Setting Goals for Your College Experience and Beyond

How do you define success? Is success about money, friendship, or power? Is it about achieving excellence in college and beyond or about finding a sense of purpose in your life? For most people, success is a combination of all these factors and more. Although luck or “who you know” may play a role in success, first and foremost it will be the result of intentional steps you take.

So, in your quest for success, where do you begin? First, it is important to establish goals: goals for today, this week, this year, and beyond. Although some students prefer to “go with the flow” and let life happen to them, those students are more likely to flounder and less likely to achieve success in college or in a career. So, instead of “going with the flow” and simply reacting to what college and life present, think instead about how you can take more control over the decisions and choices you make now that lay the foundation for the achievement of future life goals. Even though it is easy to make vague plans for the future, you need to determine which short-term steps are necessary if those plans are to become a reality.

As you plan your college experience and life goals, think about your personal strengths. For instance, do you like to talk, deal with conflict, and stand up for yourself? Are you a good reader? If your answers to these questions are “yes,” you may want to consider a career in the legal profession. Are you a good science student and enjoy working with your hands? If so, you might want to think about dentistry. Your campus career center can help you discover your own unique strengths—and weaknesses—which can influence your direction as you explore career choices.

Getting Started

College is an ideal time for you to begin setting and fulfilling short- and long-term goals. A short-term goal might be to read twenty pages from your history text twice a week, anticipating an exam that will cover the first hundred pages of the book. A long-term goal might be to begin predicting which elective college courses you could choose that would help you attain your career goals.

Thinking about a career might seem unrelated to some of the general education courses you are required to take in your first year. Sometimes it’s hard to see the connection between a history or literature course and what you want to do with the rest of your life. If you’re open to learning, however, you may discover potential areas of interest that you may never have considered before, areas of interest that may lead you to discover a new career path.

Setting Smart Goals

Follow these guidelines to set some short-term goals and consider how they fall within the framework of setting SMART goals: goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and anchored to a Time period.1

  1. State your goal in measurable terms. Be specific about what you want to achieve and when.

  2. Be sure the goal is achievable. Allow enough time to pursue it. If you don’t have the necessary skills, strengths, and resources to achieve your goal, modify it appropriately.

  3. Be sure you genuinely want to achieve the goal. Don’t set out to work toward something only because you want to please others.

  4. Know why the goal matters. Be sure your goal fits into a larger plan and has the potential to give you a sense of accomplishment.

  5. Identify difficulties you might encounter. Plan for ways you might overcome obstacles.

  6. Decide which goal comes next. How will you begin? Create steps and a time line for reaching your next goal.

For instance, let’s assume that after you graduate you think you might want to work in an underdeveloped country, perhaps spending some time in the Peace Corps. What are some short-term goals that would help you reach this long-term objective? One goal might be to take courses focused on different countries or cultures, but that goal isn’t very specific and doesn’t state a particular time period. A much more specific goal would be to take one course each year to help you build a body of knowledge about other countries and cultures. An even more specific goal would be to review the course catalog, identify the courses you want to take, and list them on a personal time line. You could also look for courses that give you the opportunity to engage in service learning, course-based service activities that will give you a taste of the kind of work you might be doing later in an underdeveloped country.

You might also want to gain some actual experience before making a final decision about working in other countries. Another intermediate goal could be traveling to other countries or combining the earning of college credits with performing service abroad through an international organization such as the International Partnership for Service Learning. Your goal for this week could be doing an Internet search or visiting your campus study-abroad office to research your options for international travel or service work.

Before working toward any long-term goal, it’s important to be realistic and honest with yourself. Is it your goal—one that you value and desire to pursue—or is it a goal that a parent or friend argued was “right” for you? Given your abilities and interests, is the goal realistic? Remember that dreaming up long-term goals is the easy part. You need to be very specific and systematic about the steps you will take today, this week, and throughout your college experience to reach your goals.

service learning
Unpaid volunteer service that is embedded in courses across the curriculum.