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How to Set College Goals

Knowing What You Want to Accomplish Is as Important as Knowing How to Do It

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Caucasian student sitting in grass studying
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Having goals in college can be a great way to stay focused, motivate yourself, and keep your priorities in order when things get stressful and overwhelming. But just how can you set your college goals in a way that sets you up for success?

Think about your end goals. What kind of goals do you want to achieve during your time in school? These goals can be large (graduate in 4 years) or small (attend a study session for chemistry once a week for at least a month). But having a main goal in mind is the first, and perhaps most important step, in setting realistic goals.

Be specific with your goals. Instead of "Do better in Chemistry," set your goal as "Earn at least a B in Chemistry this term." Or better yet: "Study at least an hour a day, attend one group study session a week, and go to office hours once a week, all so that I can earn a B in Chemistry this term." Being as specific as possible while setting your goals can help make your goals as realistic as possible -- meaning you'll be more likely to achieve them.

Be realistic with your goals. If you barely passed most of your classes last semester and are now on academic probation, setting a goal of earning a 4.0 next semester is probably unrealistic. Spend some time thinking about what makes sense for you as a learner, as a student, and as a person. If you're not a morning person, for example, setting the goal of waking up at 6:00 a.m. every morning to hit the gym is probably not realistic. But setting the goal of getting in a good workout after your Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon Shakespeare class probably is. Similarly, if you've been struggling with your academics, set reasonable goals that focus on helping you make progress and improve in ways that seem reachable. Can you leap from a failing grade last semester to an A this semester? Probably not. But you can aim to improve to, say, at least a C if not a B-.

Think about a realistic time line. Setting goals within a time frame will help you set deadlines for yourself. Set goals for a week, a month, a semester, each year (first-year, sophomore year, etc.), and graduation. Every goal you set for yourself, too, should have some kind of time frame attached. Otherwise, you'll end up putting off what you need to do since there's no deadline by which you promised yourself you'd reach your goal.

Think about your personal and intellectual strengths. Setting goals can be challenging for even the most driven, determined college students. If you set yourself up to do things that are a bit too challenging, however, you can end up setting yourself up for failure instead of for success. Spend some time thinking about your own personal and intellectual strengths. Use your strong organization skills, for example, to create a time management system so you stop pulling all-nighters every time you have a paper due. Or use your strong time management skills to figure out which co-curricular commitments you need to cut in order to focus more on your academics. In essence: Use your strengths to find ways to overcome your weaknesses.

Translate your strengths into details. Using your strengths -- which everyone has, so don't sell yourself short! -- is the best way to get from idea to reality. When setting goals, then, use your strengths to make sure you:

  • Have a plan and a way to get there. What is your goal? What specific things are you going to do to reach it? By when?
  • Have a way to check your progress. How will you know if your goal is working? When will check in with yourself to see if you're making the smaller steps you need to take along the route to reaching your big goal?
  • Have a way to hold yourself accountable. What will happen if you don't do what you promised yourself you'd do? What will you change?
  • Have a way to adapt to change. Inevitably, something will happen that will throw a wrench in your plans. So what will you do to adjust to change? Being too strict with your goals can be counterproductive, too, so make sure you're flexible.
  • Have rewards built in along the way. Don't forget to reward yourself for reaching mini-goals along the way to reaching your big goals! Setting and working toward goals takes major work and dedication. Reward yourself to keep your motivation up and to, well, just be nice to yourself. Because who doesn't like a little recognition, right?

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