identity and occupational therapy in college and university

Who am I? Students, Identity, and OT (Part one)

This blog post focuses on what occupational therapists need to know about identity formation in college and university students. Links to some assessment tools are provided.


Identity formation

Identify formation1 is an important process in the path to young adulthood.  Occupational therapists who work (or want to work) with emerging adults in post-secondary settings should understand identity formation. Understanding identity formation will help OTs help students in college and university.

Identity formation is the need to

  • problem solve who one is,
  • learn the barriers and supports available in the environment that “fit” with who one is,
  • and how personal attributes and context help make life choices.2  

If a student decides on a life course (ie a certain major) then do not feel a “fit”, he must explore the environment for other possible selves.3   On the other hand, if he becomes a “pre-OT major”, and feels it to be a good “fit”, he will absorb this new identity into his self-concept.4 The presence of this new element of identity will change his overall self-concept (ie he will tell people he is a “pre-OT major” and feel like he has a purpose). As he does this, his identity is re-evaluated (ie I have always been good at helping people, so this choice makes sense to me).

Poor identity formation (confusion) can influence psychosocial well-being, academic adjustment, and later worker identity.5

What helps with identity formation?

Life choices and striving for goals are the two major parts of identity formation.2 The everyday environment in which goals are developed and choices are made have a lot of influence on identity formation.6 Occupational therapists should look at student choice of major at current institution, finances, and knowledge of career paths. These can influence identity formation as much as personal attributes (skills, personality, etc).   

Coping resources and personality

Coping strategies will influence identity development.7,8 Problem-solving and support seeking coping strategies are better for successful identity development.8  

The personality characteristic of “openness to experiences’ helps most with identity exploration. People with “open” personalities will explore a breadth and depth of identities before finding the right “fit”.6

Support of friends

Erikson suggested that identity is developed through social interaction. He also suggested that a coherent identity is necessary to develop intimate friendships.1 Current research supports the interrelationship between identity and friendships in this age group.9 Intimate friendships provide a safe context for sharing.  By sharing lived experiences with intimate friends, identity is further developed.10

Interested in assessments? 

As you understand a little bit more about identity, you might want to assess it with your students (or ask some pointed questions). Here is a short list of tools that might be useful to assess identity formation.


The Extended Objective Measure of Ego Identity Status (EOM-EIS-2) –64 item self-report scale with each item measured on a 6-point Likert scale.  Four of these areas are included within the ideological component:  occupation, religion, political views, and lifestyle philosophy. The other four content areas comprise the interpersonal dimension: friendship, dating, sex role, and recreation.

Repeated Exploration and Commitment Scale (RESC) – translated from Dutch. It has five domains with one domain specifically looking at educational identity.  Five questions rate educational identity:  exploration of fit (“have you been asking yourself whether this education is right for you?”), exploration of self (“have you been investigating your interests and ambitions in the domain of education and career?”), exploration of alternatives (“have you been looking for alternatives to this education?”), commitment to choice (“do you stand by your choice for this particular education?”),and  commitment to fit (“do you feel that this education suits you?”).  

Utrecht-Management of Identity Commitments Scale (U-MICS) – This tool measures educational identity dimensions –  commitment (ie “my education gives me certainty in life”), in-depth exploration (ie “I think a lot about my education”), and measuring reconsideration (“I often think it would be better to try to find a different education”) – ranked from 1 (completely true) to 5 (completely untrue).

Identity Distress Survey (IDS) – This tool was based on the diagnostic criteria for identity disorder from the DSM-III-R. It measures identity distress and identifies individuals who experience difficulties in identity development.  Individuals rate the amount to which they are distressed, upset, or worried about identity issues on a five-point scale (1- not at all to 5 – very severely).  Next, they rate their overall distress with identity issues and how identity issues may interfere with everyday functioning. Finally, they estimate how much time they have been distressed, upset, or worried about their identity issues from 1 (never or less than a month) to 5 (longer than 12 months).  

Life Purpose

Brief Purpose Measure – Four items rated on a five-point Likert scale.  Questions: “There is direction in my life.  My plans for the future match with my true interests and values. I know which direction I am going to follow in my life.  My life is guided by a set of clear commitments.”

Life Engagement Test – Six items on a five-point Likert scale (sample question:  “To me, the things I do are worthwhile”).

Consideration of Future Consequences Scale —  The individual is provided with twelve descriptors of self and are asked to rank each one on a five-point scale (Example: “I consider how things might be in the future, and try to influence those things with my day to day behavior”).


  1. Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York, NY: Norton
  2. Schwartz, S. J., Kurtines, W. M., & Montgomery, M. J. (2005). A comparison of two approaches for facilitating identity exploration processes in emerging adults: An exploratory study. Journal of Adolescent Research, 20(3), 309e345.
  3. Marcia, J. E. (1966). Development and validation of ego-identity status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 551-558. doi:10.1037/0023281.
  4. Manzi, C., Vignoles, V. L, & Regalia, C. (2010).  Accommodating a new identity: Possible selves, identity change and well-being across two life transitions.  European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 970-984. 
  5. Carlsson, J., Wängqvist, M., & Frisén, A. (2016).  Life on hold:  Staying in identity diffusion in the late twenties.  Journal of Adolescence, 47, 220-229. doi: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2015.10.023
  6. Van der Gaag, M. A. E., De Ruiter, N. M. P., & Kunnen, E. S. (2016).  Micro-level process of identity development: Intra-individual relations between commitment and exploration.  Journal of Adolescence, 47, 38-47.  doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2015.11.007
  7. Klimstra, T. A., Luyckx, K., Goossens, L., Teppers, E., & De Fruyt, F. (2013). Associations of identity dimensions with Big Five personality domains and facets. European Journal of Personality, 27(3), 213-221.
  8. Luyckx, K., Klimstra, T. A., Duriez, B., Schwartz, S. J., & Vanhalst, J. (2012). Identity processes and coping strategies in college students: short-term longitudinal dynamics and the role of personality. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 41, 1226-1239.
  9. Doumen, S., Smits, I., Luyckx, K., Duriez, B., Vanhalst, J., Verschueren, K., et al. (2012). Identity and perceived peer relationship quality in emerging adulthood: the mediating role of attachment-related emotions. Journal of Adolescence, 35, 1417-1425. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2012.01.003.
  10. McLean, K. C., & Pasupathi, M. (2010). Narrative development in adolescence: Creating the storied self. New York, NY: Springer.

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