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Career Coach

Can an online quiz really help you pick a career?

About the author

Elizabeth is a freelance writer in California and a former Career Q&A columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

(Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

(Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

Unless you’ve been on an internet hiatus, you must have noticed an explosion in online quizzes claiming to tell you everything from which of your favourite television characters you resemble, to what type of cheese you are, even whether you are more left-brained or right.

Websites are also overflowing with career assessment tests designed to help you pick a career path. Yet many wonder if they have any real value for job-hunters. Should a simple, 10-minute multiple-choice quiz ever really dictate what you ought to be doing with your life?  

Yes and no, say career experts.

Good career assessment tools help you understand how personal attributes —your preferences, interests, motivations, values, aptitudes and skills — impact your potential success and satisfaction with different career options. Valuable assessments go beyond simply identifying strengths. More importantly, they can help assess which industries fit these strengths. The better quizzes can also provide insight into specific jobs within an industry that would be a strong fit.

One of the biggest problems with the tests: people aren’t always honest with their answers.

Instead, they give the answers that they think they should, according to Elizabeth Lintelman, career services manager at Rasmussen College, which has 24 US campuses in the Midwest and Florida.

“We [often] have preconceived notions of what we think we want to do and automatically inflate our answers to match that idea,” she said. But no assessment or quiz has value unless you answer as objectivity as possible.

Even with objectivity, online tests can serve as a good indicator of your current position — but that’s about it, according to Switzerland-based career coach Regina Reinhardt. “Ever tried to take the same test several times?” she asked in an email to Career Coach. “You will have different results.”

That makes even a free test costly.

“It’s an expensive exercise if (your) interpretation of the assessment is incorrect and you spend the next few years doing something you shouldn’t be,” wrote Jane Anderson, a Brisbane-based executive career coach, in an email to Career Coach.

Just one tool

Career aptitude assessments can, however, introduce options and help a test taker feel more confident in a career plan, but they might not paint the picture of what to do next — or even what kind of job within a specific industry or field might be just-right.

That’s why most experts say that such quizzes are best used in conjunction with other tools, such as a skill list and a ‘What I always wanted to do’ list, suggested Reinhardt. If you’re really stuck, you might consider hiring a career coach to help interpret the results so you don’t waste time guessing what to do next.

“Fun online tests are often just that, a bit of fun to give some level of insight,” wrote Anderson.

But, too many people make the mistake of viewing these tests as a one-stop shop to answering their career dilemmas, according to Jodie Charlop, founder and chief coaching officer of Atlanta-based Potential Matters.

“We take tests and assessments hoping to unearth the magic answer, get a quick fix or provide that shortcut,” said Charlop. “But our career needs are like a great business plan.  A smart business will incorporate multiple data sources — competitive data, market research, financial data, product data, resources needed, potential ROI [return on investment], risks.”

Charlop believes that that a variety of sources of data are a must to have for people assessing their professional paths, and that can include incorporating personal passions (as a data point) into an established career path.

For instance, Charlop has one technology industry client with whom she started working a decade ago when he was an unhappy engineer. “He needed more creativity, so we moved him to web technology and also created a path that helped him infuse his love of film and visuals,” said Charlop.

Even some paid tests online might not be as thorough as the type career coaches or placement experts use. The tests that Brisbane’s Anderson uses require a lot of connecting the dots, looking at future trends, a client’s job history, age and potential roles that they may not have thought of. Even sophisticated do-it-yourself online assessments won’t usually deliver that.

Kick-starting your search

Still for some people, taking an online quiz or aptitude test might be the first time they’ve even questioned their career path, according to Lintelman.

People often “wear blinders” when it comes to their careers, said Lintelman. A career assessment test, which pinpoints the skills that people already possess and could easily transfer to another field, allows them to consider areas they might have never previously considered, she said.

For instance, Lintelman has a friend who spent years trying to secure a job as an event planner because she loved helping people, had excellent attention to detail and was great with ‘behind the scenes’ work. But, after taking an aptitude test, she learned that those skills might also help her excel in the fields of human services and criminal justice, and that grant writing and paralegal work could be a good fit for her. She is currently in the final stages of interviewing for a human services position at a non-profit camp for children who have been adopted from Latin America.  

Of course, taking too many quizzes and assessments risks information overload — and very little insight, according to Brisbane-based career coach Karen Bremner.

Plus, it can also be a delaying tactic. “[It’s] a way to feel that you’re taking action without the discomfort of actually getting out there and doing anything real,” wrote Bremner who works with Australians in all stages of their careers.

“Ask yourself: is another assessment really going to move you forwards? Or is it time to stop reflecting, and act?,” she suggested. “Careers are no longer a ‘for life’ prospect, so career decisions are not one-off events. They’re a constant work in progress.”

Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at careercoach@bbc.com.

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