The best careers advice is a few tough questions

If you want students to make sensible choices about their futures, the last thing they need is easy answers

We hear it from our students so often. Some cover their confusion in bravado or couch it as lofty claims and aspirations. Others cloak it in shy avoidance or quiet answers to probing questions. However they deal with it, all students worry about what awaits them once they have left compulsory education and the protective surroundings of school.

As teachers, we try to help. The temptation is to treat students as clients and to provide them with advice and answers that make them feel good about themselves and enable them to walk away with a list of universities, colleges, courses and suitable career pathway options.

Students and their parents might appreciate such a service, and the search tools and programmes available online or through school would certainly make it quick and easy for teachers to give. However, our goal is not to provide matchmaking assistance but to teach, educate and support students to make "good-fit" choices.

Hence I spend most of my time in careers advice sessions answering questions with other questions. I realise this can be frustrating for the students who come to me for help. One even swore at me during one of our conversations, saying that he had come to me for answers, not more questions.

However, as I often explain to both students and their parents, I do not have a crystal ball in which I can see the future and what will make them happy. I emphasise that they are the experts when it comes to their own happiness and satisfaction, and that they should be mapping out their futures.

Nevertheless, we are here to guide them with any or all issues that come up as they plan and explore possibilities. We should attempt to do this in three ways.

1 Know yourself

There is no substitute for self-knowledge. A student needs a good sense of their abilities, interests and preferences. In other words, help them to look closely and realistically in the mirror, to grow towards a sound and appropriate self-image. For some, that is a reality check; for others, it is putting wind into their sails as they gain confidence.

2 Define goals

What is important for a student in the long term? We need to help them link core values to personal goals and career objectives. They also need to appreciate why certain areas have particular requirements - for example, why it is helpful to be good at maths in order to stand a good chance of succeeding at medicine.

3 Put 1 and 2 together

The two previous elements need to be brought together into decisions related to subject choices for post-14 and post-16, and for university, college and course choices for post-18.

Although the discussions that ensue will be unique to each student, the aim for those of us trying to guide them will be the same: to help young people make "good-fit" decisions. The following are two examples of the strategy in action.

Abby, a Year 10 (13- to 14-year-old) student, came to see me with her parents. She told me that she was interested in studying medicine at university and asked me where she should apply and what she should do to prepare. I replied: "I believe that there are three key facets of being a good doctor. What do you think they are?"

About 10 minutes and 15 or so open-ended questions later, Abby had decided that a strong scientific ability, a warm and compassionate character, and strong commitment and motivation were important. I then asked her how she could better prepare and she suggested that getting involved in volunteer work and spending some time shadowing doctors to find out more about the profession would be important.

Henry, meanwhile, was a Year 12 (16- to 17-year-old) student whose mother had written several emails to ask if he could switch from studying economics to film. He wanted to know whether the change would affect his application to study law at university.

After I questioned Henry about what skills he thought were needed to study law, it became obvious that he was considering a switch only because his mother thought it would more easily secure him the grades he needed in order to get into a "famous" institution to study a course that she wanted him to study.

I asked Henry if life was about doing what others wanted, fulfilling responsibilities or making the most of one's talents and passions. After considering all this, he decided to make the change, not to please his mother but because he wanted to spend more time studying film. In eight months' time, he may even apply to study it at university.

It is important that this three-step approach filters through education. Simply being an expert on university, college and course requirements is not enough. Being passionate about helping students towards mature, well-reasoned and researched decisions about what is right for them is the key.

Patrick Campbell is a careers and higher education coordinator at an international school in Hong Kong

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