Purpose as a Framework for Post-Secondary Planning and Career Development

By Lia Falco

Purpose can infuse peoples’ lives with a heightened sense of motivation, relevance, and direction, especially if they are able to view school and community engagement as pathways to fulfilling occupational goals (Koshy & Mariano, 2011). In the current age of school accountability and reform, there is greater emphasis on college and career-readiness. But school counselors also can improve services related to college and career readiness by helping students identify their life’s purpose. Having a purpose can be highly motivating and encourage students to develop skills and persistence towards meaningful education, life, and career goals.


Listening for a Purpose

When counselors help students identify post-secondary occupational or career goals, they are creating the pathways through which purpose can develop. Career development interventions that foster students’ sense of purpose may be effective for changing short-term goals, such as remaining and succeeding in school, and for long-term goals like jobs or continued education after graduation (Yeager et al., 2014). In other words, when students find their life purpose, the effects are likely to spill over from the career development domain to the academic, personal, and social domains, as well.


But what does life purpose look like in K-12 students? How would school counselors know if students were considering their purpose? One strategy is to listen for statements beginning with the words “I want to.” For example, a student might say “I want to…” become a scientist, address racism, raise children, be a doctor, or go to the Olympics. Some students may communicate purpose as an occupational goal, whereas others may discuss other life goals. School counselors also can also listen for the specificity of the purpose, as this can link students’ current activities (schoolwork and extracurricular) with valued future interests. Helping students identify post-graduation goals to include not just what the student will do for a living but also who the student wants to become (and why) may bolster motivation and goal-directness in ways that more traditional approaches to post-secondary planning do not. Viewed this way, a given student’s purpose is both a process and an outcome of successful post-secondary planning and career development.


Implications for Practice

School counselors cannot give students a sense of purpose, but they can provide opportunities for purposeful engagement. Career exploration activities can help students make connections between their present experiences and their future work; and, career development strategies can help students clarify their purpose through the process of identifying goals. However, purpose-centered career development places more significant emphasis on identifying and connecting academic motivation and personal meaning to future career goals (Koshy & Mariano, 2011). For students contemplating their career purpose, this could mean seeing how work impacts others in the community. School counselors can show students how the knowledge they gain in school aligns with their post-secondary goals, and will be useful in the future to make an impact in the community and society.


The following are strategies for school counselors to help students make clearer connections between school, work, and their own sense of purpose:

  1. Provide opportunities to develop meaningful relationships. School counselors can talk with students about “who matters” and “who they want in their lives” and provide students with opportunities to develop meaningful relationships with others who might share a common purpose. This can be done in a variety of ways including connecting students with extracurricular activities, clubs, or student organizations that align with their interests and values. Locating or identifying individuals in the community who can serve in a mentoring capacity and pairing them with students is another way to support purpose.

  2. Help students articulate their values and beliefs. Career purpose can be made more explicit by utilizing existing values clarification exercises and career development activities to help students explore the motivations that underlie their career goals. Through discussion and fun activities school counselors can encourage students to articulate “who they want to become” as adults, and why. Such discussions will naturally lead students to consider the ways in which their work will impact others and contribute to society more broadly. They key here is to help students see pathways connecting work, meaning, and helping others. This, in turn, can foster a deeper sense of commitment towards short- and long-term goals.

  3. Help students identify their occupational and life goals. School counselors can help students identify purpose through narrative career counseling techniques. Activities using verbal, written, or even pictorial reflection on life goals is an opportunity to explore purpose. Specific questions and prompts that encourage students to think deeply about both near-and long-term goals can start the ball rolling. Then, the counselor can guide students in exploring their motivations for pursuing their goals, and to consider how their goals can be met through current endeavors.

  4. Encourage students to participate in service-learning. School counselors can both inform students of and model participation in community-based volunteer work. Identifying and deciding among alternatives in volunteering can spark meaningful conversations about who students might want to help, and why. Volunteer activities can be a springboard for civic engagement, and students might find mentors at community sites. School counselors can connect students to service-learning opportunities that support personally meaningful and prosocial goals for students. Following up and sitting with students as they identify and reflect on connections between volunteerism and their short-and long-term life goals can bring these experiences alive.


Emphasizing Purpose in Career Development Activities

Conversations between counselor educators and future school counselors should include the ways in which existing career development activities can emphasize purpose to help students achieve current and future career goals. Ultimately, purpose is motivating when K-12 students have a clearer understanding of these connections and are able to view their work, in school and beyond, as both personally meaningful and of consequence to the communities in which they live.



Koshy, S. I., & Mariano, J. M. (2011). Promoting youth purpose: A review of the literature. New Directions for Student Leadership, 2011(132), 13-29.


Yeager, D. S., Henderson, M. D., Paunesku, D., Walton, G. M., D’Mello, S., Spitzer, B. J., & Duckworth, A. L. (2014). Boring but important: A self-transcendent purpose for learning fosters academic self-regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(4), 559.


Lia FalcoLia D. Falco, Ph.D. (Educational Psychology) is an assistant professor of Counseling in the Disability & Psychoeducational Studies Department at the University of Arizona.  She is a certified school counselor in the state of Arizona and worked as a middle school counselor in the Amphitheater School District prior to completing her doctorate. Her expertise is in the area of career development with research that explores how adolescents view themselves as future workers and how career issues are related to aspects of motivation and identity. Her specific focus is STEM career choice, and her scholarship seeks to identify and evaluate educational practices that are effective at supporting students who are under-represented in STEM occupations. Dr. Falco has numerous peer-reviewed publications, and she regularly presents her work at national conferences such as ACA, NCDA, and AERA. In 2019, Dr. Falco was selected to become an Erasmus Circle Fellow. She can be reached at: ldf@email.arizona.edu


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1 Comment

Kathy Harris   on Tuesday 02/11/2020 at 01:43 PM

This was a refreshing article to read. Thank you Lia. We have wasted so much time slathering students with "who am I?" and "what are the education and work options?" information, without giving them any way to integrate it all so they can make an actual career decision about what to do next. I will add that we have a teachable framework that gives students the tools and skills they need to be able to do just that, and it starts with helping each one identify their unique primary driver - the thing that is the heart of finding meaningful work and education. The program also walks students through all the career decision-making steps needed to be able to 'pick and stick' with their choices for what to do next in their lives. They stick with those choices because they know that where they are headed is going to be a really good fit for them. It all starts with recognizing exactly what you've identified - the need to help students find personal purpose in their lives. Thank you again for bringing this to light!

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