Strengths as a “Career Compass”: Helping Undergraduate Students Navigate their Career Development through Strengths Awareness and Development

Krista M. Soria, Brooke Arnold, & Katy Hinz, University of Minnesota
Jeremy Williams, University of St. Thomas

Career development professionals in higher education institutions are increasingly implementing strengths-based approaches in their daily practice with undergraduate students (Janke, Sorenson, & Traynor, 2010; Reese & Miller, 2009; Soria & Stubblefield, 2014; Soria & Stubblefield in press-a, in press-b; Stebleton, 2010; Stebleton, Soria, & Albecker, 2012). One of the most well-known tools to help college students discover their strengths is the Clifton StrengthsFinder, an online assessment that identifies areas where an individual’s greatest potential for building strengths exists (Asplund, Lopez, Hodges, & Harter, 2009).  These identified areas, referred to as talent themes, are naturally-recurring patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors which, when refined with knowledge and skill, can be developed into strengths (Hodges & Harter, 2005). The StrengthsFinder assessment helps individuals to identify their personal five most salient talent themes out of 34 natural talent themes, often known colloquially as an individual’s “top five strengths.”

One of the fundamental principles underlying strengths-based perspectives in higher education is that college students who capitalize upon their best qualities will experience greater success in a variety of outcomes than if they spend time remediating their weaknesses (Clifton & Harter, 2003; Lopez & Louis, 2009). Scholars have contended that strength-based interventions in higher education promote college student engagement and retention because students who identify and apply their strengths in their lives will be more focused on their academic and career goals (Soria & Stubblefield, 2014; Stebleton, Soria, & Albecker, 2012). Yet, even as over one million college students in the United States have discovered their top five strengths and strengths-based approaches continue to gain steady momentum in colleges and universities, little research exists that empirically describes the benefits of strengths-based practices. In particular, little is known about the potential benefits of strengths-based approaches as a tool to elevate college students’ career exploration and career planning.  Therefore, the purpose of this study was to examine college students’ own perspectives on the utility of strengths-based approaches and strengths awareness in their career development.


In fall 2011, the Office of Student Engagement at a large, public research university located in the Midwest offered the StrengthsFinder assessment to all incoming first-year students at no charge. Before they arrived on campus for matriculation, 5,122 first-year students (amounting to 95.4% of the first-year class) took the online assessment and received their top five talent themes. All first-year students attended a strengths seminar during a weeklong concentration of programming prior to fall classes. Many first-year students also encountered strengths-related discussions in first-year seminar classes, housing and residential life offices, and in many other areas across campus. At the end of their first semester, all first-year students were invited to participate in an online survey measuring their strengths-related engagement across campus. To encourage participation, a lottery incentive was offered to participants, in the form of a chance to win one of four $25 university bookstore gift certificates. In the survey, students were asked to provide insights into how they had utilized their strengths within their first semester of study at the University.  These data were then used in the present study.


The student response rate for the survey was 27.8% (n = 1,493). White and female students were slightly overrepresented in this sample when compared with the first-year student population (which was 52.2% female and 75.4% White).  The sample was 61% female, 3% Black, 13% Asian, 1% Native American, 3% Hispanic, 4% international, and 76% White.

Data Analysis

In the survey, students responded to several essay questions, one of which asked students to “provide specific examples of where strengths has benefited your first-year experience at the University.” We used NVivo 10 software (QSR International, 2007) to categorize and code students’ responses to the survey item. Data were analyzed using in vivo, open, axial, and selective coding procedures (Creswell, 2007). In the process of integrating the data and refining the categories, central themes emerged that explained relationships among the data. Both codes and themes were sorted and reviewed for similarities and differences until the point of saturation: the point at which additional analysis does not offer any additional insight (Creswell, 2007). To enhance the credibility of our qualitative data analyses, we used direct quotes to authenticate the findings (Merriam, 2009). Codes and themes were verified by the authors, a step which enhanced the validity of the analyses (Creswell, 2007).


In analyzing the qualitative data, two key themes emerged that conveyed how some students perceived applications between strengths and their career exploration and development. The first theme described below conveys how strengths benefitted students’ career development by enhancing their self-awareness and increasing their career decision-making abilities. The second theme describes how students used their strengths self-awareness to obtain employment or engage in experiential opportunities. Collectively, these two broad themes suggest that strengths awareness enhances students’ self-awareness in ways that benefit areas related to short-term career opportunities and long-term career development pathways.

