How to Set Goals and Succeed in College

Student working on laptop

“Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.”

Tony Robbins


Everyone has a different idea of what success looks like and there’s no single road map to get you there. If you’re thinking about taking the plunge and going to college for the first or maybe even fifth time, you want to make the most of your experience. By identifying your goals and staying focused on a positive outcome, you will set yourself up for success. We hope these tips will help you.


Identify What You Want

Why do you want to go to college? Maybe you want to switch careers. Maybe you want to graduate with a job and without a lot of student loan debt. Maybe you want to get a four-year degree, but you aren’t ready for university life. Maybe you want to learn more about different fields to find a good fit for you. Maybe you want to be the first in your family to get a degree.


Whatever your reason, be specific. Imagine the outcome you want in detail. What does it look like? Is it something you can achieve? (For example, dreams of playing in the NBA might not be realistic, but playing college basketball could be a possibility.) How long will it take? What will your life look like when you achieve it? What does it mean to you?


Experts recommend creating goals that are SMART:

Specific: You have a clear picture of what you want.

Measurable: It’s so specific that you will know when you’ve accomplished it.

Attainable: You know you can do it.

Relevant: It has meaning for you.

Time-Bound: You have a timeline for how long it will take to achieve.


Here’s an example of a vague goal: “I want a good job.” It’s not very clear and you won’t necessarily know when you’ve achieved it. That could be reframed as a SMART goal: “I want to work as a registered dietician after college so I can help others make healthy choices.” The second example is specific and measurable—to have a job in a specific field after graduating. It’s within reach provided you study for it. It has a timeframe in which you want to achieve it, plus a personal meaning.


Thinking about the details you brainstormed, summarize your outcome in one sentence like a SMART goal.


Identifying what you want is the first part of the equation. Next, you want to create your own road map to get there because a desire without a plan is just a wish. A desire with a plan is a goal.


Determine How You Will Get There

What will it take for you to reach your goal? What classes do you need to take? Do you need a certain degree or certification? What kind of time commitment does it require? How long will it take you to get there? How much will it cost?


Thinking about those specifics, break your SMART goal down into smaller steps. What is your first milestone? Maybe it’s researching affordable colleges or colleges with a specific program. What comes after that? And after that? Keep asking yourself until you have manageable chunks that get you to your goal.


The key word is manageable. Make sure the steps fit with your lifestyle. If you’re working, maybe going to school full-time isn’t practical given your schedule. If you’re going to be moving, maybe an online college would be a better fit for you.


Writing down your desires and plans helps you mentally commit to them. So make sure you create a list. You can also keep it as a reminder of what you’re working toward.


For example, I will:

Select a school and a major this month

Figure out when to start and select which classes to take

Decide how many terms I want to be in school

Decide if I want to take breaks or go straight through

Discuss career options with a guidance counselor after three terms, ask about internships

Start interviewing for jobs six months before graduation

Graduate and celebrate

Get to work


Taken in smaller steps, the goal doesn’t seem as overwhelming. However, there may be times when something unexpected happens and you need to adjust your plan. Don’t be discouraged. That’s part of life. Instead, focus your mind on committing to yourself and working through it. Success is a goal plus commitment.


Make College a Priority

What do you want to get out of your classes? That’s what you’ll need to put into them.


When you’re ready to start and have your list of courses, schedule time in your calendar to attend and study for your classes. Make those times a priority to work toward what you want. Making college a priority is really making a commitment to yourself.


If accountability helps you, look for a study group or start your own with fellow classmates. If you need help in a class, find a tutor or ask about other resources available at your college. Many colleges also offer counseling services if you’re having personal difficulties and career guidance services to help you plan for the future. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of those services. They’re there to help!


Find Your Motivation

What drives you? This is a question we often ask our students and their answers are as varied as they are. Everyone has different passions, interests and reasons for coming to Barton.


Think back to your goal and the meaning it has for you. Be sure to frame it in a positive light. For example, instead of saying, “I don’t want to work in an entry-level job forever,” say, “I want to make a difference by working in an interesting career that helps me grow.”


That’s your motivation. Keep it front and center, and revisit it often.


For example, at the end of each session, look back and ask yourself what you did well. Give yourself credit. That will help you build confidence for the future. What didn’t go so well? Why do you think you had difficulty? How can you do better next session?


This will keep you focused on what’s working and keep you moving forward. Having a positive frame of mind will help you deal with setbacks and celebrate victories.


What are you waiting for? Shape your goal and see how Barton can help you get there!

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