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Setting goals is a great way to start the new year, and taking the time to think about them can really pay off. Evaluating your direction can help you maintain motivation, benchmark your progress, and make useful connections as you move through your academic career. Goal setting is also psychologically healthy. It makes you feel more purposeful, and that helps stave off a sense of stagnation and mental health issues like depression.

A Student Health 101 survey found that 88 percent of students feel it’s motivating to get things done toward a goal. Students described aims like wanting to get good grades, develop a career, find a relationship, continue their schooling, move to a desired city, and raise a family.

Different Types of Goals

“The challenge for students,” says Dr. Ellen Gillooly, professor of psychology at Glendale Community College, in California, “is to find the intermediate and short-term goals that can help their intentions become realities; goal setting is a valuable skill that students will use throughout their lives.”
In a 2007 study, Hsieh, P. et al. found that different goals had various impacts on students’ motivation and sense of accomplishment. They identified three main types:

  • Mastery goals: Things you are intrinsically eager to learn or accomplish.
  • Performance-achievement goals: Those you do for an external reward.
  • Performance-avoidance goals: These are set in order to “save face.”

“There’s no such thing as a bad goal,” says Gillooly. “Every goal provides an opportunity for students to learn more about themselves.”

Evaluate Your Intentions

Rachel Brown, director of the career center at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, considers goal setting an essential component of effective life management. “Setting goals starts with self-awareness,” she says. “Deciding what’s important today can help [you] achieve the things you really want in your future career development.”

Brown suggests students begin thinking about their values, aspirations, and abilities by asking themselves the following questions:

  • What matters to me?
  • What gives me satisfaction?
  • What am I good at?
  • Where would I like to be?

It’s also important to discover why these things matter to you. “Every goal provides an opportunity for students to learn more about themselves,” says Gillooly. “When something doesn’t go as planned, it is important not only to look at the goal but your attitude toward it. Was it really valuable to you? What got in the way? Did you break it down into small enough pieces?”

What motivates you to set particular objectives? Understanding this will help you focus on the impact that reaching your goals will have on you, and this can serve as inspiration to consistently take steps toward them.

The S.M.A.R.T. Approach

Practical goals are usually specific, measurable, and time-limited. They allow you to evaluate progress and make necessary adjustments along the way. You may have heard about the concept of S.M.A.R.T. goals, an approach that can help you define interim steps that will move you toward your greater objective.

More information on the S.M.A.R.T. Approach

Creating a plan to achieve incremental goals, as you move toward your ultimate objective, can help you stay the course and adjust it as you learn things along the way. S.M.A.R.T. goals are:


Specific
Measurable
Action-oriented and Achievable
Realistic
Time-bound

You can expand upon this concept and use “S.M.A.R.T.E.R.” by adding:

Evaluation
Reward or Redo

For a S.M.A.R.T goals worksheet, CLICK HERE.

To learn how to apply the S.M.A.R.T. approach to your goals, CLICK HERE.

Set a Course Toward Achievement

Breaking long-term ambitions down into shorter-term, achievable objectives will help you feel proud and effective as you accomplish each step. Marchelle R., a student at Temple University, wants to become a journalist and has set her sights on an internship at CBS Radio. To accomplish this goal, she takes steps each day. “I write them down. This helps me keep track of things that I do and want to do,” she says.

Julian O., also a student at Temple University, says his mother advised him to write down his long-term goals. A few months later he used the document to measure his success.

Brown agrees that writing down your goals is a good idea. This action can help you remember them and also evaluate how S.M.A.R.T. they are.

More ideas about taking small steps toward your goals

Gillooly suggests gradually increasing the amount of time and energy you put toward the steps necessary to reach your objective. She has also found that students respond well to small rewards.

For example, if your goal is to improve your grades, figure out how much additional study time will be necessary. You might start out reading a textbook for 30 minutes to earn 10 minutes of time on Facebook. Next time bump it up to 40 minutes of studying, then an hour, and so on, for the same reward. Keep doing this until you are able to accomplish your goal.

Gillooly also encourages students to evaluate their habits. “Some discover that they are engaging in behaviors which interfere with goal achievement, such as watching too much TV or surfing the Internet. These can serve as rewards for desired behavior, but need to be realistic. Twenty minutes of studying followed by an hour spent on Facebook probably won’t have the desired effect.

Find Inspiration and Encouragement

Julian, who wants to be a vocal performer, relies on role models to find inspiration. “I usually receive advice from people I respect and admire and look at the results of the goals they have set,” he says. “Then I go off and do research on my own before committing to a specific goal.”

Both Marchelle and Julian suggest taking advantage of the extensive student advising resources at your school. Gillooly agrees. She encourages her students to use all of their resources, including advisors, friends, and family.

Marchelle says that her family has been an inspiration when she is juggling school and other priorities. “Sometimes it helps to have a friend monitor your success, or take away your telephone for a few hours,” says Gillooly.

As a busy college student, you already know a lot about accomplishment. Some time spent reflecting on your short- and long-term goals can help you take charge of your achievement. Practical goals can help you strengthen your foundation for academic and personal success.

Take Action!

  • Evaluate why certain goals are important to you.
  • Write down your goals and what you need to do to get there.
  • Set a realistic course with small, achievable steps.
  • Seek guidance from advisors, peer tutors, and those you admire.
  • Use the S.M.A.R.T. approach to goal setting.
  • Tell friends and family about your goals. This will increase your commitment to accomplishing them.
  • Find people who will inspire and motivate you to follow through on your plan.

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Get help or find out more
Your school’s academic advising or dean’s office, career center, or peer tutoring program can offer help and suggestions as you determine your goals and how to achieve them. The following also provide guidance:

University of Redlands, Student Life, Academic Success Skill Worksheets
Editor’s Note: This Web site offers many useful goal-setting resources.


University of Ottawa, S.M.A.R.T. objectives

Kiwanis Service Leadership Programs, SMART Goal Worksheet

University of California Davis, UC Davis Health System, S.M.A.R.T.E.R Goals