Using Strengths as a Compass in Career Development Decisions

In responding to the prompt asking students to cite specific examples of where strengths benefited their first-year experience, several students noted the applicability of strengths with regards to their career exploration.  For example, one student noted that he used strengths in “discovering what career path would fit me,” while another student reflected that strengths were useful with regards to “looking into my future career path.” A third student focused on the holistic benefits of strengths in career decision-making in stating:

Knowing my strengths gives me a good idea where I stand. I understood more about myself after the survey, and with some research, what kind of career would be good for me. I used them as the compass to discover the way I should be heading during my career.

In addition to discovering their top five strengths, students learned more about the types of work environments that would suit them best.  For example, one student wrote:

I realized that I don’t want to go into a job where I am doing basically the same thing every day. My top strength was “learner.” I knew that, but I never realized it or thought about it. My strengths helped me see that I really want/need to be in an occupation in which I am always learning and discovering new things.

Determining this student’s top five strengths improved this student’s ability to be more selective when pursuing jobs and their associated work environments.

While many students discussed how they were going to apply their strengths while making decisions along their career paths, several students also felt affirmed that they were already making appropriate career decisions after learning about their strengths.  For instance, one student noted that her strengths awareness “helped me to reassure myself in my chosen career/major path. My strengths fit my choice.”  Similarly, another student wrote, “It was helpful for affirmation that I’m looking at the right career paths.” These affirmations point toward an increase in students’ career decision-making abilities, as students became more confident that they were making the most appropriate career development decisions for themselves. In particular, one student’s reflection conveyed a deep understanding and application of strengths in consideration of a career path:

I would say that strengths has increased my self-awareness and has also reinforced some of my ideas about potential career paths. For example, my strengths: learner, intellection, input, restorative, and achiever fit my goal of becoming a doctor because it is necessary to be a lifelong learner, to be able to set and accomplish tasks, and to be able to solve problems.

Strengths gave these students the skills to help discover their career path, further their identity development as it relates to their chosen career, learn the environments where they work best, and reaffirm their career field choices.

Using Strengths to Obtain Jobs and Experiential Opportunities

Several students reported that they used their strengths in obtaining employment during their first year of study.  For example, one student noted, “My strengths were crucial in getting me the on campus job I wanted. My employer and I had a lengthy conversation about my strengths and how they could be applied in a job setting.” Likewise, another student wrote, “During my first interview, I told my manager about my strengths and how they are related to the job that I was applying to. She was very impressed.” One student effectively leveraged his awareness of strengths in a job interview.  He commented, “The question asked was, ‘if asked, what would your peers and professors say are your top traits or strengths?’ Because I knew what my top five strengths were, I answered the question with little difficulty.” These students interacted positively with employers through having knowledge of their strengths.

One student declared that he did not obtain the employment position to which he had applied.  However, the student’s positive attitude about his new-found strengths vocabulary helped him envision how he could reference his strengths in a future employment interview.  He stated:

It gave me a way to talk about my strengths and skills in a job interview on campus. I didn’t get the job, but they told me I was a strong candidate and actually recommended me to someone else searching for student workers. I think that having the vocabulary to talk about it helped me explain it better than I could on my own, which probably helped me make a good impression.

As in this student’s case, knowing how to verbalize strengths has the potential to open new career opportunities.

Beyond obtaining employment, students also related that they utilized their strengths in engaging in volunteer positions as well.  For example, one student noted she “was able to put some of my strengths on my application for the volunteer position of [Mascot] greeter, and I think the way I talked about how I could use those during my interview really helped get me the volunteer position.” Another student stated, “Strengths helped me during my job and volunteer position interviews.  I was able to discuss the strengths I would bring.”  Both of these students shared the benefit knowing strengths can bring to civic engagement-related positions.

Students frequently expressed learning specific ways in which they could use strengths in future job positions and in their future, long-term careers.  For example, several students noted that they listed their top five strengths on their resumes.  One student wrote, “I can point out strengths when employers ask, ‘What attributes will you bring to the table?’” Another student discussed future application within volunteering or employment: “It made me aware of what I might be better at doing, i.e. in a job or volunteering experience.” A third student projected her knowledge of how companies are utilizing strengths in their workplace as she envisioned being able to apply her strengths in those future contexts: “Knowing my strengths will help when I start applying to jobs because a lot of companies use strengths.”  Comparably, these students demonstrated the utility of using strengths both immediately and throughout their careers.

