How To Re-Direct Students When Taking Seemingly Unrealistic Career Paths?

By Clare Garman

Most school counselors have probably had the experience of sitting across from a student who eagerly announces that he/she wants to be a doctor or attend Harvard which appears to be a far reach for that student based on current grades and performance. What can a counselor do when a student states a desired career path or a college choice which appears to be an unrealistic one for that student?


Two Scenarios

As guidance counselors, we steadfastly encourage students to pursue their goals and dreams. However, there are times that instead of enthusiastically cheering a student on, we may sit speechless with a glazed look on our faces which can be read “Really?” The student who wants to be a doctor may struggle with math and science courses; while the student who wants to attend Harvard has low SAT scores and poor grades. Variations of these two scenarios may sound very familiar to most counselors. In these examples, I was the counselor who sat in silence.


The Dilemmas Confronting a Counselor

How do we encourage a student’s interest without bursting his/her bubble? How can we support student’s choices, but also help them explore the reasons behind their choices? When and how do we introduce some elements of reality, such as, medical school requires high levels of mathematical and analytical ability; Harvard requires high SAT scores and grades? With the rising cost of college tuition, most students (and their parents) cannot afford to waste thousands of dollars on a decision that has not been carefully thought out.


When high school students are asked that proverbial question, “What would you like to do when you grow up?” they are stating exactly what they would like to do, often without regard to ability, skill level or cost. Students are generally thinking that this career would be fun, allow them to be rich or famous or live a comfortable life style. When counselors hear their responses they tend to think about the education and skills required, the high level of competition involved or the cost of acquiring that education. It becomes obvious that the adult brain and the teenage brain have some noticeable differences.


Revisiting the Teenage Brain

The teenage brain is not just an adult brain with fewer miles on it,” says Frances E. Jensen, a professor of neurology. Teenagers “are people with very sharp brains, but they’re not quite sure what to do with them” (Ruder, 2008).

According to recent findings, the human brain does not reach full maturity until the mid-twenties. As a number of researchers have put it, "the rental car companies have it right." The brain isn't fully mature at 16, when we are allowed to drive, or at 18, when we are allowed to vote, or at 21, when we are allowed to drink, but closer to 25, when we are allowed to rent a car (Simpston, n.d.). Even though the teenage brain is not yet fully developed, there are ways to help them navigate through the career process. Here are some strategies that have been helpful.


Strategies to Help Student Focus on Possible Career Goals


1. Emphasize the student’s positive qualities and always display positive regard to the student.

A reply emphasizing a student’s positive assets might go something like this: “Sue, you are so good with people. I can see why you would choose a career that helps others. The medical field is one, but there are other fields as well.” As “Sue's” counselor, I try to suspend judgment and curb my immediate impulse, which is to state all the reasons why this career might not be a good fit. Students are then usually more open to discussing options rather than defending their choice.


2. Ask open-ended questions to gain more information about a student’s choice.

Questions like “Tell me more?” or “How would you feel if you were a ____?” allow students to expand on the reasons for their choice and give counselors valuable insight into the motivating force behind their choice/s. Answers such as, “this would allow me to help people and make a lot of money at the same time” or “I would feel important and needed” can offer valuable information for the counselor.


3. Provide students with career resource information.

Two resources that I use frequently with my students are the Massachusetts Career Information System, which is a free resource for MA residents and Naviance, which is fee based system. Both have several career interest inventories, career and college information, videos, games and interviews. Roadtrip Nation, available on Naviance, allows students to listen to over 3,500 college student conducted interviews of individuals representing the popular fields of entertainment, sports, medicine and many others.


4. There’s nothing like the real thing.

Provide, if possible, an opportunity for a student to participate in an Informational Interview. This will allow a student to get an up close and personal with someone working in that field of interest. Discuss with the student and parents any possible contacts he/she may have in the desired field of interest. Of course, this can be very time consuming and involves getting permission from parents/guardian.


5. Help students identify and set some short-term goals.

Help students break their long-term goal (becoming a doctor) into sub-goals and help them identify some short-term goals (taking an AP Math or Science course). A great information sheet on goals can be found by reading this online pdf, "Setting Goals for Teens". 


Despite the Dilemmas, Remember the Goals

In closing, counselors can often help clarify students thoughts by employing strategies that allow them to gather additional information about motivating factors and guide them toward career resources and other research opportunities. Although counselors and students may not be in agreement about a specific occupational path, they can agree on the end result desired: occupational choice satisfaction.



