Setting and Reaching Goals


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

  • Make short-, mid-, and long-term goals that are realistic and specific and commit to them.
  • Set priorities for reaching your goals as a basis for time management.
  • Develop an attitude for success.
  • Learn to use strategies for staying focused and motivated.
  • Network with other students to help ensure academic success.
  • Solve problems and overcome setbacks that threaten your goals.

Some people are goal oriented and seem to easily make decisions that lead to achieving their goals, while others seem just to “go with the flow” and accept what life gives them. While the latter may sound pleasantly relaxed, moving through life without goals may not lead anywhere at all. The fact that you’re in college now shows you already have the major goal to complete your college program.

Progress sign on buildingA goal is a result we intend to reach mostly through our own actions. Things we do may move us closer to or farther away from that result. Studying moves us closer to success in a difficult course, while sleeping through the final examination may completely prevent reaching that goal. That’s fairly obvious in an extreme case, yet still a lot of college students don’t reach their goal of graduating. The problem may be a lack of commitment to the goal, but often students have conflicting goals. One way to prevent problems is to think about all your goals and priorities and to learn ways to manage your time, your studies, and your social life to best reach your goals. Consider these four students:


To help his widowed mother, Juan went to work full time after high school but now, a few years later, he’s dissatisfied with the kinds of jobs he has been able to get and has begun taking computer programming courses in the evening. He’s often tired after work, however, and his mother would like him to spend more time at home. Sometimes he cuts class to stay home and spend time with her.

In her senior year of college, Becky has just been elected president of her sorority and is excited about planning a major community service project. She knows she should be spending more time on her senior thesis, but she feels her community project may gain her contacts that can help her find a better job after graduation. Besides, the sorority project is a lot more fun, and she’s enjoying the esteem of her position. Even if she doesn’t do well on her thesis, she’s sure she’ll pass.

After an easy time in high school, James is surprised his college classes are so hard. He’s got enough time to study for his first-year courses, but he also has a lot of friends and fun things to do. Sometimes he’s surprised to look up from his computer to see it’s midnight already, and he hasn’t started reading that chapter yet. Where does the time go? When he’s stressed, however, he can’t study well, so he tells himself he’ll get up early and read the chapter before class, and then he turns back to his computer to see who’s online.

Sachito was successful in cutting back her hours at work to give her more time for her engineering classes, but it’s difficult for her to get much studying done at home. Her husband has been wonderful about taking care of their young daughter, but he can’t do everything, and lately he’s been hinting more about asking her sister to babysit so that the two of them can go out in the evening the way they used to. Lately, when she’s had to study on a weekend, he leaves with his friends, and Sachito ends up spending the day with her daughter—and not getting much studying done.


What do these very different students have in common? Each has goals that conflict in one or more ways. Each needs to develop strategies to meet their other goals without threatening their academic success. And all of them have time management issues to work through: three because they feel they don’t have enough time to do everything they want or need to do and one because even though he has enough time, he needs to learn how to manage it more effectively. For all four of them, motivation and attitude will be important as they develop strategies to achieve their goals.

It all begins with setting goals and thinking about priorities.

As you think about your own goals, think about more than just being a student. You’re also a person with individual needs and desires, hopes and dreams, plans and schemes. Your long-term goals likely include graduation and a career but may also involve social relationships with others, a romantic relationship, family, hobbies or other activities, where and how you live, and so on. While you are a student you may not be actively pursuing all your goals with the same fervor, but they remain goals and are still important in your life.

Goals also vary in terms of time. Short-term goals focus on today and the next few days and perhaps weeks. Midterm goals involve plans for this school year and the time you plan to remain in college. Long-term goals may begin with graduating college and everything you want to happen thereafter. Often your long-term goals (e.g., the kind of career you want) guide your midterm goals (getting the right education for that career), and your short-term goals (such as doing well on an exam) become steps for reaching those larger goals. Thinking about your goals in this way helps you realize how even the little things you do every day can keep you moving toward your most important long-term goals.

