How to talk to your career guidance counsellor

Do your homework first then ask questions tailored to you and your circumstances

Career guidance is crucial for students who are weighing up their choices about what course to do. Photograph: iStock

Career guidance is crucial for students who are weighing up their choices about what course to do. Photograph: iStock


Download a pdf of the Higher Options 2018 floorplan here.

Choosing a college course is a big decision. Are you choosing a degree, or choosing a career? What if you don’t know what you want to do?

Career guidance is crucial for students who are weighing up their choices, but many students will only get a short session with the school guidance counsellor – so how can they make the most of it?

“All schools are different but most will have careers classes in transition year and fifth year,” says Alice O’Connor, a career guidance teacher at Stepaside Educate Together Secondary School in south Co Dublin. “Sometimes, the students will know the teacher and other times they may not have encountered them much before. Depending on the school and the available resources, they may only have one session with the student, so it’s wise to use it well.”

The conversations about careers often start at home when young people talk with parents or siblings, says O’Connor. Other times it can be first broached in the classroom. “During these few years, there will be a lot of exploring. Who are they? What do they like in school? What do they want from the working world and from their community?”

Guidance counsellors are always there in the background to offer support, says Betty McLaughlin, a guidance counsellor at Coláiste Mhuire CBS Mullingar and a former president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors. “We can monitor a student’s progress, see where they are doing well in school and help them identify what is best for their future.”

By fifth year, students will have already made their Leaving Cert subjects choices, which can already be a good indicator of the college courses that might interest them, suggests O’Connor. “This often happens with the aid of psychometric tests, including the Cambridge profile test which assesses their ability and interest in different subject areas. By the time students get into fifth year, they’ve often forgotten about these tests but there is so much valuable information in there, so it’s a good idea to look at them again.”

McLaughlin agrees that these tests can be useful, and advises students to take a look at the interest assessment on “I ask them what their favourite subjects are and whether they meet the entry requirements for particular courses: if, for instance, they haven’t taken chemistry, they won’t be eligible to apply for the veterinary medicine course. And they need to have an affinity for animals.”

O’Connor encourages students to look beyond the name of the course and delve into the content of its various modules. If they’re not interested in, for instance, maths or science courses, it may not be wise to pick a science or maths-heavy course. Take a serious look at apprenticeships and courses in further education which may be a good use of a year for students who are unsure about committing to a four-year degree. Look at courses in the UK through and in Europe through

Consider practicalities

Students need to consider practicalities: that course in UCD may not be as ideal as it seems if you’re travelling from north Co Dublin every day. The guidance counsellor can also help them see if they are eligible for the Hear (higher education access route – for people from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds) and Dare (disability access route to education).

Parents or guardians and siblings can be a powerful and supportive influence but, occasionally, their advice isn’t helpful. “If parents or guardians have a set idea about college and the young person wants to do a trade, I encourage the parents to take a step back and see that the child has to follow their dream. There’s no cap on education so they can always return to college in a few years if they want to.”

She advises students with an interest in apprenticeships to talk to their guidance counsellor, who can direct them to sources of information.

“They can be well-meaning but direct students towards ‘sensible’ career choices, whereas it is really important that the student makes their own decision and chooses a course that really interests them,” says O’Connor. “Working with parents, it is our job to empower young people and give them the independence and autonomy they need in a supported way.

“I encourage students to go to the open days of the colleges that they’re particularly interested in,” she adds. “My door is always open and it’s really important for a guidance counsellor to be visible and to check in with the students.”

When it comes to careers, a guidance counsellor’s main role may not be to make decisions for the student but to act as a sounding board: sometimes, talking about your options with a trained professional can help clarify your thoughts.

“We can’t make their decision for them,” says O’Connor. “If they have all the information they need, which they’ll have received through career classes, one-on-one appointments, talks by visitors to the school, aptitude tests, open days and conversations at home, that is as much hand-holding as we can do. Teenagers are often written off as not knowing what is good for them, but they deserve more credit than that. Once they are empowered to believe in themselves, they can make informed and confident decisions.”

Arrive armed: do your research

Students should have done at least some research before they talk to their guidance counsellor, says Ronan Kennedy, an independent careers coach.

“We all want someone to give us the answers but ideally, they will know what they want to ask. It’s ideal if you know your concerns and questions going in there. If you sit down and read a few articles or watch a few videos, you’ll fairly quickly have an idea of whether the subject interests you or not; look up videos on YouTube or TedX, or check some of the material on Coursera. Does it interest you or are you itching for the videos to be over? Next you need to ask: what sort of jobs could the course potentially lead to and are you interested in them?”

