Ten Steps to Help Students Focus on their Education and Career Plans

by Suzy Mygatt Wakefield

For most of us, the process of becoming more focused on our plans and goals continues throughout our lifetimes as we become in touch with our strengths. We may find that some of our strengths have been overlooked (if they have been identified at all) in our earlier years--due to the urgency of completing school or training, finding a job, and/or raising a family. Sometimes, aspects of our strengths seem to emerge later in life, as we have the time to pursue new interests. Dr. Bernard Haldane, who developed the Dependable Strengths Model, states that "This increased knowledge of yourself, your uniqueness, enables you to prepare for and manage the development of your own future."

Students often do not know what many of their strengths actually are as they just have not had enough experience to find out. To learn more about their strengths (i.e., their aptitudes, interests, actual abilities and preferences), students can take advantage of in-school options that often are free: join interest clubs, participate in school activities, develop special skills (e.g., in art, music and computer technology), participate in sports, and volunteer in community activities. Other exploration activities may include participation in field experiences, such as job shadows, internships, mentorships, and volunteer experiences.

Listed below are suggested activities to help students focus on successfully achieving :

  • a education/career plan (based on their strengths);
  • a financial plan (with back-up systems if finances go awry);
  • strong academic and technical skills (both are necessary in today's world);
  • strong relationships with adults (who will push them to achieve); and the
  • personal discipline to do the work.

Career Planning Activities for Students

1. Knowing one's strengths is the fundamental key to successful career planning. There are many ways for students to learn more about their strengths, including taking career interest inventories (e.g., the Self-Directed Search), aptitude tests (PSAT, SAT and/or ACT), and special skills classes or programs that provide hands-on experiences, (e.g. sports, clubs, and music programs). Many high schools have Career Resource Centers staffed with Career Specialists, who offer considerable knowledge about career areas and resources to students. (See Lake Washington High School's website: www.lwsd.org/lwhs )

2. Teens need to talk to their parents/guardians, friends and school counselors about their plans; their relationships with people who care about them are very important. Laurence Steinberg (1996) has revealed (in a comprehensive study that involved 10 years and 20,000 students) that 25-30% of parents are "disengaged" in their kids' lives! They may care deeply about their kids but may not know who their friends are, how they spend their free time, and/or how they are doing in school, let alone what their career goals might be. In fact, he reports that 40 percent of parents never attend school programs! It is, therefore, important for counselors and educators to encourage students to discuss their plans with their parents or guardians' even if they appear reluctant! Parent involvement is critical for student success.

3. Once teens have some sense of their strengths and support system, they can begin to develop their goals and write down their Education and Career Plan. Components may include: required and elective courses for grades 9-12; extracurricular activities; career areas to explore; volunteer/service learning experiences; part-time jobs; field experiences (job shadows and internships); tentative career choices, postsecondary educational choices, and plans for financing their education.

4. Teens need to develop a Career Planning Portfolio, as a place to keep all of their career-related information. Components may include: their Education and Career Plan; career search information; self-assessment results; postsecondary training and education information; financial aid information; documentation of their volunteer/service learning experiences, field experiences (job shadows and internships) and part-time jobs; scholarships, awards and honors; best works' essays and projects; resumes, cover letters, and job applications; hobbies and extracurricular activities; and journal writing. These portfolios can be done on-line as "electronic portfolios." In Washington State, electronic portfolios for high school students are available at www.wois.org.

5. Teens need to develop a Culminating Project, hopefully based on a career interest. Most schools requiring culminating projects for graduation do so in the junior or senior year--on a topic approved by the school. Students, with the guidance of an adult mentor, usually spend a minimum of 60 hours on their project,, consisting of a proposal, a written research paper, a short internship, and a follow-up oral presentation before a panel of students and adults. The Franklin-Pierce School District in Tacoma, Washington combines the Education and Career Plan and the Career Planning Portfolio into the Culminating Project, presented by the student to a panel--as a graduation requirement. See their website for Individual Student Planning at: www.fp.k12.wa.us

6. Teens need to gain experience, as they are just learning what their strengths are, so they need many adult-supervised experiences. Students can participate in many activities in school for free, such as special interest clubs, school activities, sports, special programs (in art, music and computer technology), and so forth. They can volunteer in community activities, and choose to serve in leadership roles. These may form a foundation for leadership roles in business, industry, and in the community.

7. Teens need to be involved in enhancers- those experiences that will look good on their resumes as well as teach them a lot more about a given career area. Marcia B. Harris and Sharon L. Jones discuss the concept of enhancers in their book, The Parents Crash Course in Career Planning. Enhancers might be special coursework, good grades, a part-time job in a given career area, an internship, and so forth -things that will help a student to stand out as a candidate for a job or program. This is an excellent concept for educators to point out to teens.

8. Teens need to learn how to develop networks of contacts and how to conduct Informational Interviews. Alumni and friends of parents and teachers can form the beginning of the student's network. Sample questions to ask the contact during the Informational Interview can be found in the Washington State free booklet, Where are you going? A Guide to Careers and Education in Washington State, 2004.

9. Teens need to learn job-search skills, including writing a resume, cover letters and thank-you letters for job interviews. They also need to learn how to conduct effective job interviews (including how to dress and present themselves to employers). High school business classes often teach these basic skills.

10. Teens need to evaluate where they are -- are they satisfied with their choices? Do they like their course of action? If not, they need to go back to Step One: Learn more about their strengths. Knowing their strengths is the key to their career satisfaction and even career survival. If they are doing what they love, they will find a way to be successful.


If teens go through all of these steps, they will be considerably more prepared to successfully navigate through their future choices (their postsecondary education/training and work experiences) than teens who have not. Educators (administrators, school counselors, career specialists and others) need to work collaboratively with parents and people in the business community to design and implement overall career guidance programs. These collaborative programs are needed to help teens develop an awareness of their strengths and interests and then to develop their individual plans, portfolios, and projects and to acquire other needed skills. As counselors and educators, we must pull together to provide these needed career guidance experiences for teens.


Haldane, B. 1996. Career Satisfaction and Success:A Guide to Job and Personal Freedom. Indianapolis: JIST Works, Inc., p. 11.

Harris, Marcia B. and Sharon L. Jones. 1997. The Parents Crash Course in Career Planning. Lincolnwood, Illinois: VGM Career Horizons, p.12.

Steinberg, L. 1996.Beyond the Classroom--Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to D. . New York: Touchstone.

Workforce Training & Education Coordinating Board. 2004. Where are you going? A Guide to Careers and Education in Washington State. PO Box 43105, Olympia, WA 98504-3105, p. 135.

Suzy Mygatt Wakefield, who earned a doctorate in School Counseling through the School of Education at the University of Michigan in 1978, is a retired high school counselor who has worked in three high schools in two states for almost 30 years. She has also taught high school Spanish, worked part-time for the Washington Pre-College Program (as a program coordinator) at the University of Washington in Seattle, and has more recently been an instructor in the Career Development Certificate Program at the University of Washington, where she earned her GCDF certification. Suzy is the President of the Washington Career Development Association (2004-2006). She can be reached at mygattwakefield@comcast.net.

Suzy, who has a deep interest in helping teens with their career development, has edited a book, Unfocused Kids - Helping Students to Focus on their Education and Career Plans: A Resource for Educators (32 chapters by 32 writers, published by CAPS Press and ERIC/CASS, and assumed by Pro-Ed Inc., 2004), under the direction of Dr. Garry R. Walz, Professor Emeritus, University of Michigan, and former Director of ERIC/CASS and CAPS Press.

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