A World of Possibilities: Career Development for Gifted Students

By Jennifer Kass & Marion Cavallaro

Approximately 7% of all U.S. public elementary and secondary school students are classified as gifted (U.S. Department of Education, 2007), and many students with similar characteristics are either gifted but not identified or are students at schools with no specialized gifted educational programs.  Like other diverse populations, gifted students have specialized career development requirements, and can be best served by counselors who are most familiar with their needs.   This article will identify some of the factors which affect the career development of gifted students and present some career counseling interventions that may be helpful to school counselors working with this population. 

Factors Affecting the Career Development of Gifted Students

There are several forces at play in the life of the gifted student that affect their career counseling needs.  Some of these are related to how the gifted may think specifically about careers, such as the concepts of multipotentiality, early emergence and foreclosure.  Others are intrinsic characteristics that are more prevalent in the gifted than in the mainstream student population that affect how they process information and what they value.  Examples are high levels of emotional and intellectual intensity, and a strong sense of social justice. 


Multipotentiality is the ability to do many things at very high levels of competence and enjoyment (Greene, 2006; Robinson, Shore, and Enersen, 2007).  Gifted students can experience high abilities across domains, and high, flat interest inventories. While this may not seem at the outset like a problem, from the student's perspective it can be troubling.  The ability to excel on multiple career paths can lead to paralysis:  What should I do?  The counselor should keep in mind that high ability does not translate to EQUAL ability across all domains, and that values and life goals can also be used as differentiating variables (Greene, 2002b; Peterson, 2006).  Students who ARE differentiated (and these are more likely to be male students with exceptional math and science abilities), need to made aware that multi-potentiality can surface in later adolescence (Kerr and Sodano, 2003).    

Early emergence and foreclosure

Gifted students can have early career maturity (Greene, 2002b), but they may miss opportunities by focusing too early on one academic area (Greene, 2006).  They may have mistaken self-efficacy beliefs if they are marginally less able in one area than another.  Since multi-potentiality may surface later in adolescence, an early ability in one area may create premature foreclosure.  In addition, focusing on a high-prestige but conventional career, such as doctor or lawyer, can eliminate options with which students are not yet familiar.    

Personality traits

The traits that may affect career development tasks for gifted students include high levels of emotional and intellectual intensity and a strong sense of social justice (Lovecky, as cited in Greene 2002b).  These students can be very sensitive, especially to the expectations of parents and teachers.  They can have unusual or esoteric interests (Kerr and Sodano, 2003) and also become deeply invested in exploring ideas to their limits, which can hinder purposeful decision-making. 

Expectations of others

This brings us to an important extrinsic factor affecting career development among the gifted, and that is the high expectations of others.  Some of these expectations are that gifted students should be able to research the world of work and make higher education and career decisions themselves, that they should only apply to the most prestigious colleges, and that they will attend college before making any "real" career plans.  For gifted students from diverse cultural backgrounds, expectations of family and peers may be out of sync with expectations of themselves and teachers.  For girls interested in STEM careers and boys in education or social services, expectations based on traditional gender stereotyping can be even more stressful for the gifted than for others.   Counselors tread a fine line in managing the career development of gifted students if the goals of the student are in conflict with parents. 

Interventions for Counselors

A counselor can help fire up the imaginations of their gifted students by presenting them with a wide array of career and post-secondary options to get them thinking "outside the box." Many of these interventions are appropriate for any secondary school student, but can particularly help the gifted. 

In terms of how these interventions are conducted, many of those who work with the gifted suggest that group counseling with other gifted students with similar intensities can be particularly helpful, particularly if those groups are same-sex (Kerr and Sodano, 2003).   For one-on-one sessions, findings from a 1986 experimental study of career assessments and interventions among gifted youth by Kerr (cited in Kerr and Sodano, 2003) suggested that gifted students prefer structured individual counseling, in which the counselor suggests topics, asks open-ended questions and presents test results, to a purely open-ended format.

Self-Discovery: Assessment

Career assessment with gifted youth can be tricky.  New research by Achter et al. (cited in Kerr and Sodano, 2003) suggests that most career assessment instruments, when given at grade level, do little to help gifted students.  They recommend that gifted students, due to their intellectual intensity, might profit better from assessments given out of level, for example the Self-Directed Search for primary school gifted, Strong Interest Inventory for middle-school students, and Personality Research Form and Vocational Personality Inventory for high school students.  A combination of assessments that incorporates abilities, personality traits and values will give gifted students some additional tools to think about career beyond choosing based on where they are most able or what they know.  The results may also give those with non-traditional career interests (for example, education for boys and STEM careers for girls) some ammunition to support their choices in interactions with parents and others who may not understand their chosen path.  In addition to assessment, counselors should ensure that gifted students are informed about the concept of intensity, which may help them cope better with the emotional issues surrounding career development and post-secondary planning, which are already stressors for many adolescents.  

Researching the world of work

Counselors can have gifted students research prominent people who created their own path that spanned interests and capabilities.  This may encourage those who have chosen prestigious, high-paying but conventional careers such as doctor or lawyer to think a little more broadly.  As early as elementary and middle school, when foreclosure can begin, create a library of books and movies about eminent people with unique career paths to stimulate thinking about career options.  Fostering internships or mentorships with professionals, particularly those who may work in non-traditional fields or have unique educational backgrounds, may spark creative thinking about career options.  

With encouragement gifted students can explore their passions and have the opportunity to develop their many talents while on the path to creating their own unique career identity.   A better understanding of what motivates and challenges gifted students can empower school counselors to best address their needs while also serving the broader population. 


Assouline, S.G. & Colangelo, N. (2006). Social-emotional development of gifted adolescents.  In F.A. Dixon and S.M. Moon (eds.), The handbook of secondary gifted education (pp. 65-82). Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Greene, M. (2002a). Gifted adrift? Career counseling of the gifted and talented.  Roeper Review, 25, 66-72.

Greene, M. (2002b).  Career counseling for gifted and talented students.  In M. Neihart, S.J. Reis, N.M. Robinson, and S.J. Moon (Eds.), The social and emotional development of gifted children: What do we know?  (pp. 41-50). Washington, DC: National Association for Gifted Children.

Greene, M. (2006). Helping build lives: Career and life development of gifted and talented students. Professional School Counseling, 10, 34-38. 

Kerr, B. & Sodano, S. (2003). Career Assessment with Intellectually Gifted Students.  Journal of Career Assessment, 11: 168-186.

Robinson, A., Shore, B.M., & Enersen, D.L. (2007). Best practices in gifted education: An evidence-based guide (pp. 207-213).  Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2007). Table 51: Percentage of gifted and talented students in public elementary and secondary schools, by sex, race/ethnicity, and state: 2002 and 2004 (prepared May 2007). 

Jennifer KassJennifer Kass is pursuing an MA in School Counseling at The College of New Jersey after a 20-year career in marketing research, much of that time spent researching teens.  She also presented work on gifted students at the New Jersey Counseling Association's 2009 annual meeting.  She can be reached at kass3@tcnj.edu

Marion CavalleroMarion Cavallaro, Ph.D., LPC, a full time faculty member in the Department of Counselor Education at The College of New Jersey, teaches the career counseling course and provides personal and career counseling at the TCNJ Counseling Clinic.  She received her Ph.D. and MA in Counseling Psychology from the Ohio State University and her BA from the University of Delaware.  She can be reached atcavallar@tcnj.edu.



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