Talk to professionals working in the area if you can at all, says Kennedy. “Another option is to drop into one of the lectures and sit at the back, so you can get a flavour of what to expect. If it turns out that you’ve wasted an hour of your time, isn’t that better than wasting four years?”

He strongly urges students to look beyond the CAO and to consider apprenticeships and further-education courses, and not to assume that university necessarily leads to the best paid-jobs.

“When you do have that appointment, make use of it. You won’t be wasting time on basic questions you can easily find answers to; you’ll be asking questions tailored to you and your circumstances. It may be about finding out where you can find information: will this certificate in business studies lead to a degree? Where do I find out about course requirements?”

The four-point plan

Roisin O’Donoghue, guidance counsellor at Belvedere College, a fee-paying school in Dublin city, says career guidance in her school centres on four main aspects.

1. Know yourself: Be aware of what motivates you: is it money, or creativity? What interests you. Use the free resources on to help you figure this out.

2. Explore your options: Your career guidance teacher is a useful resource, as is the Higher Options conference, college open days, and websites including, and, as well as the websites of individual third-levels and colleges of further education.

3. Focus: Going into sixth year, O’Donohue sits down with students and asks what they hope to achieve. One-on-one guidance follows, with a look at how they are doing in school, a study plan and a list of options

4. Action: Make applications for CAO, UCAS, Eunicas, Hear or Dare. Check eligibility for the Susi grant.

Guidance counsellors and mental health

Guidance councillors do so much more than help students make course and career choices. They also provide a crucial mental-health support in a time when anxiety and mental illness is rising among young people. Indeed, choosing the right career pathway may be particularly challenging for students who don’t feel well in themselves. But, for some, approaching the guidance counsellor to talk about mental-health issues can be daunting. What do you say? How much is confidential and how much can be disclosed to a parent or guardian? And what sort of supports can they offer?

Shane Moran is a counselling psychologist, teacher and chaplain at Largy College in Monaghan. He has more than 20 years’ experience in education and is the author of The Clouds that can Surround a School, which looks at how teachers and educators can respond to major incidents in the school, especially the death of a student or member of the school community. He says schools increasingly take well-being into account and that most schools now have a well-being team comprised of chaplains, home/school liaison officers, guidance counsellors, the principal and year heads.

“Every student should know who is on that pastoral care team and they should ideally have one good strong adult, apart from their parents, who they know they can approach for help. This could be the guidance counsellor, but it could also be the PE or maths teacher that they particularly like. Every member of staff should be open to supporting the student in any context. They might just be a bit stressed and need that extra support, or they might need to be directed to the chaplain or guidance counsellor. If a young person is suffering clinically, we need to put in place whatever formal support is necessary. Nine out of 10 times, they can be helped and supported in the school, but that other time, we may need to refer to them for external help and support.”

What are young people going to their guidance counsellors about? “The main issues we see are anxiety, low mood, and school refusal where a young person, often out of the blue, stops going to school. It is not for me to diagnose depression but I would estimate that around half of anxiety or low mood can be addressed though school counselling in partnership with the year head or parents, while the other half may need to be addressed through the GP or the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service.”

There is no absolute confidentiality when it comes to under-18s, says Moran. “We are legally obliged to report child-abuse incidents or allegations. If they’re suffering from anxiety, the root cause may be at home, so the parents might need to be informed. So I don’t promise confidentiality but I do promise to support and help.”

One fifth year student who was concerned about his mental health, but who wanted to remain anonymous, worked around the confidentiality issue by telling the guidance counsellor he was “worried about a friend and looking for some advice”. He says the guidance teacher may have suspected he was talking about himself, but that he was able to get the advice he needed and, later, trusted the guidance teacher enough to disclose the full truth.

The help is there, says Moran, and with the pressure of exams and making important career choices, it’s always a good idea to talk to a trusted adult in your school before it gets on top of you.

- The Samaritans offer a free and confidential listening service. They can be contacted on 116 123, by text on 087 260 9090 or by email:

- Jigsaw provides a free mental-health and counselling service for young people. See for information.

Career websites The national careers guidance website with information on careers, courses and the labour market as well as a range of assessment tools and testimonials, useful links and a guidance helpline. A comprehensive and accessible site for looking up information on courses. a very useful source of information on PLC courses and all courses in the further- and adult-education sectors. details of the apprenticeship options available and how to go about securing them.