Personality-college major match predicts undergraduate success

08/21/2012  |  BY LAWRENCE K. JONES
Helping Students Select Undergraduate Programs
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Are you interested in choosing a college major or program of study? In helping those who are? Increasing college graduation rates? You will probably be surprised to learn that there is a body of research that few people know about, that could dramatically help you.

The theme of this research could be called “You do best what interests you.” It shows that students who choose a college major that matches their personality are more likely to earn better grades, stick with their major, and graduate on time.

The importance of “personality-career” match is well known. Numerous studies over the past 40 years have shown that a good match leads to higher job satisfaction and success. We now know that the same is true for “personality-major match.” Research over the past 10 years, done primarily by scientists associated with ACT®, demonstrates this.

To give you an example of the power of this match, researchers followed more than 80,000 college students over a five-year period and found that the degree of match between students’ interests and their college major predicted their overall GPA better than ACT scores!

Unfortunately, these findings are published in scientific journals infrequently read by educators and are not well known. For the past two years we have been working to develop tools and guides that will enable students, parents, counselors, administrators, and policymakers to take advantage of these findings.

Personality-College Major Match

“Personality-major match” refers to how well students’ interests and personality match up with two things: a) the demands and opportunities of the major, and b) the personalities of the faculty and students who work in the major.

All of this is based on a theory of vocations by John Holland. According to the theory, most people are one of six personality types — Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, or Conventional (abbreviated RIASEC). People are generally attracted to persons having the same personality. When they get together, they create an environment that encourages the abilities, skills, values, and attitudes they share.

For example, Investigative faculty and students create an Investigative environment that rewards students who have personalities like theirs. Faculty do this by the teaching methods they use, the classroom goals they set, how they interact with students, and the opportunities they offer. Students with an Investigative personality thrive in this environment, but students with a different kind of personality, especially ones with the opposite personality, Enterprising, are not similarly rewarded. They may face negative consequences and do poorly.

A simpler explanation is that students with interests similar to the major find the content more interesting, study harder, and get better grades.

Two Essential Tools

To take advantage of these research findings, two vital tools are needed: first, a scientifically valid measure of the Holland personality types must be used. That means that there are reports in scientific journals that show that the assessment, in fact, truly measure the RIASEC types. Invalid measures mislead and can potentially be harmful. We consider these five to be valid -- Strong Interest Inventory®, Self-Directed Search, Campbell™ Interest and Skills Inventory, ACT’s UNIACT, and The Career Key®.

Many schools, colleges, and states in the southeast use these measures. The Career Key, for example, is part of Georgia’s GAcollege411 and North Carolina’s CFNC.org. It is used by many school districts as a part of Naviance’s Succeed.

The second essential tool is a list of college majors that are scientifically classified according to the RIASEC types. Career Key is the first to classify all majors and programs of study listed by the U.S. Department of Education (2010). We have created several options to help people take advantage of this majors list, briefly described below.

Resources: Valid List of College Majors Classified by RIASEC

College Major Match™. A new service for two- and four-year colleges that enables students and the public to view a school’s majors and training programs organized by the RIASEC, and to get detailed information about each. It’s simple and affordable. Colleges send us the information and links for their majors and we create a web page for their school.

This will help schools with college completion, recruitment, retention, academic advisement, and career services. Potential and current students will see the programs of study that fit their interests and personality. The Community College of Rhode Island, North Carolina State University, and Southern Methodist University are the first to participate.

Career Key Self-Help Articles. “Choosing a College Major or Training Program” lists many majors according to the RIASEC, the occupations associated with them, and describes how to use them to make a good decision. There are also articles about the RIASEC college major environments and career choice.

The Career Key web site is free of ads and registration. The content is based on the best practices and science of career and educational counseling.

Match Up! Your Personality to College Majors. This annual e-book lists and describes all of the 1400+ college majors and programs of study found in colleges and community colleges in the U.S. and Canada (with related occupations), according to the RIASEC.

The Matching Process

Basically, choosing a major involves identifying the majors that fit students’ top two RIASEC personality types, learning about them, narrowing the list, weighing the pros and cons, deciding, and making plans. Since this decision is so important, we recommend using a simple but sophisticated scientific approach — Alternatives, Consequences, Information, Plans (ACIP). This method is based on extensive research and you will find it embedded in Career Key’s content.

Tips for Making a Good Match

Become informed.

Download at no cost two white papers:

  • “Choosing a College Major Based on Your Personality, What does the research say?” (2010) is a 29-page e-book that gives information and advice, primarily for students, parents and adults returning to school.
  • “Personality-College Major Match and Student Success, A Guide for Professionals Helping Youth and Adults Who are in College or are College-Bound” (2012) is the 28-page sequel to the earlier e-book for students.

Learn about “career clusters/pathways/fields.” These programs are not based on interests and can affect students’ future educational choices. Our self-help article “Choose a Career Cluster, Career Field, or Career Pathway” is recommended.

Start early. Research shows that students’ RIASEC interests generally stabilize by the 8th grade. So, middle school is the place to begin. High school students should factor in their choice of major when considering which college to attend.

Make a good decision. Use the ACIP method described above.

Lawrence K. Jones is Professor Emeritus at North Carolina State University, a National Certified Counselor, and President of Career Key — a philanthropy and business devoted to helping people make good career and educational decisions. He has worked as a teacher, school counselor, and consultant. Dr. Jones is the author of numerous articles, books, and The Career Key. Dr. Jones received the Professional Development Award of the American Counseling Association in 2001.For more information visit www.careerkey.org.
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