Why Career Exploration Matters for Middle School Students

By Richard Wong

Career exploration begins during early childhood and extends into adulthood. The earlier that an individual is able to begin this process, the sooner they are able to establish their sense of identity in the world of work. Career professionals can assist the exploration through community engagement, use of career inventories and other tools. Working in collaboration with school counselors, the career professional can aid middle school students in exploring careers.

Career exploration is a process of learning about oneself and the world of work, identifying potential careers, and developing a strategy for realizing education and career goals (Association for Career and Technical Education, 2018). Young people can be curious as early as grade school about what they want to be when they grow up. This curiosity about their future can help establish their sense of identity in the world of work. The capacity to get pleasure from work and their role as a worker can prepare young people to achieve enhanced wellbeing later in life. Additionally, understanding the types of work that are available and to be able to draw pleasure from that work is necessary to one’s wellbeing because working and working well in a job is at the center of adult life (Porfeli & Lee, 2012).

The growth and exploration stages of career development is most developmentally appropriate for middle school students (Godbey & Gordon, 2019). Donald Super (1957) argues that “adolescence is clearly a period of exploration. It is a period in which boys and girls explore the society in which they live, the subculture into which they are about to move, the roles they may be called upon to play, and the opportunities to play roles which are congenial to their personalities, interests, and aptitudes” (p.81). Therefore, it is important for career professionals to understand the nature of career development for this population, the benefits of starting early with career exploration, the barriers that may arise n, and the strategies and best practices for career development and planning.

Photo By Dieu Huyen Hoang On Unsplash
Defining the Middle School Student

For various reasons, middle school is a natural yet challenging time for young people to explore careers and gain valuable skills that will help them be successful in their life.

  • It is a time of transition where their experiences have a strong influence on their academic success and preparation for life after high school.
  • Middle school students are at a higher risk for disengaging from learning as they face challenges in forming identity, coping with puberty, and navigating new environments.
  • Students may have unrealistic career plans and limited knowledge about the demands of the work-place.
  • During this period their brains are receptive to developing critical thinking, adaptability, problem solving, oral and written communications, collaboration, creativity, responsibility, professionalism, ethics, and technology use (Association for Career and Technical Education, 2018).


Benefits of Career Exploration

  • It will improve their attitudes about career possibilities and will motivate them to persevere to achieve their career goals.
  • They will have a better vision of how they fit into the world of work.
  • They will be more likely to plan their high school courses of study and gain the skills needed to be successful in their career choice.
  • It will increase the likelihood that they complete high school and pursue college (America’s Promise Alliance, 2019).


Barriers to Career Exploration

  • Federal funding for middle school is lower than for post-secondary school.
  • Federal funding is more likely to go to high schools than to middle schools.
  • Increases in focus on test scores lead to some schools reducing electives such as career exploration courses.
  • Limited number of counselors in middle schools to support students.


How Career Professionals Can Help

Recommendations for career professionals facing these barriers are to be flexible and creative, engage with parents and school administrators, and collaborate with local business and community leaders for support. Career exploration activities that focus on growth and development can be an effective method for career advancement. For example, students who participate in career guidance and career courses demonstrate greater knowledge of jobs, higher self-esteem and better grades, and are engaged more in career and academic planning (Association for Career and Technical Education, 2018). It is essential to the career development process for career professionals to facilitate the students' interests and abilities. One way to do this, is by engaging young people in Career and Technical Education (CTE). According to a study that compared CTE and non-CTE students as they transitioned into postsecondary education, CTE students were more likely to say that they developed a clear career goal (Association for Career and Technical Education, 2018). Below are helpful activities and strategies that career professionals can use to advance middle school students' career exploration.

Career Development Activities and Strategies

  • Completing interest inventories, creating resumes and cover letters, discussing postsecondary options, and setting goals.
  • Developing their knowledge and skills by working on a project, problem, or question with real-world relevance.
  • Developing employability skills with the emphasis on motivating students to develop work habits, interpersonal, communication, and social skills.
  • Incorporate career-related project-based learning in the classroom, design projects and activities to develop employability skills.
  • Offer year-long programs, or a full semester course, and utilize virtual platforms for learning.
  • Develop project-base activities that are relevant, meaningful, and engage students in learning about careers that are of interest to students.
  • Collaborate with established career centers to assist with creation of career exploration courses.


Pivotal Point for Middle Schoolers

Preparing young people for lifelong career development tasks like career exploration is pivotal to their future success in the modern economy. Acknowledging this significance, along with the challenges is the first step, which is followed by appropriate activities and strategies. Career providers need to keep in mind that career exploration interventions will need to help young people think broadly about their interests and abilities and the range of suitable careers to facilitate further exploration into the world of work.



America’s Promise Alliance. (2019). Why career exploration matters. https://www.americaspromise.org/why-career-exploration-matters

Association for Career and Technical Education. (2018). Career exploration in middle school: Setting students on the path to success. https://www.acteonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/ACTE_CC_Paper_FINAL.pdf

Godbey, S., & Gordon, H. R. (2019). Career exploration at the middle school level: Barriers and opportunities. Middle Grades Review, 5(2), 2.

Porfeli, E. J., & Lee, B. (2012). Career development during childhood and adolescence. New directions for youth development, 2012(134), 11-22.

Super, D. E. (1957). The psychology of careers: An introduction to vocational development. Harper & Row.


Richard WongRichard Wong, LPC, is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice providing mental health and career counseling.He can be reached at email: Practicesociety@outlook.com

Printer-Friendly Version


Asha Stapley   on Thursday 03/03/2022 at 06:51 PM

Wonderful insight for this population and their needs!

Richard Wong   on Friday 03/04/2022 at 08:41 PM

Thank you Asha! I hope this will be helpful.

Terrisa Duenas   on Saturday 11/19/2022 at 09:33 AM

In addition to the other comment, what a concise and needed summary to guide career exploration for middle schoolers. Thank you for your work!

Bonn Wade   on Tuesday 06/13/2023 at 11:22 PM

Great article! Thank you for doing the research/writing on this one! I'm a social worker/therapist and in my other world as a parent, I volunteer at my child's elementary school! This will be helpful in thinking thru career day next year!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.