Helping Your Student With Goal Setting – and Action Plans

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.

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3 thoughts on “Helping Your Student With Goal Setting – and Action Plans”

  1. Thank you so very much for your timely and considerate response. It is a comfort to know that there is someplace parents can ask a question and get a response as thought out and lengthy as your response to me.
    I appreciate you.

    All that you mentioned in your response is what I spoke with my daughter about. She is aware that she has an awful lot on her plate. In her journey and quest to find her path in life, she knows it is time to reduce her current schedule as much as possible to allow for a chance to catch her breath, have time to think choices through and gain a little time for fun. All work and no play… good.

    Again, thank you so much for your response . I feel supported by you and after all, isn’t that what you wanted to accomplish?

    One Grateful Parent,

  2. Cathy –
    No wonder that your daughter feels overwhelmed. It sounds as though she has a LOT on her plate right now. In addition to worrying about a career, pre-med and business are tough fields, and then adding work as well is a very full schedule. If there is any possibility of easing her schedule a bit, that might give her a little space to explore her interests.

    One thing that your daughter should keep in mind is that a major in college does not need to point to a particular career. It is a field of study that may lead to several possible careers. And it is also possible to get to a particular career through several majors. If she loves the science and the business, she should continue with those. But she needs to be honest with herself and not continue in a direction that she doesn’t love.

    Very few students graduate from college and move directly into the career in which they will stay forever. This generation has a winding path, and each step on that path gives them new information – both about the field and about themselves. To the extent that she can, your daughter needs to take it one step at a time.

    While she pursues her studies, and without pressure on herself, if she can explore possible internships doing something in her areas, that will give her more information. I’d also suggest several informational interviews with people in the fields she’s considering – medicine, business. There are so many related professions that she probably doesn’t even know about yet. Informational interviews are just a chance to talk to people about the work that they do and to gather more information. If she ends each one by asking for the names of 2 other people to talk to, she will be able to gather a lot of information. If your daughter’s school as a Career Office, she should also work with them. They can help her think about options.

    It is not easy for students who are very driven to step back and slow their journey. Having goals is good, of course, but being able to take things one step at a time and see where it leads is also important. As a parent, it sounds as though you are doing just the right thing. Keep reassuring her and encouraging her to be doing something – anything – that will help her explore. Remind her that she does not need to decide her entire life just yet, and remind her to take time to enjoy the experience of being in college – through activities and involvement. She will learn from them as well.

    Good luck to you both!

  3. My second year daughter is having a difficult time. She is not enjoying the college experience. She is a business major and is taking pre-med classes. Pre-med was her ambition and she choice the business major so that she would have an actual certificate at the end of 4 years. She was doing a minor in chemistry but dropped that at the end of last year. She works part-time maybe 12-15 hours a week as well. She is having a hard time figuring out what it is that she really would like to do as a profession after school, and feels that unless she knows that than she’s just wasting time and energy. She feels overwhelmed and disappointed that by now she is not sure. Aside from giving her a shoulder to cry on, suggesting she seek career advisor input and the typical mother response that this too shall pass I am at a loss as to what other advice I could give. I myself am a bit concerned that although she is quite able and capable to achieve any goal she sets, she hasn’t found a passion for any one thing yet. And quite frankly has really not had time to develope passions since she’s always identified herself as an academic. Do you know if there is a website or place she can go to to go over her completed and future classes to help her see what careers she is inline for. She loves the sciences and that is what I think is holding her up…she loves the business too and just needs to see how she could incorporate the two in a career goal. As her mother I feel that this is the krukst of her sophomore slump.

    Thank you for your input in advance, Cathy


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