Discussion and Recommendations

The results of our qualitative data analyses suggest that many first-year college students saw great applicability of strengths awareness in their current employment searches, potential for post-college employment searches, and in serving as a compass to lead them on a career path that takes advantage of their natural talents. Overall, the use of strengths-related programming on this campus helped many students to enhance their self-awareness and career decision skills, in turn positively impacting their career development. The following paragraphs provide several recommendations that career development practitioners can utilize in their implementation of strengths-based approaches with college students.

First, we recommend that practitioners help students to gain an awareness of their strengths by encouraging them to take assessments to discover their strengths (e.g., the Clifton StrengthsFinder). Strengths-related conversations can begin by asking students to describe their strengths in their own words and think of examples of how they have utilized their strengths in the past.  Student affairs practitioners are also encouraged to discover their own strengths by taking the StrengthsFinder to facilitate connections with students and demonstrate how their own strengths are used in their professional practice (Soria & Stubblefield in press-a, in press-b).

Second, practitioners can help students to strategically use their strengths in a job search. When creating elevator pitches, resumes, and cover letters, students engage in powerful analysis when using their own words to describe in-depth examples of their strengths being utilized. For example, students could simply list their top five strengths on their resume or, to reflect upon their strengths on a deeper level, a career counselor could help students create bulleted action statements to help students discuss their the top five strengths without stating the StrengthsFinder themes.

Third, to take the strengths application a step further, career counselors can help students examine a job description and analyze how their strengths could be utilized in that role. As previously mentioned in student examples, students can seek job descriptions reaffirming their career path decisions and jobs with work environments more conducive to their strengths.  It is essential for career counselors to help students understand that their top five strengths do not necessarily equate to one specific job or career.  Instead, many strengths can be used for any job or career.  What matters most is how an individual maximizes his or her strengths to be successful in a specific role.

Last, strengths can be used for interview preparation.  Interview skills can be enhanced by career counselors asking students to create a chart with a list of experiences on the horizontal axis (e.g., work, volunteer, leadership in an organization, etc.) and their top five strengths on the vertical axis. In each box, students can identify examples of times they used their strengths in those experiences. By practicing those statements aloud, students will be more prepared for their interviews.

The StrengthsFinder assessment can be very useful for students as they plan their college experience and careers, particularly if they make their own meaning of the words and apply their strengths. The data from the survey shows that many students who took the assessment found the results helpful for choosing a career field, and when applying for jobs, interviewing for jobs, and engaging in other experiential opportunities.  These findings demonstrate the important role strengths can play in a student’s career development. Strengths can serve as a career compass to direct students on their path, and career counselors can facilitate this process by helping students make these connections.


In conclusion, the results of this brief qualitative report suggest that students see the potential for the applicability of strengths in their career development. In particular, students identified that knowing their strengths enhanced their self-awareness, contributed to their career decision-making abilities, and aided them in obtaining employment and experiential opportunities, thereby positively impacting their career development. We recommend that future researchers continue to examine the potential benefits of strengths-related approaches in higher education and that practitioners continue to develop new approaches to help students utilize their strengths in their career development.

Reflection Questions

  1. What do you think are some additional ways in which strengths awareness and strengths-based approaches can facilitate students’ development in higher education?
  2. How can you serve as a strengths-based practitioner in your daily work with undergraduate students?
  3. What are some alternative ways in which undergraduates can utilize strengths in their career development journeys?

About the Authors

Krista Soria is an analyst with the Office of Institutional Research at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests focus on understanding the experiences of underrepresented students on college campuses, developing high-impact practices to support students’ success, and leveraging opportunities to facilitate students’ leadership development. Krista is also an adjunct faculty with the leadership minor at the University of Minnesota, for the English department at Hamline University, for the educational leadership program at St. Mary’s University, and for the higher education administration program at St. Cloud State University.

Brooke Arnold works in the Carlson School of Management Undergraduate Program office at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.  As an academic adviser and career coach, she has the opportunity to help students discover, develop, and maximize their strengths during their collegiate experience and beyond.

Katy Hinz works in the Office for Student Engagement at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Prior to that she worked in career services and continues to be passionate about how to help students use their strengths in the career exploration and career planning process. 

Jeremy Williams has worked in multiple career fields over the last decade with the primary goal of helping people.  Currently, he is a second year graduate student in the Leadership in Student Affairs program at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. 


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.


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