Enhancing Students' Strengths from the Classroom to Their Career

By Rebecca E. Michel, Maria Mendez, and Mary K. Wendel

At one time or another, most of us have been asked in a job interview, “Tell me about your strengths and weaknesses.” Often our weaknesses come to mind easily, yet we struggle to identify our strengths. Our culture is naturally inclined toward focusing on (and “fixing”) weaknesses. On the other hand, strengths-based approaches empower individuals to lead with their natural talents (Clifton & Harter, 2003). When individuals identify, cultivate, and maximize their unique strengths, they often experience a more engaged and satisfied career and life.


An often unspoken, yet significant, learning outcome of graduate career counseling courses is the career development of counselors-in-training, which arises from immersion into career theories, counseling, and assessment. Counselor educators can foster student development by intentionally incorporating strengths-based approaches into the course curriculum and assignments, allowing students to both discover and apply their own unique strengths.


The Career Counseling course at DePaul University integrates strengths-based approaches through strengths identification, practice career counseling, and community engagement to help graduate students understand the importance of capitalizing on their own and their clients’ individual strengths through career counseling.


Utilizing Strengths-Based Assessments

At the onset of the course, students complete two individual strengths-based assessments: The Clifton Strengthsfinder and VIA Survey of Character Strengths. The Clifton Strengthsfinder Top 5 Strengths, published by Gallup, is an affordable web-based assessment that offers a focused, introductory overview of instinctive talents or themes, as well as strategies to further develop their strengths. The VIA Survey of Character Strengths is a free online assessment that measures strengths. The VIA Survey is offered by the VIA Institute on Character, and was co-created under the direction of Dr. Martin Seligman, who is known as the “Father of Positive Psychology.” When taken together, these assessments allow graduate students to compare, contrast, and begin to understand their strengths more fully.


Processing the Results through Practice Career Counseling

Once the strengths-based assessments are completed, graduate students practice one-on-one counseling sessions in dyads and use a portion of the time to discuss their strengths-based assessment results. Each student has three sessions as the client and three sessions as the counselor. Serving as clients provides students with a platform to explore and reflect on their strengths related to their own career development as counseling professionals. Serving as counselors allows students to apply their strengths in practice sessions and help facilitate understanding of strengths in their colleagues.


Forming Strengths-Based Teams

Graduate students continue to bridge theory and practice by engaging in a service-learning project in the community. Students work in teams of 3-4 throughout the term to create and facilitate a strengths-based career workshop at CARA, a non-profit organization committed to helping people impacted by homelessness obtain and retain sustainable employment. Research has shown groups that work in the perspective of their strengths perform more effectively and produce a better finished product (Clifton, 2002). In order to encourage students to work from their strengths, teams complete and discuss a “team grid” worksheet, which displays each team member’s strengths and provides a clear visual representation of the team’s overall strengths.


As a team-building activity and form of experiential learning, each team participates in the Marshmallow Challenge  (teams are asked to create a free-standing structure out of uncooked spaghetti, tape, string, and a marshmallow). This timed activity allows each team to complete a task under pressure, during which strengths are readily on display for team members to experience and observe. After the challenge, team members reflect on the roles each team member took, how it affected the outcome of the challenge, and how they can use this information to best work together on their team project.


Developing a Strengths-Based Career Development Workshop

DePaul University is home to the Asset-Based Community Development institute, which emphasizes the use of existing strengths to develop strong communities. Career counseling students conduct an asset-based assessment at CARA to better understand how to build upon the strengths of the existing CARA curriculum and participants. Based on the needs and assets identified, graduate students create career development workshops using an action planning worksheet, aimed to help organize ideas, outline weekly milestones, delegate tasks based on identified strengths, and track progress against goals.


Teams first present each workshop to the career counseling class, offering the opportunity to practice their presentation, and obtain feedback from peers and the instructor about the workshop. Teams then present their refined workshops at CARA, integrating strengths-based activities and information throughout the session to help CARA participants identify and maximize their strengths.


Reflecting on the Strengths-Based Process

After all workshops are completed, graduate students develop a poster presentation and reflect on their experience presenting within the community. An instructor-facilitated conversation gives graduate students the opportunity to reflect on their experience working in a strengths-based team, and identify ways in which they utilized their strengths to produce the workshop. Students are also able to reflect on how the service learning project supported both CARA participants as well as their own career development as graduate students.


Translating Lessons Learned to Enhance Students’ Career Development

Throughout the duration of the course, the counselors-in-training learned strengths-based approaches on two simultaneous levels:

1. Personal strengths-based development: students identified personal strengths, conceptualized how their strengths related to their career development as a counseling professional, and utilized their strengths in a strengths-based team.

2. Developing strengths in others: students facilitated strengths-based career development in both individual and group contexts through practice counseling sessions and workshop facilitation.


Both the personal strengths-based work and the experiential strengths-based facilitation serve to support students’ career development as counseling professionals. Students bring the lessons learned throughout the class into their own careers as they cultivate strengths within themselves, their clients, and their communities.


Additional Resources

Clifton, D. O., & Anderson, E. C. (2002). StrengthsQuest: Discover and develop your strengths in academics, career, and beyond. Washington, DC: The Gallup Organization.

Clifton, D. O., & Harter, J. K. (2003). Investing in strengths. In A. K. S. Cameron, B. J. E. Dutton, & C.R. E. Quinn (Eds.), Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline (pp. 111-121). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Shaff, C. (2016, December). Three steps for positive change when using StrengthsFinder 2.0 with clients. Career Convergence. Retrieved from www.ncda.org


Rebecca MichelRebecca Michel, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Counseling Program within the College of Education at DePaul University. Rebecca is also a Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach and Educator. Rebecca’s research explores how cultural, relational, educational, and career factors impact identity, wellbeing, and life satisfaction. She has worked as a counselor with middle and high school students, college students, and career changers. In 2015, she was featured in three educational films about strengths-based development in the Alexander Street Press Great Teachers, Great Courses Series (Cultivating client strengths in career counseling; Positive psychology and the study of human strengths; Developing student strengths to promote college and career readiness). In 2016, she co-edited the book Creative Career Counseling Interventions with Diverse Populations and was named the Illinois Counselor Educator of the Year. She can be contacted at rebecca.michel@depaul.edu.


Maria MendezMaria Mendez is the Arnold Mitchem Fellows Instructor and Graduate Assistant at DePaul University. Maria works with first generation college students as an academic advisor concerning graduate school and research opportunities. Maria holds a BS in Psychology and Biology from the University of New Mexico. She is also a former McNair Scholar, and current National Hispanic Scholar pursuing a degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Once finished with her Master’s degree she hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology or Counseling Education. She can be contacted at 12.maria.mendez@gmail.com.


Mary K WendelMary K. Wendel is a Graduate Advisor in the Career Development Center at Loyola University Chicago, where she helps students build on their strengths through individual career counseling and an undergraduate career development course. Mary K. is pursuing a MEd in Counseling with a concentration in College Student Development from DePaul University in Chicago, IL. She can be contacted at marykwendel00@gmail.com.


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