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Art Esposito, NACADA Commission on Undeclared & Exploratory Student Advising Chair

ArtEsposito.jpgOne of the first questions undeclared/exploratory students ask is whether there is a personality test they can take to help them select a major. There are, in fact, many such tools, although an argument can be made against their unqualified use: matching a student’s personality with a major is far too teacher-centered and not in keeping with academic advising as a teaching activity.

Those engaging in career advising through the use of Holland’s Career Theory—one of many assessment platforms available in the field of undecided/exploratory and career advising—can help students match their three-letter Holland Code to majors and/or careers. However, some assertions that Holland’s theory prescribes matches between codes, majors, and/or careers are misleading. Further, when we focus on students’ deductive and holistic research into their own multi-facetted set of reasonable sensibilities, we shift from an advisor-focused process to a learning-centered model.

Two definitions are helpful to our discussion:

Reasonable, adj

 1. Governed by or being in accordance with reason or sound thinking: a reasonable solution to the problem (American Heritage, 2003).

 Sensibility, pl. n. sen·si·bil·i·ties

 1. Mental or emotional responsiveness toward something, such as the feelings of another.

2. The quality of being affected by changes in the environment (American Heritage, 2003).

With these definitions in mind, we can view personality traits referred to in Holland’s theory as students’ reasonable sensibilities. In so doing, we empower students to understand their reactions to academic subject matter and world of work realities not as genetic programming beyond their control, but as critical thought-based responsiveness to external stimuli. This less prescriptive approach also allows us to encourage students to identify their own meaning in education and career choices. Students will display a greater sense of ownership of their decisions, and enjoy greater connection to their selected majors, rather than struggling through programs of study selected under the pressure of external definitions (i.e. parental/familial influence).

John Holland’s career theory indicates a connection between personality and environment that makes his RIASEC codes effective for classifying personality traits, majors, and work environments (Holland, 1997). Many assessment tools use surveys to identify students’ personality types as either Realistic (R), Investigative (I), Artistic (A), Social (S), Enterprising (E), or Conventional (C), thereby claiming to identify for students the best ‘fit’ for college major or career field. And while many, including Holland, appreciate that most individuals represent more than one of the six personality types, the use of the RIASEC indicators is strictly applied to disciplines of study and occupations. An example of this is that most Holland-based assessment tools indicate that Investigative disciplines are limited to science and technology fields, suggesting these as the best disciplines for students with a high number of traits in the “I” category. Likewise, majors and careers labeled as Artistic often are limited to applied arts fields—this all but disavows creativity within science fields and investigation in humanities and liberal arts-based programs.

 Virginia Commonwealth University’s Discovery Advising program focuses solely on advising undeclared and exploratory students. The program has found success encouraging students to treat these assessment data as a jumping off point rather than a prescribed conclusion on the question of major selection. Discovery advisors encourage students to identify what the data are indicating and how they, the students, personally express the suggested temperaments. By doing this, Discovery advisors allow students to identify not only that they process external stimuli a certain way, but also why and how their behavior represents the results of the assessments. This also allows students to identify how their way of responding to certain situations may fit within one major as opposed to another, thereby identifying their 'best fit' for a major from a personal or learner-centered perspective.

In his NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources article on Transformative Theory and Undeclared/Exploratory Students (2009), Kerry Kincanon observed the importance of transformation and self-authorship in the advising process. By citing such authors as Frier, Keegan, Mezirow and Baxter Magolda (to name but a few of a terrific number of sources cited in the piece), Kincanon reminds us that these authors have long indicated the importance of situating learning in students’ experiences, thus empowering students to reflect about their experiences, goals, and values, and encouraging them to self-author meaning for their educational experiences. When we encourage students to define their own meaning from Holland theory observations, rather than prescribing meaning for them, we guide students to self-authorship, we challenge them to derive deeper meaning from their choice of major, and thereby improve their chances of academic success and persistence.

Pizzolato (2006) indicated that self-authored students will not blindly follow parental expectations or request advisors to tell them which major to select. It seems counter-intuitive to expect such students to simply follow the sometimes narrowly defined recommendations of assessment instruments when making education planning decisions such as major choice. Specific to major exploration, we can strip away prescriptive observations by encouraging students to identify how they personally display characteristics of any of the six Holland types. Just as self-authorship encourages defining one’s own meaning, so should we encourage students to identify their own reasonable sensibilities and decide which of their multiple facets they choose to pursue in degree programs that bear the same indicators.

When we encourage students to understand how they uniquely represent aspects of the Holland Codes in their reasonable sensibilities, we empower them to not only make thoughtful decisions about their major, but to become self-authored and more thorough decision makers in every aspect of their education.

Art Esposito
Director of Discovery Advising
Virginia Commonwealth University
[email protected]


Holland, J. L. (1997). Making vocational choices: a theory of vocational personalities and work environments. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.

Kincanon, K. (2009). Translating the Transformative: Applying Transformational and Self-Authorship Pedagogy to Advising Undecided/Exploring Students. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources:www.nacada.ksu.edu/Clearinghouse/AdvisingIssues/Transformative-Theory.htm

Pizzolato, J. (2006). Complex partnerships: self-authorship and provocative academic advising practices. NACADA Journal 26(1), 32-45.

reasonable. (2003). The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.  Retrieved from www.thefreedictionary.com/reasonable

sensibility. (2003). The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.  Retrieved from www.thefreedictionary.com/sensibilities

Cite this article using APA style as: Esposito, A. (2011, September). Holland revisited: A self-authored approach to major exploration. Academic Advising Today, 34(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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