Ruder, D. B. (September-October 2008). The Teen Brain. Harvard Magazine. Retrieved from http://harvardmagazine.com/2008/09/the-teen-brain.html


Simpson, A. R. (n.d.) The young adult project. The MIT center for work, family & personal life. Retrieved from http://hrweb.mit.edu/worklife/youngadult/brain.html



Clare Garman 2014Clare Garman is a career counselor at an inner city school in Massachusetts.  In addition to working as a career and guidance counselor, she has been involved in the area of employment and training for more than twenty years.  Her work has evolved out of a desire to develop increased interest in career development with students in high school. She can be reached at dmgarman@aol.com


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Herky Cutler   on Saturday 03/01/2014 at 11:17 AM

Hi Clare,

I appreciate what you wrote here and I recognize that your intention is such that you care about students and you want the best for them. I like the suggestions you made for students to take a closer look at an occupation they say they "like" but may not have the aptitude for. And I certainly agree with not wanting to burst people's bubbles.

I caution Career Practitioners however! For example, I don't ever do this..."we may sit speechless with a glazed look on our faces which can be read 'really'"

The reason I don't is because I learned long ago that I have no right as a Career Practitioner to impose any of my values on my clients or students, and "feeling" that a student may have un "unrealistic" occupational goal is MY value, not theirs.

Furthermore, when I portray any doubt at all to a student, I believe that what I am doing is acting from my own fear, and not the fear that the student will fail in reaching that occupational goal.

Besides, it's much more powerful for a person to discover on their own whether or not they have what it takes. Let's not discount the power of motivation. If someone REALLY wants something they may indeed overcome ANY obstacle to get it.

Good article!


Niel Carey   on Saturday 03/01/2014 at 08:36 PM

Hi Clare,
I really enjoyed your article. Your introductory comments describe the experiences of most of us who have served as high school counselors!

Your suggested strategies are consistent with proven professional practice. Every student should have access to a counselor like you facilitating the kind of program you have outlined. Unfortunately, budget cuts in many areas have resulted in reductions in counseling staff and added responsibilities for counselors This in turn has often resulted in less time for education and career planning and counseling.

The NCDA Government Relations Committee is workng diligently to strengthen the provisions and funds for career development and counseling in the elementary/secondary and career/technical education legislation. Our Representatives and Senators need to be aware of the good work you and other counselors are doing, and to be aware of the legislative and budget support you need to continue that work. You have given us a good example to cite in our contacts in DC!

Lisa Raufman   on Sunday 03/02/2014 at 01:47 AM

Dear Clare,
Your article is an excellent example of all the factors that a counselor must consider when counseling a student. However, the most important point you make relates to how a good counselor both reinforces a student's interests and teaches the student the importance of doing more research in order to have options.

One of the most interesting points you raise is that the teenage brain may not be developed enough to make a final decision (brain research is really helping us understand this issue), however, as a college counselor I do see the students at the next stage in their development. By the time they are in a community college, many of these students who score very low in math assessments, do continue to pursue their dream (if having been encouraged by family and counselors) and learn how to be better students! It does help if they learn about the related careers that they can pursue so that they have several options other than just doctor, engineer, or pharmacist!

Allen Reynolds   on Monday 03/03/2014 at 09:09 AM

I appreciate the practical and frank focus of the article.

Another aspect of this issue (and perhaps another future article and discussion) which I often encounter is when students have a realistic career plan, but the parents are the ones with the unrealistic expectations.

Mary Ghilani   on Monday 03/03/2014 at 09:34 AM

Nice article.
To echo previous comments, it is not our job to tell someone that they can't do something. It's better to give them the facts (or let them research the facts) and let them draw their own conclusions. My standard response to students in situations like these is, "Great! So you'd like to become a dietician (or whatever). You must really enjoy chemistry..."
My other comment is that having a Plan B to fall back on (you know, just in case...) is essential for any student attempting to pursue a competitive or difficult major/career. Some won't listen, but at least you've tried. It's their choice.

thelma G. Sullivan   on Monday 03/03/2014 at 09:43 AM

Thank you Clare.
It is very helpful! I will like to see this expanded to the college level.

Jim Peacock   on Tuesday 03/04/2014 at 04:46 PM

Having been a school counselor and worked at community college and listened to so many unrealistic teens and young adults, I really enjoyed your article.

I avoided passing judgement (that haunting sentence "my guidance counselor told me I could not do it") always hung in the background.

Often, I said, "Great, lets get you signed up for Anatomy & Physiology as soon as possible".

For some it was literally 4 years of trying A & P and a Health program before they moved on. Heartbreaking but each person has to figure that out themselves... along with all your great advice about Plan B, short term goals, and info interviews.


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