INTRODUCTION: As an advisor to undecided students, I offer workshops in Career Exploration and Decision Making.  In choosing careers, some students are more focused on “How much money will I make?” rather than “What do I value, what are my skills, and what interests me?” As a consequence, I developed an activity designed to help students explore what is important to them, find a compatible career, and experience higher achievement motivation in college. While I use this activity in a workshop setting, it could easily be adapted for use in any career-oriented course (nursing, accounting, electrical engineering, etc.) to help students discover their degree of compatibility with the career for which they are training. Upon identifying such a personally appealing career, students’ motivation often increases dramatically. Preparation for the activity takes approximately 60 minutes; the workshop itself takes 30-50 minutes, depending on amount of discussion.  


  • Help students become aware of the importance of values, skills and interests in career decision-making
  • Help students identify some of their own values, interests and skills as they begin the career decision-making process
  • Help students create personal motivation for succeeding in college
  • Create a sense of community among students


  • 3”x5” cards, one for each student plus 6-10 extras
  • Envelopes, one for each 3”x5” card


1. Write the name of a career and estimated salary on each 3”x5” card, enclose it in an envelope, and seal the envelope. Intersperse some traditional careers (e.g., teacher) with some non-traditional careers (circus clown). Create one envelope for each student with 6-10 extras.

2. On the front of each envelope, write a career value, one skill, and one interest that matches the career. Example:  For Clown — Values: creativity, is physically agile, and likes working with children.


1. Hand each student an envelope and say, “Inside your envelope is the career you will have for the next 40 years. Before opening the envelope, please review the values, skills, and interests of someone who is ideal for this career. Does your unknown career seem to match who you are? How do you feel about your career choice?” Discuss.

2. Tell students, “It seems that some of you are content with your career choice, but I hear others saying that it doesn’t seem to fit them. You now have a choice: You may keep the career you were given or trade your envelope with another student.”

3. Allow time for students to trade.  Offer the extra envelopes to students unhappy with the descriptors for their career but unable to find someone willing to trade.

4. When trading is finished, say, “Is everyone satisfied with the information on the envelope? Does it seem as though you have found the right career for you?” Ask them to explain why or why not. Guide students to articulate the importance of matching their personal values, skills, and interests to a career.

5. Invite students to open their envelopes. Ask for their reactions and why they feel either happy or unhappy with their career “choice.”  Discuss the importance of making a Wise Choice when it comes to career planning. Solicit stories about people the students know who are happy or unhappy in their career choices. Use these examples to illustrate how a career decision affects many aspects of a person’s life. Explore how having a clear career path affects their motivation to succeed in college.


Upon receiving their envelopes, some students say, “This is great, I’ll take the job,” but others say, “This is so NOT me!”  or, “I like the idea that I’ll be working with people, but I don’t value a high stress career.”

When given the chance to trade, students are often careful to make sure they are getting a better match between their own values, skills, and interests and the mystery career in the envelope. One student said, “I like how much travel I would be doing, but I don’t want to work alone.” Another student said, “I value making a lot of money, but I don’t want to deal with hazardous waste. I realize that it’s not just making money that’s important, it’s how you make the money.”

When students agree that they are content with the envelope they have, they are often amused, surprised, and/or disappointed by the actual career choice inside. As one fairly serious student said, “I know it said ‘likes working with children’, but I just can’t imagine myself becoming a clown!”  Others said, “I like what it said on the envelope, but the salary was so low I would need to work a second job- and there are no benefits either.”

The discussion about career decision-making offers some excellent insights into the life/career relationship.  “I realized that I could make good money at this job, but if I traveled half the time, I would give up time with my family.”  “If I have a high paying stressful job, how am I going to enjoy my money?”

One of the experiences that I think is particularly valuable is the realization that other people may have very different career interests and values.  After trading envelopes one student said, “I can’t believe you want a career where you use math and computer skills. That would drive me nuts!”

After this exercise, many of my students are interested in learning more about their career interests, skills and values.  They are able to discuss the importance of values, skills and interests in career decision-making and by virtue of finding the right envelop for them, they become more aware of some of their own values, interests and skills. By working together and sharing career interests, values and skills, the students create a sense of community and interdependence. In one group, two students took it upon themselves to be career brokers, helping others find the right envelope to match with their personalities.


After facilitating this activity it was evident to me that many students feel overwhelmed and incapable of making one of the most important decisions of their lives. Consequently, they are tempted to settle on a career area prematurely, often based on very little information about the actual career and lifestyle implications.  I am aware how I was in that very situation many years ago, and how helpful it is for students to have experiences that assist them in making these wise choices that will have far reaching implications for their lives.

NOTE: Have fun during this activity. Encourage students to change envelopes with each other if they are not 100% happy with what it says on the outside. I always make sure I choose some careers that sound too good to be true (and are!), so that when they look inside the envelope they realize that there is a good deal more to a career than first impressions.

–Robin Middleton, Counselor, Jamestown Community College, NY

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