Card Sorts

Card sorts are nonstandardized and subjective assessments commonly used in career counseling to help clients clarify their skills and career interests. This entry provides descriptions of the history and varieties of vocational card sorts (VCSs), research findings, and the advantages of using card sorts in career counseling.

Card Sorts Overview

In this type of assessment, clients typically sort between 30 and 40 cards of various themes or ideas into categories as a way to develop personal or career-related priorities and, as they do so, themes tend to emerge. It is preferable for clients to identify patterns within the sorted categories themselves so that the themes are personally relevant to them. Card sorts are sometimes preferable to more standardized assessments because the information gathered therein is done so informally and through client speech. Therefore, clients are actively engaged in the process of self-awareness. Additionally, through this process counselors can see firsthand how clients organize thoughts and ideas, as the success of the exercise is dependent on the client’s ability to engage in the process and recognize and explore patterns or themes.

Any set of ideas may be examined through use of a VCS, including career values, occupations or occupational titles, skills, or college majors. Counselors may also create their own collection of items to reflect a particular theme. The exercise of clients sorting and prioritizing the items within the particular category appears to be critical to the process. In doing so, the client makes decisions about items relative to one another and expresses his or her reasons for doing so. In working with clients, counselors may offer a more structured setting in which, for example, the client generates a list of occupations to explore. Alternately, the card sort exercise may serve as a springboard for discussion, thus providing ample room for dialogue in a less structured setting. In this way, card sorts can be customized to the needs of a particular client.

Card Sorts Research

Leona Tyler was the first to describe the VCS in the literature and to provide empirical evidence for their utility. In relation to vocational inventories, such as the Strong Interest Inventory (Strong) or Self-Directed Search (SDS), research on the VCS has received exponentially less attention. This is likely due to many reasons, but most importantly it is because testing a client’s interests or skills using inventories preceded the development of card sorts and because inventories as a whole are considered more “research friendly.” Card sorts most often need to be completed in the presence of a trained counselor, while inventories can be taken away from the counseling setting, scores can be computed electronically, and inventories such as the Strong and SDS have been validated with thousands of individuals across decades of research.

The research that has been completed on the VCS has mostly related card sort outcomes to vocational inventory outcomes. In a recent review of the literature, studies have shown that clients indicate interest in similar occupations whether a VCS or a vocational inventory is used. Thus, according to this limited body of research, card sorts have appeared to be as valid in determining vocational preferences as inventories.

The degree to which card sorts are helpful with various types of counseling clients has also been researched. For example, a number of studies have separated participants based on levels of career indecision and then had them complete a VCS. Clients who are the most undecided have been consistently found to benefit most from the card sort technique.

Finally, a number of individual studies have been completed with VCSs on various topics. For example, one study found using a VCS with career clients to be a good method of evaluating clients’ knowledge of the world of work and the status of their career development. Other studies have found that the card sort method works equally as effectively with students in both high school and college, and that a VCS may work particularly well with students who have a flat Strong profile.

One of the most widely used and researched card sorts today is the Missouri Occupational Card Sort. Developed for use with undecided college students at a large university, clients learn about themselves through the Holland classification system of personalities and environments. Job tasks and responsibilities are also included on the cards to help clients learn more about each occupation as the cards are sorted.

Although research on VCSs is limited, card sorts have been found to be equally as valid as vocational inventories and to be particularly useful for clients at the beginning stages of their career exploration. These findings may serve to influence the use of card sorts in career counseling practice.

Card Sorts Advantages in Counseling

Card sorts are one of the techniques career counselors use to help clients clarify their skills, values, and occupational interests. Card sorts are believed to be as effective as standardized assessments in predicting career choice; but because they are subjective in nature and do not produce scores or have norms, their effectiveness depends on the counselor’s ability to help the client gain insights and ideas from the results. Card sorts have a number of advantages that make them a valuable tool to use either in place of or in addition to standardized assessments, depending on each client’s individual needs. Their advantages are summarized here:

  • The short phrases used in card sorts can be more easily read by clients with learning disabilities than checklists often used in paper or computerized assessments.
  • The card process can be energizing and engaging because it allows clients to be actively involved in choosing their responses.
  • Because of their semistructured nature, card sorts can be modified to meet individual client’s needs and used at any point during the counseling process, either as a stand-alone approach or to supplement standardized assessments.
  • Card sorts allow for interaction and dialogue between the client and counselor, which can aid in establishing rapport and provide counselors with the opportunity to discuss the rationale for a client’s choices. Insights about the client’s thought processes can be helpful in interpreting results of standardized assessments. In addition, viewing the process whereby a client chooses responses, such as the speed or number of changes made in sorting the cards, can be just as revealing as the responses themselves.
  • The results are not dependant upon comparison to a norm group, and therefore clients can attach their own individual meaning to card items and apply the results to their needs. Knowing how a client interprets card items can be helpful in understanding his or her worldview and the context in which the client is making decisions. This knowledge can be helpful in working with clients of diverse backgrounds and can give counselors insights about confounding problems interfering with the client’s ability to make decisions.
  • Card sorts are nonthreatening to individuals who might be wary of standardized tests. In addition, because card items can be moved from one pile to another, clients do not need to be concerned about giving a right or wrong answer, as they might be on a standardized test.

Additional Advantages of Card Sorts

Card sorts may provide clients with the necessary structure to take risks and/or engage in the counseling session. Additionally, collaborating on a task like the card sort may contribute to the formation of the therapeutic relationship and the provision of feedback within the session. Relatedly, counselors may gain insight into clients’ cognitive organization by observing how the sorting exercise is conducted and may identify occupational stereotypes or clients’ misconceptions about themselves. Moreover, the active nature of the card sort exercise helps to keep the focus on the client and her or his perceptions, thereby minimizing the risk of becoming overly dependent on the counselor. Because card sorts are nonstandardized, they do not rely on statistical data or norm groups. They are flexible and can be adapted to clients from varying backgrounds. Finally, because of the active nature of the process, some researchers have theorized that clients engaged in a card sort may increase their decision-making self-efficacy more than clients who take standardized career assessments.


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  7. Tyler, L. E. (1961). Research explorations in the realm of choice. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 8, 195-202.

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