Defining Goals

Three Purdue University basketball players answering questions at a panel.

If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.

—Yogi Berra, baseball player and coach

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain how time management plays a factor in goal setting, leading to short-term, medium-term, and long-term objectives
  • Identify overall academic goals
  • Identify and apply motivational strategies to support goal achievement
  • Describe how a social network can help accomplish goals
  • Consider factors that might hinder goal achievement and possible ways to address these issues

Time Management and Goal Setting

There is no doubt that doing well in college is a sizable challenge, especially for first-year students, who run the greatest risk of dropping out. You are faced with new physical surroundings, new social environments, new daily tasks and responsibilities, and most likely new financial obligations. Overall, you are swamped with new challenges! Do you feel confident that you can attend to all of them in a balanced, committed way? What will be your secret of success?

Success Begins with Goals

Goals! A goal is a desired result that you envision and then plan and commit to achieve. Goals can relate to family, education, career, wellness, spirituality, and many other areas of your life. Generally, goals are associated with finite time expectations, even deadlines.

Close-up of two people playing with figurines on a miniature soccer field

As a college student, many of your goals are defined for you. For example, you must take certain courses, you must comply with certain terms and schedules, and you must turn in assignments at specified times. These goals are mostly set for you by someone else.

But there are plenty of goals for you to define yourself. For example, you decide what you’d like to major in. You decide how long you are going to be in college or what terms you want to enroll in. You largely plan how you’d like your studies to relate to employment and your career.

Goals can also be sidetracked. Consider the following scenario in which a student makes a discovery that challenges her to reexamine her goals, priorities, and timetables:

Janine had thought she would be an accountant, even though she knew little about what an accounting job might entail. Her math and organizational skills were strong, and she enjoyed taking economics courses and well as other courses in her accounting program. But when one of her courses required her to spend time in an accounting office working with taxes, she decided that accounting was not the right fit for her, due to the higher-stress environment and the late hours.

At first she was concerned that she invested time and money in a career path that did not match her disposition. She feared that changing her major would add to her graduation time. Nevertheless, she did decide to change her major and her career focus.

Janine is now a statistician with a regional healthcare system. She is very happy with her work. Changing her major from accounting to statistics was the right decision for her.

This scenario represents some of the many opportunities we have, on an ongoing basis, to assess our relationship to our goals, reevaluate priorities, and adjust. Opportunities exist every day—every moment, really!

Below is a set of questions we can ask ourselves at any turn to help focus on personal goals:

  1. What are my top-priority goals?
  2. Which of my skills and interests make my goals realistic for me?
  3. What makes my goals believable and possible?
  4. Are my goals measurable? How long will it take me to reach them? How will I know if I have achieved them?
  5. Are my goals flexible? What will I do if I experience a setback?
  6. Are my goal controllable? Can I achieve them on my own?
  7. Are my goals in sync with my values?

As you move through your college career, make a point to ask these questions regularly.

Aids to Successful Goal Setting

The following video examines five aids to help ensure that your goal setting will be effective and will “take hold” and serve you in the short and long term.


Short-, Medium-, and Long-Term Goals

In order to achieve long-term goals (from college on), you’ll need to first achieve a series of shorter goals. Medium-term goals (this year and while in college) and short-term goals (today, this week, and this month) may take several days, weeks, months, or even a few years to complete, depending on your ultimate long-term goals. Identify what you will need to do in order to achieve your all goals. Gain a full view of your trajectory.

Examples of Long-Term Academic Goals

  • I plan to graduate with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. My major will be Radio-Television-Film, and my minor will be Spanish.
  • I plan to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service degree with a major in international history.
  • I plan to attain an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN).

Examples of Medium-Term or Short-Term Academic Goals:

  • I would like to study abroad in Spain before I graduate.
  • I want to get involved in a service-learning project in my community, as part of my preparation for eventual service work.
  • I plan to join the student government organization so that I can gain some experience at the community college where I take classes part-time.

Additional immediate goals might be applying for financial aid, getting a part-time job, taking a short leave of absence, speaking with a counselor, and so forth.

Motivational Strategies to Support You

Every day we make choices. Some are as simple as what clothes we decide to wear, what we’ll eat for lunch, or how long to study for a test. But what about life-altering choices—the ones that leave us at a crossroads? How much thought do you give to taking Path A versus Path B? Do you like to plan and schedule your choices, by making a list of pros and cons, for instance? Or do you prefer to make decisions spontaneously and just play the cards that life deals you as they come?

