From Underprepared to Gifted: Helping All College Students Achieve their Career Dreams

By Justina Farley and Amber Hughes

Underprepared and gifted students are populations at opposite ends of the achievement spectrum. College career counselors will undoubtedly see both groups of students and should therefore be prepared to address the unique challenges that may arise. For instance, underprepared and high-achieving students often present specific needs that may not be addressed by traditional approaches, including standardized assessments. Having the ability to identify and utilize individualized activities that could reach these populations will help counselors to provide more comprehensive services to all students.


Underprepared Students


The number of underprepared students attending college has increased in recent years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, 2010), in the 1999-2000 school year, 31% of undergraduate students reported taking at least one remedial course, rising to 35.8% in the 2007-2008 school year. Remedial courses may also be called developmental or basic skills courses (NCES, 2003) and are offered to college students who lack the academic skills to succeed in college-level classes; therefore, underprepared students may often be placed into these courses. In addition to difficulties with academic skills, underprepared students also experience specific issues that affect their career development. These issues include spending an increased time in college (Grimes & David, 1999; Kolajo, 2004), financial pressures (Goldstein, 1997; Palmer, Davis, & Hilton, 2009), and a lack of awareness regarding the effects of taking remedial courses (Deil-Amen & Rosenbaum, 2002). These specific career issues faced by underprepared students differ from those experienced by other populations, including high-achieving students, but require similar alternative career interventions.


High-Achieving Students


At the other end of the academic spectrum, students are often referred to as high-achieving, gifted, or talented. The career development of academically high-achieving college students may be overlooked by counselors and advisors, yet they often face indecision and unique career related barriers. For instance, successful decision-making may be difficult because these students must consider a wide range of interests and abilities, while managing high expectations and pressures from others (Schroer & Dorn, 1986). As a result, more traditional career counseling approaches which match abilities and interests to occupations may not adequately address the specific needs of high-achieving students (Kerr & Erb, 1991). Research has shed light on potential avenues for facilitating more effective career-related exploration including a stronger focus on values, peer-support groups, identifying adult role models, and consistently incorporating multicultural considerations to enhance self-efficacy (Kerr & Sodano, 2003; Kerr & Erb, 1991; Rysiew, Shore & Leeb, 1999).


The Constructivist Approach


In both populations described above, traditional type-fit career theories may not be the best approach. Constructivist career theories may prove to be more helpful because they shift from objective measures to a more holistic, subjective, and positivistic approach which encompasses the importance of self-reflection (Maxwell, 2007). Rather than focusing on fitting individuals into pre-determined categories of interests or personality, constructivist approaches allow the client to construct, or create, his or her own career. Counselors work with their clients to put into words their career goals, needs, and development. This puts the client in a position of power and authority and creates a space for understanding the role of the environment in career development. In narrative career counseling, a specific postmodern constructivist perspective, counselors and clients work together to construct and re-construct a client’s story (Savickas et al., 2009). Significant themes, various life roles, and patterns of indecision may be brought to light in this method, showing how career is just one part of the whole person. Given the holistic nature of narrative approaches, it may be more effective in addressing the diversity of issues and student characteristics brought forth by both underprepared and high-achieving college students.


Appropriate Tools and Techniques


The following suggestions offer additional insights and tools for counselors to utilize when working with underprepared and/or high-achieving college students.

  • Know the academic background of your student clients. Career counselors may not have access to this information before a meeting, so you may need to ask specific questions during the session.

  • Do not assume that a student is seeking counseling for help deciding on a major or career. Using qualitative or constructivist career assessments (Savickas, 2011) can help you to best understand the needs of your client.

  • Be creative! Assessments including life roles circles, timelines, and narratives will help address the unmet needs of students and foster identity exploration and formation.

  • Know, or know how to find, your institution’s policies regarding academic performance, academic progression, remedial course offerings, and honors programs. Be prepared to educate your student clients on these policies.

  • Continue to seek understanding regarding multicultural practices. It is important that the impact of social identities on career development is openly discussed between counselor and client.

  • Consider implementing training programs, presentations or workshops designed to help other counselors work with college students in both populations.

  • Encourage students to return for follow-up appointments. The additional needs of each population will likely require extra attention.


Underprepared and high achieving students are two very different populations with different career issues. However, both populations face similar career experiences in that traditional approaches to career counseling may not work well with these students. By using constructivist approaches to career counseling and considering the tips listed above, career counselors can better serve the wide variety of students in higher education.





Deil-Amen, R. & Rosenbaum, J.E. (2002). The unintended consequences of stigma-free remediation. Sociology of Education, 75, 249-268.


Goldstein, M. (1997). Financial aid and the developmental student. New Directions for Community Colleges, 100, 81-87.


Grimes, S. K., & David, K. C. (1999). Underprepared community college students: Implications of attitudinal and experiential differences. Community College Review, 27, 73-92.


Kerr, B., & Erb, Cheryl. (1991). Career counseling with academically talented students: Effects of a value-based intervention. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 38, 309-314.


Kerr, B., & Sodano, S. (2003). Career assessment with intellectually gifted students. Journal ofCareer Assessment, 11, 168-186.


Kolajo, E.F. (2004). From developmental education to graduation: A community college experience. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 28, 365–371.


Maxwell, M. (2007). Career counseling is personal counseling: A constructivist approach tonurturing the development of gifted female adolescents. Career Development Quarterly,55, 206-224.


National Center for Education Statistics. (2003). Remedial education at degree-grantingpostsecondary institutions in fall 2000 [Data file]. Available from nces.ed.gov.


National Center for Education Statistics. (2010). Profile of undergraduate students: Trends from selected years, 1995-1996 to 2007-2008 [Data file]. Available from nces.ed.gov.


Palmer, R.T., Davis, R.J., & Hilton, A.A. (2009). Exploring the challenges that threaten to impede the academic succss of academically underprepared black males at an HBCU. Journal of College Student Development, 50, 429-445.


Rysiew, K.J., Shore, B.M., & Leeb, R.T. (1999). Multipotentiality, giftedness, and career choice:A review. Journal of Counseling and Development, 77, 423-430.


Savickas, M.L. (2011). Career counseling. Washington, D.C.: American PsychologicalAssociation.


Schroer, A.C., & Dorn, F.J. (1986). Enhancing the career and personal development of giftedcollege students. Journal of Counseling and Development, 64, 567-571.







Justina Farley, BA, is currently a doctoral student in Counseling Psychology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and graduate assistant at Career Services. She can be reached through e-mail at jfarley7@utk.edu.

Amber Hughes, M.Ed., is a former school counselor, academic advisor, and career counselor.  She is currently a doctoral candidate in Counselor Education and graduate teaching associate at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.  She can be reached through e-mail at ahughe18@utk.edu.

Printer-Friendly Version

1 Comment

Nancy Miller   on Tuesday 08/27/2013 at 08:58 PM

Thank you for this informative article. While these approaches are geared toward nontraditional students, many of the creative approaches such as those described would be helpful for anyone seeking career counseling. One of the most important aspects is to not assume anyone is traditional. I like your emphasis on asking rather than assuming.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.