support your teen’s interests that match their personality, even if you don’t think that focus will lead to a lucrative career choice right now. For example, if your child is artistic and truly enjoys drawing, support the development of her interests in that area. Decades of research show the benefits of choosing a career and education path that motivates and interests students outweigh concerns about choosing “the best career” or a “hot major.”

Using the previous example, an art degree can easily transfer into many viable career options, such as self-employment, writing, graphic design, digital media, and marketing.  Basing career decisions largely on job outlook forecasts is not reliable anyway; just think of all the well-paying jobs that disappeared in the 2008 Great Recession.

The best hedge against uncertainty is for students to choose a path that motivates them to create, persist, and learn. Students choosing a college major and career that match their Holland personality and interests are more likely to (1) get higher grades, (2) stick with their choice of major or program of study, (3) graduate from college on time, (4) experience higher job satisfaction, and (5) perform better in their job.

Problems arise when we push our teens into a career or educational path that does not match their interests or personality. Despite recent focus on and promotion of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) careers, not everyone fits the personality of a software engineer or a scientist. Parents sometimes overlook the fact that many non-STEM career options exist within STEM industries. A major in art can be combined with technology and healthcare in creative ways that lead to promising careers. 

Flickr Creative Commons/Flazingo Photos
Source: Flickr Creative Commons/Flazingo Photos

As parents, we care most about the well being of our children. Supporting their curiosity, motivation, competency and interests is the best preparation for successful adaption to future changes in technology, our economy and the job market. Right now it may be harder to explain your child’s prospective art major to another inquiring parent, but later you will find it easier to explain its long-term rewards.


 “Broadening the Definition of College and Career Readiness: A Holistic Approach.” ACT, 2015

Dr. Laurence Steinberg, “Age of Opportunity, Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence.” (2014)

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Dr. Erik Brynjolfsson, Dr. Andrew McAfee (2014)

 “Falling Short: College Learning and Career Success,” (January 20, 2015) by Hart Research Associates, on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

“Choosing a College Major Based on Your Personality: What does the research say?” Free eBook for parents and students, by Dr. Lawrence K. Jones, NCC, Juliet Wehr Jones, GCDF

“Personality-Major Match: Why It is Important,” Career Key website.

How Parents Can Help Their Child’s Career Development, Career Key website.