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Career Exploration for High School Students — 3 Steps to Follow

Paige Buttels

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“What do you want to do when you grow up?” is the age-old question many adults ask children as soon as they can talk and show interest in certain toys. This question tends to turn into “What are you going to major in?” when they get into high school.

In my experience as a high school counselor I’ve found that, although well-intentioned, these questions can be very daunting to students who are unsure of their career interests. They can cause students to feel stressed, nervous and inadequate compared to their peers — especially if they perceive that their peers have it all figured out.

I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect children to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives — many adults don’t even know that! However, it is both reasonable and responsible to encourage and guide students in this space, providing the tools and steps to engage in self-reflection, research and exploration opportunities.

Following these guided career exploration steps will expand students’ understanding of the world of work, teach them how to conduct career research and better understand details about jobs within various career fields. (Note: These steps align with the Illinois Postsecondary and Career Expectations Standards but should be helpful to high school students anywhere. Your own state Board of Education and your student's high school guidance counseling department most likely offer similar resources.)

1. Self-Reflection

Students who are undecided about their career interests should take a career cluster inventory or career interest survey to identify one or two career fields that would be a good fit. Career cluster inventories are available on many high school, college career services and state education websites.

Many careers within a career cluster have similar skills, abilities and values. For example, perhaps a student loves music. To explore potential career options outside of music performance, that student could research the arts, audio/visual technology and communications cluster. Doing so may encourage them to consider careers in audio engineering, hospitality, music production, graphic design or telecommunications.

Additionally, students should discuss the following questions with trusted adults such as teachers, parents, school counselors, coaches or faith leaders in order to better understand their own skills, interests and strengths.

  • What type of difference do you want to make in the world?
  • What activities do you lose track of time doing because you enjoy them so much?
  • Would you prefer to work with your hands, objects, data, people or ideas?

2. Career Research

Once students have a sense of a few career paths they might be interested in, they should use credible sources such as the ones listed below to learn more about each career.

Specifically, students should look up the following information about each career that they’re interested in:

  • Wages
  • Required preparation, education and licensing
  • Typical daily activities, values and skills required
  • Labor statistics, such as the projected job outlook, to determine if there are likely to be jobs in that field available in the future

Students should discuss their findings with their parents and/or school counselor to help determine if the careers under consideration are a good personal fit. They should also talk to their family about the affordability of each career, keeping in mind the expected entry-level salary and anticipated student loan debt associated with each.

3. Planning and Exploration

Next, students should find ways to further explore their career interests by gaining hands-on experience and getting to know people who actually have those careers.

Students can do this by:

  • Conducting informational interviews (virtually or in person)
  • Job shadowing to see what a day (or morning/afternoon) on the job looks like
  • Touring a facility to get a sense of the workplace environment
  • Participating in activities related to their career interests (i.e, summer camps, clubs, workshops, etc.)

At the same time, students should take the appropriate steps (consulting their school counselor as needed) to plan for their future career. These steps include:

  • Selecting high school classes related to the future career, planning accordingly for college admissions within the major for the career field in mind
  • Completing an internship or apprenticeship (some high schools offer this as a class)
  • Applying for part-time jobs and performing community service within the career cluster in order to gain experience and a better understanding of the field

We know that adults spend the majority of their waking hours at work, which has a huge impact on both job and overall life satisfaction. With this in mind, it’s important to consider the value in selecting a career field that will bring contentment and spark joy. The outlined career exploration steps can be repeated as a students’ interests and experiences grow and change.

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Paige Buttels is a college/career counselor at a public high school in suburban Chicago and works with parents and students as a member of My College Planning Team ( She holds a master’s in counseling from Northern Illinois University and bachelor’s in psychology from Illinois State University.
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