The videos that follow are about choices for success. Watch them with a keen eye and ear. Take notes, too. You might pick up good ideas for strategies that can help you reach your goals.

Haroon F. Mirza is the director of business development at Intel Corp. Mirza talks about defining moments, how life is all about choices and how we can create defining moments that can change the trajectory of our lives.

Pay close attention to where he discusses adversity, or hardships. He tells a story about a mother and daughter in a kitchen in order to teach listeners about how we respond to change.

As you listen to this video, write down a few notes where he goes into detail about how we respond to hardships:

Dr. Nido R. Qubein is the president of High Point University. In this video he discusses his book Seven Choices for Success and Significance: How to Live Life from the Inside Out.

Pay attention to when he discusses how your beliefs influence your behaviors. What are his main points about your beliefs and how they influence your motivations?


Stephen Covey, author of the self-help book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, talks about the role choice has in managing change and accomplishing what we want.

Pay close attention to what he has to say our past experiences and what they teach us. What does he advise us about our personal choices?


L’il Wayne is an American rapper from New Orleans, Louisiana. In this video he talks about his strategies for success. What is his main point about working hard?


Social Aspects of Achieving Your Goals

Setting goals can be a challenge, but working toward them, once you’ve set them, can be an even greater challenge—often because it implies that you will be making changes in your life. You might be creating new directions of thought or establishing new patterns of behavior, discarding old habits or starting new ones. Change will always be the lifeblood of achieving your goals.

You may find that as you navigate this path of change, one of your best resources is your social network. Your family, friends, roommates, coworkers, and others can help you maintain a steady focus on your goals. They can encourage and cheer you on, offer guidance when needed, share knowledge and wisdom they’ve gained, and possibly partner with you in working toward shared goals and ambitions. Your social network is a gold mine of support.

Here are some easy ways you can tap into goal-supporting “people power”:

  • group of young women, many in business suits, standing in a loose circle outdoorsMake new friends
  • Study with friends
  • Actively engage with the college community
  • Volunteer to help others
  • Join student organizations
  • Get an internship
  • Work for a company related to your curriculum
  • Stay connected via social media (but use it judiciously)*
  • Keep a positive attitude
  • Congratulate yourself on all you’ve done to get where you are

What are some other ways that you build a network of support with the people in your life?

A note about social media

More than 98 percent of college-age students use social media, says Experian Simmons. Twenty-seven percent of those students spent more than six hours a week on social media (UCLA, 2014). The University of Missouri, though, indicates in a 2015 study that this level of use may be problematic. It can lead to symptoms of envy, anxiety, and depression. Still, disconnecting from social media may have a negative impact, too, and further affect a student’s anxiety level.

Is there a healthy balance? If you feel overly attached to social media, you may find immediate and tangible benefit in cutting back. By tapering your use, your can devote more time to achieving your goals. You can also gain a sense of freedom and more excitement about working toward your goals.

Dealing with Setbacks and Obstacles

Detour sign for a roundabout intersectionAt times, unexpected events and challenges can get in the way of best-laid plans. For example, you might get sick or injured or need to deal with a family issue or a financial crisis. Earlier in this section we considered a scenario in which a student realized she needed to change her major and her career plans. Such upsets, whether minor or major, may trigger a need to take some time off from school—perhaps a term or a year. Your priorities may shift. You may need to reevaluate goals.

Problem-Solving Strategies

Below is a simple list of four problem-solving strategies. They can be applied to any aspect of your life.

  1. What is the problem? Define it in detail. How is it affecting me and other people?
  2. How are other people dealing with this problem? Are they adjusting their time management skills? Can they still complete responsibilities, and on time?
  3. What is my range of possible solutions? Are solutions realistic? How might these solutions help me reach my goal/s?
  4. What do I need to do to implement solutions?

You may wish to also review the earlier set of questions about focusing with intention on goals.

Be confident that you can return to your intended path in time. Acknowledge the ways in which you need to regroup. Read inspiring words from people who have faced adversity and gained. Line up your resources, be resolved, and proceed with certainty toward your goals.

If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

–Henry David Thoreau, author

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.