Educators have a lot of options to help students prepare for college or careers. Two of the main tools for education and career guidance are interest surveys and aptitude assessments. But just what is an interest inventory? Or an aptitude assessment? And is one better than another?
In this article, I give an overview of both types of testing, the pros and cons of each and answer those questions.
What is an interest inventory?
An interest inventory is a quiz or test that evaluates a person’s interests. When used for career guidance or discovery, an interest inventory matches someone’s interests to specific careers. The assumption is that interests help show which careers are best.
Interest surveys date back to 1927, when Psychologist Edward Kellog Strong, Jr., developed the Strong Interest Inventory to help people leaving the military find civilian jobs. Since then, the Strong Interest Inventory has been adapted for high school and college students and is used as early as the 9th grade.
Other common interest surveys and related assessments used in high schools and colleges include:
- Campbell Interest and Skill Survey which measures self-reported vocational interests and skills.
- John Holland’s Self-Directed Search (SDS) that matches aspirations, activities and talents to career choices.
- Kuder Occupational Interest Survey (KOIS) that uncovers insights into personal interests, skills and work values.
Interest surveys have their place in career guidance. But they’re only one piece of the puzzle.
What is an aptitude assessment?
An aptitude assessment measures a person’s strengths, skills and their natural tendencies towards success in specific areas. Aptitude tests measure abilities, such as numerical reasoning, comprehension, spatial visualization, inductive reasoning and sequential reasoning.
Unlike interests, aptitudes don’t change. And according to the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, “aptitudes stabilize around the age of 14.”
How aptitude assessments are used for career guidance
Aptitude assessments are used in secondary schools to help students identify their talents. Using students’ results, educators and students can begin mapping education and career pathways that lead to careers that use the student’s aptitudes. Some schools begin aptitude testing as early as 9th grade, but aptitude assessments are more commonly used in high schools.
Businesses use aptitude assessments to measure the fit of a prospective candidate during the recruiting process. Many companies also use them to promote or transfer employees to other internal positions. Apple, Microsoft and Nike all use aptitude assessments.
The military uses aptitude testing to measure someone’s fit for military training and careers. One of the most widely used aptitude tests was created by The Defense Department. The Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) matches job candidates to military positions based on ability. High school students can take the ASVAB to determine their fit for a life in the military.
Career tests versus personality tests
Two other tools that help students explore careers are career and personality tests. A career test is simply another name for a test that measures interest, personality or aptitude.
Personality tests examine how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is probably the best-known personality inventory.
While personality tests may help people get to know themselves on a deeper level — when it comes to career planning, they’re missing the most critical piece: aptitudes. And a 2019 study by Nicolas Roulin and Franciska Krings found that applicants shape their responses to try and increase their fit for the organization.
Pros and cons of an interest inventory
An interest assessment helps students determine their likes/dislikes and preferences for areas of study and their interest in different careers. They’re great for helping students learn more about themselves. And they promote self-exploration.
However, there are limitations to interest inventories:
- Interests change over time.
- Interests don’t always lead to suitable careers. Just because someone is interested in architecture doesn’t mean they have the aptitude to be a good architect. In other words, interests don’t translate to ability.
- Interests are dependent on experiences. We only know, or have an interest in, what we’re exposed to.
- Interest-only career surveys can also reinforce gender stereotypes.
Hannah Smith, a career development facilitator from the School District of Pickens County, South Carolina, had this to say about interest-only inventories, “We knew we needed something more than just interest inventories. Pickens County pulled in CDFs [career development facilitators] about four-and-a-half years ago. Within two years we thought, there has to be something more we can give our students and parents to help guide them in the right directions, besides just the temperamental interest inventories. Not that we can’t use the interests, because I think we have helped students to identify things they like to do. But just having that extra layer to add on what they would also be good at [meaning aptitudes] is going to really serve our students well.”
Pros and cons of aptitude assessments
When students are aware of what they’re naturally wired to excel at, they can consider pathways they may have never thought about. And aptitude assessments uncover those natural talents that can guide students towards best-fit education and career pathways.
Take girls for instance. Research from the University of Missouri shows that aptitude assessments help close the gender gap by uncovering womens’ aptitudes for careers typically dominated by men. Interest surveys tend to keep females from exploring careers in technology, construction and manufacturing even though the study showed more females have aptitudes for those careers than males.
But like interest inventories, there are some limitations with aptitude-only assessments:
- Interests aren’t considered. If the end goal is to find a best-fit career, interests do play a part. Working in a job where there’s absolutely no interest won’t lead to success.
