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5 Questions to Ask a Career Counselor (Before Handing over Your Hard-Earned Cash)

Clouds formed in the shape of question marks.

So you read our post about working with a career counselor, asked yourself the questions, and you decided you want to take the counseling plunge. Good on you!

Now get ready for some more questions.

Once you've identified a counselor or two you're interested in working with, how can you "test them out?" What questions should you ask to gain confidence that the relationship will work for you? What should you keep in mind as the process goes along? Here are a few questions to get you started:

Is it possible for us to have an introductory meeting before working together?

A great way to gauge early on if your counselor will be worth his or her salt is to get their take on the introductory and matchmaking processes. A real professional will want you to be clear about what you want and expect from the counseling process, and will likely also wish to establish that the two of you have a nice rapport and will enjoy working together on a personal level.

To this end, many counselors will kick off your correspondence by offering a free, no-strings-attached introductory phone conversation or brief in-person meeting where both of you can feel things out. If they don't, ask for it. If they're not willing to take the time to make your acquaintance gratis, it might be time to move on.

Can you tell me a bit more about your....

Aside from staying tuned to your nonverbal gut feelings about the person (anyone who gives you the creeps right off the bat must go!), consider questions like the following:

- ...outcomes? Are they promising too much (like 'Your dream job in six weeks, guaranteed!')? Career counseling is a personal, gradual process; it's best not to go with anyone who's in a hurry to sign you up or take your dough.

- ...professional outlook? It's important that your career counselor shares your professional outlook. For example, if you're more passionate about working for social change than cashing huge paychecks, you'll want to get with a counselor who "gets it" and doesn't keep asking how you'll afford that second Mercedes on your nonprofit salary.

- ....process/approach to your work? If they don't detail it outright (which they should), make sure you ask how the counselor works, and make sure their answer sounds logical and appealing to you. When my counselor offered an explanation of her process during our initial phone call (in a nutshell: "We'll talk and do some testing to identify major trends in your personality, then match your likes and strengths to jobs that require those aptitudes"), I thought, "Bingo! That's exactly what I need."

As we go along, what should I keep in mind to know I'm on the right track?

Because my head was in such a quagmire when I started career counseling, I came away from a few sessions thinking, "This is still confusing; why don't I have answers yet?" (Really, sometimes I felt like Bert and Ernie with the banana phone: "Hello? Is this thing on?") I voiced my concern to my counselor and she told me this was a common feeling among her clients, but not to fear—it's just that often the scope of our thoughts widens before it narrows when we're trying to sort out a tangled issue. That made me feel better, as did the fact that even when I wasn't always gaining clarity in the moment, I noticed I was leaving every session with a few good takeaways—something new I learned about myself, an interesting career prospect I hadn't thought of before... Over time, these takeaways coalesced into a better understanding of my overall situation, and gave me the direction I needed.

So as your counseling process unfolds, know that you may have to weather times of increased confusion or frustration, but take care to regularly assess the investment of time and money you're making: Is your counselor asking you questions that really make you think? Do you get the feeling that he or she is seeking to understand you and thoughtfully tailor the process to your needs? Do you feel you're learning from each session? Does your counselor listen and give reasonable feedback when you voice a concern? If you get consistent "no's" when you ask questions like these, it's probably time to cut your losses and seek out someone else.

It might take more than one try to find a match made in career counseling heaven, but don't despair. If you keep asking the right questions and being honest about the answers, you'll eventually find a good fit—without losing your shirt in the process.

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 by April Greene

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