Know Thyself…and Get Ahead

College graduation rates—particularly four-year rates—are low, both nationwide and in the UNC system.  So many factors contribute to the low rates (students’ poor preparation, their need to earn money by working, lack of interest, schools’ failure to provide the right classes etc.) that it is difficult to find techniques that will enable students to move to graduation more quickly.

But surely one way is helping students select their major earlier and more judiciously—since switching majors can force students to stay longer to get all their required courses in. And another is helping students align their interests with potential careers. A student who is committed to a goal that interests him or her will move faster and more successfully through the college maze.

One tool that could be used to meet those goals is an assessment called the Birkman Method, which consists of a 298-question personality assessment and a series of related reports. The assessment, provided by Birkman International, Inc., can be used in industry for team building, executive coaching, leadership development, and interpersonal conflict resolution. For college freshmen, it can be used for career counseling and helping to select a major.

Earlier this year, a representative from Hurleigh & Company of Charlotte, a consulting firm that administers the Birkman method, asked me to take the test. He wanted to know whether I thought it would be a helpful tool in North Carolina’s universities and community colleges.

I agreed to be a test subject—and found the assessment fairly accurate. Had I taken it as a freshman, it’s possible I might have focused my efforts on graduate school from the beginning, instead of aiming for law school for the first two years of my undergraduate education. Maybe I would have graduated a semester earlierbut certainly I would have had a clearer idea of what my strengths were.

The assessment showed that my interests include people-centered activities including “influencing people directly” and teaching—both of which I’ve done, either at the Pope Center or as an adjunct professor. It also revealed that I’m orderly, concentrative, and consistent—traits necessary for my research work. It revealed that I might find success pursuing literary interests, social service, or public speaking.

The last segment of information provided by the assessment showed job titles that matched well with my interests and behaviors. A legal career (my initial goal as a freshman) appeared toward the very bottom of the list. Education in general—and teaching in the social sciences in particular—was the third “job family” on my list. Social science was number one.

Perhaps it’s easier for an assessment to reveal patterns that have already become set after several years in a career than it would be to show those proclivities to college freshmen—but I was still impressed by the results.

Birkman is already used at several universities around the country, including the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business, Emory University, and Colgate University. According to Birkman’s website, those schools administer the assessment to students “in order to help them better understand how their work styles affect their interactions with others, their roles in team settings and the workplace as a whole.”

But Birkman isn’t the only tool available. Perhaps the most widely known assessment is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment, a questionnaire designed to measure psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions. But this doesn’t directly focus on how to translate one’s mental approach to a career.

Another popular test is Strengthsfinder, which was first introduced in the 2001 management book Now, Discover Your Strengths.  The tool helps users discover their five most prominent talents.

Many North Carolina schools use assessment tools already, at least for some segments of the student body. UNC Charlotte uses Myers-Briggs and Strengthsfinder. UNC School of the Arts administers the Self Directed Search. Students who visit career services at UNC-Chapel Hill have a choice of several assessments. At UNC Charlotte and Western Carolina, students can take FOCUS-2. In most cases, assessments are offered through the career services or advising offices.

Currently, no school in the system administers assessments to all students. However, NC Central might be headed in that direction. Central strongly encourages freshmen to complete a Myers-Briggs type assessment called Type Focus Careers and to attend a class built around career guidance.  And now, there is a recommendation before Central’s university senate to make a freshman course designed completely around career guidance mandatory for all students. As a part of that course, all students would take the career assessment. Such a course might speed students’ progress to graduation.

Although no comprehensive study shows whether using assessments improves graduation rates or time to graduation, anecdotal evidence suggests that assessments should have a place on campus. The Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina reports that since using the Birkman Method, its job placement rate for graduates has increased from 45 percent to 88 percent. Administrators at Emory, where more than 5,000 business students have taken the Birkman, are also pleased with the results.

Advising in the UNC system certainly needs work. Students need clear direction in order to minimize time to degree and make it more likely for them to graduate. Interest and career assessment tools should be one way to do that.