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Helping your child choose subjects for years 11 and 12

by Dr. Deborah Trengove, psychologist


What do you want to do? A simple but scary question when you are 15 or 16 years old. Every student planning to undertake a course of study in years 11 or 12 has had to consider this question, even if they don’t yet know the answer. In many ways, it really is the wrong question to ask, but more of that later.

Key principles: Interest and ability

There are two key factors to consider when choosing subjects for post-compulsory schooling, whether it is at a secondary school or in the TAFE sector. The first is interest. What does your son or daughter like to do? What are their interests and activities and how do these relate to school subjects. Choosing subjects in which they are naturally interested, maximises motivation and engagement, and increases every student’s likelihood of success. Maintaining a high level of application in a course area in which you are not interested is a challenge for anyone, let alone a 16 year old.

The second factor to consider is ability: what are your child’s strengths and weaknesses? Are they visual learners, or good with written material? Do they excel at practical hands-on learning or do best with abstract reasoning? Reports will often indicate where your child’s talents lie, and often, interests and abilities go hand-in-hand.

Common problems

Working out what you like and what you are good at sounds like a simple process, but there are many students who find it difficult. Some of the common problems faced by young people making subject choices are:

  • Having too many options – what to do if your child likes too many subjects and can handle a range of learning? Traditionally, students in this category have been advised to opt for those subjects which are pre-requisites for courses in which they may be interested, so that they can leave their options open. Often this includes subjects in the maths and science arenas, but may also include art or languages as well.

  • Having too few options – what to do if your son or daughter doesn’t like anything. This is tough and can be very frustrating for teenagers and parents alike. It might be necessary to look further afield and consider courses/subjects available in a range of settings, to try to find something to connect with. Sometimes, a course with only 2 or 3 subjects that are of really interest is the best you can do.

  • They don’t know what they want to be – this is very common. It is much better to focus on what your child is interested in, not necessarily what career they should follow. 15 or 16 year-olds often have not had sufficient exposure to different fields of study to appreciate whether it is for them, and what else subjects and pathways might lead to. For example, a student strong in the humanities may well go on to pursue a career in criminology, academia, economics, welfare, teaching, law, government policy or many others. It may not be possible to know which of these may be your ultimate path when in year 10 at high school. Similarly, a science student may not be able to say what branch of science they will pursue, only that they enjoy science. It is enough to keep following their interest.

Additional information to help make decisions


Many schools conduct career assessments or at least make these available for students to undertake. They may be done on a computer (such as Career Voyager or OZJAC) or alternatively, be done by hand and self-scored. Further information to put into the decision mix could include a personality inventory, such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. This aims to give some insight into aspects of an individual’s personality such as their preferences for working with others or independently, for what type of ideas they prefer to engage with or their learning style. In addition, aptitude tests can be completed to provide some objective information about strengths and weaknesses in different types of tasks or thinking skills. Individual schools may make some or all of these available, depending on their resources. Alternatively, parents may seek out specialist career guidance agencies, who offer a package of assessment tools, bringing together a profile of interests, aptitudes and personal style.

Getting a taste – electives

Students should make the most of opportunities to try different subjects before making their choices for the senior school years. Elective programs offer the chance to “try before you buy” and help to rule some areas in or out. Text books also give an indication of what the subject matter is about – the simple strategy of reading a few sample parts of the text can help your child decide if they are interested in learning more about it or not!

Getting a taste – work experience

Not all schools offer comprehensive work experience programs because of the complex occupational health and safety requirements and because they lack staff resources to implement it for large groups of students. Work experience remains, however, a valuable option for getting a feel for a particular industry or career. Whether at year 10, 11 or even later, getting some first-hand experience of a workplace can help young people know whether a given work environment is right for them. Do they enjoy the office scene? Does retail seem exciting (or otherwise)? Do they like the reality of working outside? These experiences can provide some vital real world feedback on what field or industry suits your son or daughter.

Tertiary courses and requirements – information and open days

Know your facts. Find out what courses are available in relevant areas and which subjects are needed to get into them. This is constantly changing and while specialised advice from a careers teacher is one way to find out, another is to access course guides and visit the institutions on their open days. Hearing directly from lecturers and tutors, asking them specific questions and even talking to current students, can make a big difference when thinking about the next step and what it will take to get there.

What not to base a decision on:

Discourage your child from choosing or rejecting subjects because of a particular teacher. While understandable, it is short-sighted and teacher allocations can change under different circumstances. The focus should remain on what your so or daughter is interested in. In similar vein, students should not choose subjects just because they believe they are higher scored. The scaling factor varies from year to year, and students should choose subjects they will be motivated to work hard at, as well as are capable of managing. Finally, choosing subjects because they feel “expected” to do so, can also be risky. Be careful not to pressure your child into choosing subjects they you would like to see them study, for whatever reason. Give advice certainly, but don’t railroad them into an area in which they have no genuine interest.

Changing mid-stream

Frequently, despite the best advice and information available, young people enrol in subjects only to discover that they don’t like them or that they cannot manage them. Don’t panic, this is very common. After all, it is not always possible to know if you like learning psychology, biology or literature until you have studied it for a while. Course changes are often for the better, and need to be seen in the context of getting closer to your child’s direction for the future, rather than losing time. Education is a journey, not a race.

Finally, it is important to reassure your children that if they do not know what they want to be just yet, it is OK. If they keep pursuing what they enjoy and what they have success in, it will surely lead them in the right direction….eventually. It is difficult to know what you want to do until you know who you are – and for young people working out their identity and life’s priorities, it can be especially challenging to know this answer to this question at the exact moment when schools (and parents) need to ask it.

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