Research Reveals that Personality-Major Match Strengthens Students’ College Success

By Lawrence Jones and Juliet Wehr Jones

According to Holland, “Different types require different environments. For instance, Realistic types flourish in Realistic environments because such an environment provides the opportunities and rewards a Realistic type needs. Holland calls this “congruence.” Incongruence occurs when a personality type lives in an environment that provides opportunities and rewards foreign to that person’s preferences and abilities – for instance, a Realistic type in Social environment” (Holland, 1997, p. 5). You likely use the concept of “congruence” in your career counseling work. Many do. It’s a sound idea and research supports it. “Personality-occupation fit” predicts career success and satisfaction (e.g., Kristof-Brown, Zimmerman & Johnson, 2005).


The degree of congruence or compatibility is defined by Holland’s hexagonal model.

And now, thanks primarily to scientists associated with ACT®, we know that the degree of “congruence” between students’ RIASEC personality and the RIASEC major chosen (what we call “personality-major match”), significantly affects:

The implications of this research are so important to the work of career counselors that this research and its application were recently highlighted in our two white papers (noted below).


Holland College Major Environments

When students choose a college major they are also choosing to interact with a particular academic environment. And, their interaction with it has a big impact on their performance.


As research shows, the environment of a major is created by the professors in it. For example, an Investigative major environment like Biology is created by professors who have a dominant Investigative personality. As the Holland’s theory predicts, they give greater importance to providing a basic understanding in mathematics and science, for example, than do their colleagues in the other five Holland environments. They also differ in the classroom strategies they use, their goals, and the importance given to examinations (Smart, Feldman & Ethington, 2000, 2006).


Personality, Environment, and College Performance

According to the Holland’s theory, “Behavior is determined by an interaction between personality and environment.” (Holland, 1997, p. 4). Research shows that the degree of compatibility or “congruence” between students’ personality and the environment (defined by Holland’s hexagonal model) affects grades, persistence, and graduation. For example,


1. Following 80,574 students in 87 colleges over a five-year period, Terrance Tracey and Steve Robbins found that good grades are related to having a major close to one’s interests/personality. Most impressively, they found that congruence predicted overall GPA after five years better than ACT Scores. (Tracey & Robbins, 2006).


2. ACT scientists Jeff Allen and Steve Robbins followed 47,914 students in 25 colleges and found students “more likely to flourish in academic environments that fit their personality types… Interests affect both choice of entering major and the likelihood of persisting in a major.” (Allen & Robbins, 2008).


3. A study of 3,072 students nationwide found that higher levels of congruence lead to a greater likelihood of attaining a degree in a “timely fashion” -- receiving a bachelor’s degree at the end of the fourth year in a four-year college and receiving an associate’s degree or certificate at the end of the second year in a two-year school (Allen & Robbins, 2010).



This impressive body of research has many implications for practice. Here are some of our recommendations:


1. Use a scientifically valid measure of Holland’s personality types (the research findings are based on this);


2. Use a comprehensive, up to date list of majors and programs of study that are scientifically classified according to the Holland environment types;


3. Help students learn and apply Holland’s Theory to their career and educational decisions;


  1. Use these strategies in helping students choose a career cluster, pathway, or field;


  1. Use descriptions of the six Holland academic environments, based on existing research, to help students explore and understand the effects of environments;


  1. Provide aids to prospective and current students that help them identify congruent majors (read this example from a community college);


  1. Evaluate prospective and entering students’ personality-major match to identify those who have chosen problematic majors;


  1. Organize students in “academic catch-up” classes according to Holland personality types to build beneficial relationships and connections.


For More Information

We have published two free white papers, in an e-book format, under the Creative Commons license that describe the research and how to apply “personality-major match” --Personality-College Major Match and Student Success(2011), the 28-page guide for professionals; and the 29-page Choosing a College Major Based on Your Personality, What does the research say?(2010) for students, adults returning to school, and parents. Our website has many other related resources.




Holland, J. L. (1997). Making vocational choices: A theory of vocational personalities and work environments (3rd ed.). Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.


Kristof-Brown, A. L., Zimmerman, R. D., & Johnson, E. C. (2005). Consequences of individuals’ fit at work: A meta-analysis of person-job, person-organization, person-group, and person-supervisor fit. Personnel Psychology, 58, 281–342.


Smart, J. C., Feldman, K. A., & Ethington, C. A. (2006), Holland’s Theory and Patterns of College Success, Commissioned Report for the National Symposium on Postsecondary student success: Spearheading a dialog on student success, National Postsecondary Educational Cooperative.


Smart, J. C., Feldman, K. A., & Ethington, C. A. (2000). Academic disciplines: Holland’s theory and the study of college students and faculty. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.


Tracey, T. J., & Robbins, S. B. (2006). The interest-majorcongruence and college success relation: A longitudinal study. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 69, 64–89.



Larry Jones

Lawrence K. Jones, Ph.D., NCC is Professor Emeritus at North Carolina State University and the author of several professional career measures. He served on the editorial boards of the CDQ and JCD.  Larry received ACA's Professional Development Award in 2001.  He is President of Career Key, a philanthropy and business devoted to helping people make good career decisions.   He is the co-author of “Match Up! Your Personality to College Majors” (2011), the first e-book to classify all 1,400+ majors in the U.S. and Canada by Holland personality type.  He can be reached at lawrencejonesphd@earthlink.net.



 Juliet JonesJuliet Wehr Jones, J.D., is Vice President of Career Key and author of the popular Career Key Blog, featured on Alltop Careers and Career Digital. She co-authored a related 2009 Career Convergence article, “Relating Interests to College Majors, Career Clusters, and Career Pathways.”  To contact Juliet: julietjones@careerkey.org.




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Carly Dennis   on Thursday 02/02/2012 at 10:09 AM

Hi Lawrence and Juliet - Thanks for writing this article. After 3 years as a career counselor who uses Holland's theory in many different ways, it's nice to see a fresh perspective on the utilization of Holland and the connection of personality-major match and student success. This came at a great time for me as I begin the process of helping to develop a new Exploratory Studies program for our regional campus.

Lakeisha Moore Mathews   on Thursday 02/02/2012 at 08:04 PM

Thank you for this great article on personality-major match and the free white papers. Linking major selection to the Holland Theory is key to helping students find satisfying career paths and academic paths too. This is a wonderful resource not only for career counselors but academic advisors too.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.