by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
One of the questions we hear most often from readers of QuintZine (our career and job tools e-zine) and visitors to Quintessential Careers is: "How can I figure out what I really want to do with my career?" It's certainly true that you can't make much headway in finding a job if you haven't yet determined what you want to be when you grow up. Variations on this dilemma include the older, more established job-seeker who has decided his or her career isn't a good fit but isn't sure what career would be more satisfying.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could take a simple, interactive test on the Internet at no cost that would give you the answers you need about what career best suits you? Some experts -- primarily Webmasters of free online assessment sites -- say you can do just that. Others -- primarily career counselors -- assert that it's not that simple.
The fact is that there are several sites on the Web where you can take a free interactive test that will suggest career possibilities in your quest for self-discovery. Others can give you information about your personality "type" and how well suited it is to particular career choices.
The controversy, especially among scholars and career counselors, arises over whether these free online assessment tests are reliable and accurate. Perhaps more importantly, they argue, should a job-seeker trust any career-oriented assessment tool without a career counselor's interpretation and guidance?
We know of only one scholarly study of free online assessments, "Career assessment on the Internet: An exploratory study," by Laurel W. Oliver and Jason S. Zack. Published in 1999 in the Journal of Career Assessment, the study was, like almost anything written about the Internet, outdated as soon as it hit print. The wheels of the academic press grind slowly, and the lag time between the time the article was researched and when it appeared in print was about a year. Many of the online assessments the authors researched in 1998 no longer exist; newer ones aren't covered in the study.
In any case, using purely subjective evaluations, Oliver and Zack concluded that the 24 no-cost career assessments they studied were "neither good nor poor." Among the problems the authors identified with the assessments were:
- Limited and varying interpretations available for assessment results;
- Most sites didn't list names or qualifications of the developers of the assessments;
- Reliability and validity -- whether at face value or compared with more standard career assessments -- were unknown.
Most career counselors would likely agree with Oliver's and Zack's concerns. Notes Robert Reardon, Ph.D., professor and program director at the Career Center at Florida State University: "Speaking as a test author (Career Thoughts Inventory) and test report author (Self-Directed Search) who worked with a team of researchers for several years to develop and publish the CTI at considerable investment of time and money, I fear that the old saying of 'you get what you pay for' probably applies with free, online career assessments."
Observes Reardon, "While the lack of cost is certainly attractive to counselors and customers, other things are higher on my list of desirable criteria, including test validity (predictive, construct, content), reliability, standardization procedures, product support, theory base, and quality of the report (the list of occupations and majors). We should probably be doing more to help people understand how difficult and costly it is to develop a good test."
Another test-developer perspective comes from Marc A. Verhoeve, a career pathing consultant, a participant in the development of the Jackson Vocational Interest Survey (JVIS). His concerns center around the differences between quick, free online assessments and assessments like the Web-based version of the JVIS, which, he says, transcends the shortcomings of online assessments. Verhoeve asserts that most online assessments provide "no proof of their accuracy, validity, norming, or reliability." See Online Assessment: A Cyberspatial Career Snapshot.
Stepping down a bit from the scholarly and test-developer levels, we find the wise counsel of job-hunting guru Richard Nelson Bolles, author of perennial career classic, What Color is Your Parachute? On his Web site, JobHuntersBible.com, Bolles offers what he calls The Fairy Godmother Report on Test & Advice Sites, which compares what job-seekers would like to find at such sites with what they actually do find. Even more helpful is Bolles's list of Seven Rules About Taking Career Tests, which applies to all career assessments, not just those that are free and online. He also gives descriptions of and links to the assessments he likes best and feels are most useful.
Despite the concerns of scholars and career counselors, free online career assessments offer a usefulness that Bolles summarizes best. These tests can "give you ideas you hadn't thought of, and suggestions worth following up," he says. The key is to not expect too much of the tests -- not to believe they will provide a magic answer that will guide the rest of your life and career.
Bolles also suggests taking more than one test. After all, if the same career keeps popping up on test after test, chances are it's a career worth your consideration. I print out results from all the assessments I take and keep them in a three-ring binder. During my four-year career as a college instructor, I found it reassuring to know that all the assessments said college teaching was a career I was well suited for.
Taking lots of assessments also gives you some handle on the validity of each one you encounter. Almost every online variation I've taken of the well-known Myers-Briggs Type Indicator has given me the same results I got with the highly regarded pencil-and-paper version. The one that gave me different results is -- for me -- probably the least valid.
Trust your gut when it comes to test results. One test I had my college students take when I was teaching routinely placed the career of "funeral director" near the top of the lists of a disproportionate number of students. Those students knew themselves well enough to know they didn't want to be funeral directors. So, if an online assessments turns up a career possibility you don't feel is remotely suited to you, feel free to disregard it.
No career assessment -- whether online or not -- can take the place of guidance from a good career counselor. Bolles agrees with the advice of Oliver and Zack when they suggest that online assessments can supplement a career counselor's help -- not substitute for it. To get the most out of free online assessments, take them before meeting with a career counselor and ask the counselor to help you interpret the results, perhaps in conjunction with more conventional career assessments the counselor might suggest you take.
Online assessments vary considerably in terms of interactivity, what they measure, what kind of results they provide, and whether they really are cost-free.
Interactivity: The assessments that are easiest to use and take the greatest advantage of the Internet's capabilities are fully interactive. You check off boxes or circles with your mouse, click a "Submit" button, and poof, you get results. Non-interactive assessments generally need to be printed out, completed, and scored manually.
What is measured: Assessments used in career counseling generally measure interests, skills, values, or personality or some combination of these. While some online assessments are primarily personality tests, the results have applications in the career realm, suggesting that people with certain personalities are best suited to certain careers.
Results: Some results are in the form of a skimpy list of possible careers. Others are highly detailed interpretations.
Costs: Some assessments are totally free. Others provide one level of results for free but offer more detailed results for a fee. Still others, including some online versions of the more reliable and conventional pencil-and-paper assessments can be used only if you pay.
Which free online career assessments are best? Like Bolles, Oliver and Zack, we can't offer much objectivity or scientific research about which ones are best. We can judge only by our own experiences and those of our students. Our subjective opinions, along with links to the assessments, are available both in our career assessments section, as well as in this Online Assessment Review Table.
So, which assessments do we like most? Though career counselors question its validity, we like the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, which gives results in terms of Myers-Briggs types. The Jackson Vocational Interest Survey (JVIS) provides a highly detailed report, while Career Maze includes a multi-page report that tells your approach to goals, how you interact with the world around you, career implications, and jobs that fit your behavior pattern.
Bottom line: Free (and inexpensive) online career assessments are by no means the "be all and end all" that will give you comprehensive career answers. But as long as you keep your expectations in check and supplement the results with other avenues of self-discovery -- particularly the guidance of professional career counselors -- you will likely find these online assessments to be somewhat helpful pieces of the career self-discovery puzzle.
See also our Online Assessment Review Table comparing features of various free and inexpensive online career and career-related assessments.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Help envision and plan your career, job, work future with the self-assessment and career discovery tests in this section of Quintessential Careers: Career Assessment Tools & Tests: Assessments for Students, Job-Seekers, Career-Changers.
Enhance your career! Take advantage of all of our expert free career development advice, tools, and more in our Career Resources Toolkit for Job-Seekers.