Colleges try to give career advice by virtual inkblot test

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A new company is updating the idea of using an inkblot test to help college students choose a career.

Researchers at the company, Woofound Inc., have built an application for students that uses their reactions to a series of images to predict their personalities and to suggest careers tailored to their preferences. The creators also plan to have the application suggest what degrees they should pursue and what extracurricular activities they should join.

The project is part of a wave of technology applications that colleges are testing to help track students into fields that fit their interests.

While using the Woofound Career Module, students sift through 84 slides of images with words associated, such as a picture of a tent along with the word “camping,” or a picture of a man painting along with the phrase “creative expression.” Students click either “Me” or “Not Me” in response to each image.

After students make all of their selections, the application returns a list of seven possible personality categories. For instance, “inventors” are “creative and take an ‘out of the box’ approach to work,” while “action-takers” are “hands-on-doers.”

Based on the chosen categories, an algorithm matches the students with careers they might be interested in. The site then gives them information on what each career entails. The team working on the project plans to provide a list of majors, course offerings, and extracurricular activities specific to the student’s campus that correspond to the careers the application suggests.

In a sense, the process resembles a high-tech Rorschach test, a psychological tool, dating to the 1920s, that uses interpretations of inkblots to gauge personality types.

Woofound has formed partnerships with the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and Towson University, which will roll out the application in September. UMBC is getting a free trial of the service, but the company says it is still figuring out how much it will charge colleges.

Jack J. Suess, UMBC’s vice president for information technology, says he thinks the application will be much more useful to students than the 100-question tests the university has used in the past to assess students’ career interests. He says he hopes most students will use the service and then follow up with traditional career-counseling services on the campus.

“What we saw in this was that it was easy enough and fun to use that we could get more students using this,” he says. “The earlier we can get them engaged, the more likely we are to get them internships and building online résumés.”

Hal Ashman, Woofound’s chief business officer, says he sees demand among colleges to find ways to track students into good career paths early to improve retention rates and reduce the time spent in college. Applications such as Woofound’s could save time and money for students, parents, and institutions, he says.

But some experts are concerned about applications like Woofound’s, which they fear will not predict good careers for students.

“There are good grounds to be profoundly skeptical,” says Palmer Morrel-Samuels, a lecturer in research methods at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor’s School of Public Health. “An enormous body of good literature shows that tests like this do a dreadful job of predicting actual behavior.”

Colleges should leave it up to students to figure out their career goals, says Mr. Morrel-Samuels, who is also president of the Workplace Research Foundation and has created surveys for businesses to assess their employees.

Ethicists have also raised concerns that such technology could replace the personal touch offered by human advisers.

Dan Sines, a co-founder of Woofound, argues that the application will give students more opportunities to discover new fields of study. “This is a tool for students,” he says, “that broadens their options and opens that door to new things.”

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