- Most attitude assessments don’t measure soft or emotional skills. For example, punctuality, organizational skills, social skills. So aptitude tests alone might give an incomplete assessment of all-around competency.
- There is no measurement of how much a person knows about a particular field related to their career choice. Although with aptitude-based career guidance for secondary school, the goal is to guide test takers down a path to gain that knowledge, which makes this less of a disadvantage for secondary students.
Interest inventories alone aren’t enough
Most career quizzes and guidance tools rely solely on interests for career guidance and exploration — and that’s not enough. Interest alone doesn’t point students toward satisfying careers.
In fact, keeping students interested and engaged in education can be a problem.
Research shows that on average more than 1.2 million students drop out of high school each year. And for the 2018–2019 school year, only 88% of high school students graduated. Not only that, but 29% of students say they’re “not engaged,” while 24% say they’re “actively disengaged” in their education. The reason? Classes aren’t interesting and school isn’t relevant.
In college the numbers aren’t much better:
- 30% of first-year college students drop out their sophomore year
- 40% drop out as undergraduates
- 80% change their major at least once
Interest inventories alone won’t positively impact those statistics. They probably actually contribute to them. But helping students uncover both their natural talents and interests and then matching their results to education pathways and careers they’ll find success in, puts students on a pathway with purpose, direction and meaning.
Research from the University of Missouri showed that interest-only surveys steered 80% of students towards social and artistic careers, such as arts, entertainment, education and social work, and 0% to economically in-demand careers in architecture, engineering, IT and construction. But aptitude-based recommendations steered only 20% of students to social and artistic careers and 54% to in-demand careers. (See image below.)
Aptitudes and interests work together
While aptitudes-based career guidance aligns students with careers they’re naturally wired to do well at and find more satisfying. Interests are valid. And combining the results of an interest inventory with an aptitude test is an ideal way to guide students to rewarding careers.
Using students’ aptitudes and interests as the foundation for secondary and postsecondary schooling and career planning also gives meaning and purpose to what students are learning in the classroom. Students get the best of both worlds. They find what they’re interested in and learn what they’re good at and where the two come together.
Trisha Oksner, a career center technician at Central Coast New Tech High School in California says, “When I started my job, I learned about general interest inventories. The same ones that are used across the board where they find out what a student is interested in. Are you interested in building kitchen cabinets? Are you interested in learning about meteorology? Are you interested in…? And they do the 60 questions and then it comes up with careers. So, I thought, okay, I’m doing my job.
“Then once I learned about YouScience [an aptitude assessment] and thought, that’s good. I had a kid who came to me before YouScience who desperately wanted to be a brain surgeon. And then when we sat down it was like, I’m really not good at math or science. And so that’s kind of my benchmark example of saying, ’You like to do something but that doesn’t mean you’re any good at it.’ It’s where interest meets aptitudes to help map out a future.”
What is YouScience Discovery?
The YouScience Discovery aptitude assessment uses psychometrically-valid exercises to uncover natural students’ talents. Students see in-demand careers where their talents and earned YouScience certifications, if applicable, will empower natural success and satisfaction. It also shows students the education pathways to attain those careers — whether certifications or post-secondary schooling.
The Discovery assessment includes an interest inventory and personality profile to give students a comprehensive look at their talents, interpersonal style and work approach.
Students can find jobs and career paths they may not have known existed and can see why they’re learning what they’re learning. They find post-secondary school options and local employers with in-demand jobs at competitive wages who want and need their skills, education and aptitudes. They also access aptitude-based language to describe themselves on resumes, on college applications and in essays.
David Wilson, a computer science teacher from Chattanooga, Tennessee says, “From my perspective, YouScience provides a way to encourage kids that specifically plays to their strengths. It gives people who are teaching CTE [Career and Technical Education] an ability to know the students in front of them. It can drive instruction and help drive students’ personal direction of where they’re going in life. When it really comes down to it, we all want our students to be successful, but we’ve not listened to them and taken the time to get to know them in such a way that would help them define their own success. I think YouScience helps us do that.”
Both interest inventories and aptitude assessments on their own have advantages and offer some form of guidance. Given the option to choose only one, an aptitude assessment offers better education and career guidance than an interest inventory.
But together they provide an overall assessment that narrows in on natural talents and interests, helps keep students engaged and provides value and meaning to education that sets students up for a lifetime of success.
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