Six crucial careers questions


How can schools start a meaningful dialogue with students about careers? Jim Carrick-Birtwell lists six questions every student should be asked.


Making the transition from education to employment is one of the hardest moves we ever make. And it is getting even harder. Access to good careers advice is vital on this difficult journey and in helping young people to make more informed decisions about their future. How can schools start these discussions? Collated with help from careers and education experts, here are six questions we believe every school should ask pupils when opening a dialogue about careers.


Question 1: What activities and/or subjects do you like doing? Tell me more about something you really enjoy doing and are good at. (From Dr Deirdre Hughes, chair of the National Careers Council.)

This open-ended question gives students an opportunity to focus on something positive and meaningful for themselves. The response can help you diagnose the student’s particular stage of career decision-making. Inclusion of activities reduces the focus on academic subjects and allows the question to be relevant to a more diverse range of students. By asking students to focus on the things they like doing most, this can lead to a careers dialogue that also identifies dislikes and other factors enabling and/or hindering progress. 

Skills and qualities

Question 2: What skills, subjects or personal qualities are your strengths and why? (Provided by Alex Shapland-Howes, managing director of Future First.)

Many bright, talented students may lack the confidence to openly describe themselves as smart. This open question avoids a yes/no answer and steers the student to think positively about their drives. It indicates what the student values. Students are encouraged to define their own traits and expand on them. This inclusive approach will enable students to consider “strengths” from a broad perspective, which is critical for career planning.

Dream job?

Question 3: Of all the jobs you know about, what’s your dream job and why? (Provided by Jan Ellis, CEO of the Career Development Institute.)

Sometimes, encouraging a student to talk about their dream job can be a way of connecting with the student and understanding what motivates them. For example, it might be a high salary, taking risks or an easy life. Including the “why” is important because it encourages the student to take a “dream” and consider it in practical terms. It also provides some insights into the student’s current definition of “success”, and can act as a useful anchor point for a school to guide the student through their options.


Question 4: What sort of subjects do you think you need to study in order to pursue your chosen career? (Provided by Nick Chambers, director of the Education and Employers Taskforce.)

A student’s initial career preference may be influenced by peers or media. This question encourages a student to consider their career in relation to their own abilities. Schools can use this question to encourage students to be their own task-master. Through exploration of what a “chosen career” might entail, a student may decide their chosen career might not be the best option for them. 

Alternatively, they may consider concrete steps to achieving that career, whether it is academic study or developing specific skills. This question is particularly relevant prior to key decision-making stages for students – for example, when they are about to choose GCSEs and A levels (or equivalent qualifications).

Future focus

Question 5: What could you see yourself doing after you finish school? (Provided by Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of Schools and College Leaders.)

If a school doesn’t ask this question, a student may not think to tell them. This concrete yet open-ended question could reveal a disconnect between a student’s career goals and their confidence in achieving those goals. This may lead to avenues of conversation including further education alternatives, confidence-building and breaking large goals down into smaller manageable ones. The school may encourage the student to set aside some personal time to think further on the question at their own pace. Perhaps they can agree to set aside some future time to create a SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely) goal.


Question 6: How can I help you get more confident about your future career? (Provided by Joe Billington, director of the National Careers Service.)

Though time-consuming, personalised careers advice can have substantial impact. A student may need inspiration finding careers to consider, or an alternative learning approach (interactive, for example), or support in overcoming personal difficulties.

They will certainly need some help in planning the best route to get from where they are now to where they have decided they want to be. This question reinforces your willingness to provide support, but the receptivity to welcome the student tailoring that support. With their steer about their choice of direction, you can guide to a range of activities, tools and sources of information and advice, including the National Careers Service, that they can explore at their own pace.

  • Jim Carrick Birtwell is the CEO of Plotr, an independent careers advice platform for young people. Plotr features tools to help with careers exploration in the classroom, including a free psychometric test game and “next steps” advice, teaching resources and a careers exploration log. Visit


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