There’s a quote that’s attributed to Yogi Berra that says, “You’ve got to be careful because if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up somewhere else.” In true Yogi Berra fashion, his seemingly simplistic quote may contain some important wisdom.
For college students, setting goals and working toward them may be a particularly difficult task. Some students may be very career oriented and know exactly what they want in life, while others are undecided about their major and have not yet found their direction. Yet even those students with clear long-term goals may have difficulty defining the shorter term goals that motivate them on a daily basis. Even more perplexing for many students is the task of separating goals from the action plans needed to reach those goals.
Both long-term and short-term goals are important for college students. Having clear goals will help your college student stay motivated, prioritize time and energy, manage his time, see the bigger picture of his college experience, focus on important things, and take pride and ownership in his experiences. Establishing good, clear goals, however, is a difficult task. It requires clarity of thinking and often a great deal of self-reflection. You may need to help your college student think about and identify his goals. Here are a few things to help your student think about as he considers some goals for his college experience – or perhaps just his next semester.
- Your student should understand what she is trying to accomplish with her goal. What is the desired outcome? What does she really want to happen? Is there something that she can do to make it happen?
- Your student should have a reasonable chance of achieving her goal. It may be a long-term goal that will motivate her for many years, but there should be a sense that she will be able to accomplish it. Perhaps a very long-term goal could be broken down into several short-term goals that will help her move toward the larger goal.
- The goals must be relevant for your student’s values, interests and abilities. Remember that these are your student’s goals, not your goals for your student. You may or may not agree with your student’s choices, but she must take ownership of them.
- The goals should be clear and specific. Suggest that your student write down his goals and make them concrete. “Receive at least a B in all of my classes this term” works better than “Get good grades.”
- The goals should be reasonable and attainable. If the goals are too lofty, your student will lose motivation. Suggest goals that might take a stretch, but are achievable. Then goals can be modified or new goals set.
- Goals should be stated positively to help your student feel energized and excited about working toward them. “Stop wasting time” is not a very inspiring goal, but “Plan my time carefully each week” feels more positive. “Use a planner to write down all assignments and plan study time” is even more positive and specific.
- Your student might need to identify the obstacles to the goals and make plans to overcome those obstacles.
- Your student may want to share his goals with someone who could be a “goal buddy” and provide encouragement and accountability.
Establishing some meaningful and attainable goals is important, but your student then needs to separate those goals from the action plans necessary to achieve those goals. This may be one place where your student will continue to need your guidance. The action plan contains the steps necessary to move toward the larger goal. A good question to continue to ask your student is “How?” How will he accomplish the goal? What are the steps necessary? What specific actions are necessary?
If your student has taken a general hope such as “Get good grades” and turned that into the more specific goal of “Receive at least a B in all of my classes this term”, she now needs to ask “How will I do that?” Perhaps the answer is “Study more.” How? “Spend more time studying.” How? The answer to that may vary – “Use a day planner to schedule time each day to study” or “Cut back on my work hours to have more time for studying” or “Meet with a study group for two hours each week to stay on track.” Whatever the answer is, it is now a specific step or action that your student can take to work toward this goal. There may be additional action plans as well, such as “Meet with the professor every week” or “Find a tutor at the support center” or “Take more thorough notes from the textbook.” The important feature of the action plan is that it is specific, concrete, and requires action. Nothing is left to chance, your student is not passively hoping things will be better, but planning some actions to accomplish his goals.
Defining achievable goals and creating action plans for achieving those goals will help your student feel more in control of his college experience. Goals may be broad and far reaching, or they may be short term and specific. Action plans help the student move toward his goals. As a college parent, you can help your student understand the importance of establishing his goals and distinguishing between goals and actions. As always, however, it is important that you then step out of the way and let your student take ownership, and responsibility, for his goals and his progress toward those goals.