8334714234_161961fd1a_oWrite out your goals in Activity 1. You should literally write them down, because the act of finding the best words to describe your goals helps you think more clearly about them. Follow these guidelines:
Goals should be realistic. It’s good to dream and to challenge yourself, but your goals should relate to your personal strengths and abilities.
Goals should be specific. Don’t write, “I will become a great musician”; instead, write, “I will finish my music degree and be employed in a symphony orchestra.”
Goals should have a time frame. You won’t feel very motivated if your goal is vaguely “to finish college someday.” If you’re realistic and specific in your goals, you should also be able to project a time frame for reaching the goal.
You should really want to reach the goal. We’re willing to work hard to reach goals we really care about, but we’re likely to give up when we encounter obstacles if we don’t feel strongly about a goal. If you’re doing something only because your parents or someone else wants you to, then it’s not your own personal goal—and you may have some more thinking to do about your life.

Activity 1: Personal Goals
Write your goals in the following blanks. Be sure to consider all areas of your life—consider everything important that you want to do between this moment and old age. (While you might aim for three to eight goals in each section, remember that everyone is unique, and you may be just as passionate about just one or two goals or more than eight.)

Short-term goals (today, this week, and this month):









Midterm goals (this year and while in college):









Long-term goals (from college on):











Thinking about your goals gets you started, but it’s also important to think about priorities. We often use the word “priorities” to refer to how important something is to us. We might think, This is a really important goal, and that is less important. Try this experiment: go back to the goals you wrote in Activity 1 and see if you can rank each goal as a 1 (top priority), 2 (middle priority), or 3 (lowest priority).

Priority label on packageIt sounds easy, but do you actually feel comfortable doing that? Maybe you gave a priority 1 to passing your courses and a priority 3 to playing your guitar. So what does that mean—that you never play guitar again, or at least not while in college? Whenever you have an hour free between class and work, you have to study because that’s the higher priority? What about all your other goals—do you have to ignore everything that’s not a priority 1? And what happens when you have to choose among different goals that are both number 1 priorities?

In reality, priorities don’t work quite that way. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to try to rank goals as always more or less important. The question of priority is really a question of what is more important at a specific time. It is important to do well in your classes, but it’s also important to have a social life and enjoy your time off from studying. You shouldn’t have to choose between the two—except at any given time. Priorities always involve time: what is most important to do right now. As we’ll see later, time management is mostly a way to juggle priorities so you can meet all your goals.

When you manage your time well, you don’t have to ignore some goals completely in order to meet other goals. In other words, you don’t have to give up your life when you register for college—but you may need to work on managing your life more effectively.

But time management works only when you’re committed to your goals. Attitude and motivation are very important. If you haven’t yet developed an attitude for success, all the time management skills in the world won’t keep you focused and motivated to succeed.

Watch the following video and pay close attention because you will need this information for your exam.

An Attitude for Success

What’s your attitude right now—what started running through your mind as you saw the “An Attitude for Success” heading? Were you groaning to yourself, thinking, “No, not the attitude thing again!” Or, at the other extreme, maybe you were thinking, “This is great! Now I’m about to learn everything I need to get through college without a problem!” Those are two attitude extremes, one negative and skeptical, the other positive and hopeful. Most students are somewhere in between—but everyone has an attitude of one sort or another.

Everything people do and how they do it starts with attitude. One student gets up with the alarm clock and cheerfully prepares for the day, planning to study for a couple hours between classes, go jogging later, and see a friend at dinner. Another student oversleeps after partying too late last night, decides to skip his first class, somehow gets through later classes fueled by fast food and energy drinks while dreading tomorrow’s exam, and immediately accepts a friend’s suggestion to go out tonight instead of studying. Both students could have identical situations, classes, finances, and academic preparation. There could be just one significant difference—but it’s the one that matters.

Here are some characteristics associated with a positive attitude:

  • Enthusiasm for and enjoyment of daily activities
  • Acceptance of responsibility for one’s actions and feeling good about success
  • Generally upbeat mood and positive emotions, cheerfulness with others, and satisfaction with oneself
  • Motivation to get the job done
  • Flexibility to make changes when needed
  • Ability to make productive, effective use of time

And here are some characteristics associated with a negative attitude:

  • Frequent complaining
  • Blaming others for anything that goes wrong
  • Often experiencing negative emotions: anger, depression, resentment
  • Lack of motivation for work or studies
  • Hesitant to change or seek improvement
  • Unproductive use of time, procrastination

Two men high-fiving outsideWe started this chapter talking about goals, because people’s goals and priorities have a huge effect on their attitude. Someone who really wants to succeed in college is better motivated and can develop a more positive attitude to succeed. But what if you are committed to succeeding in college but still feel kind of doubtful or worried or even down on yourself—what can you do then? Can people really change their attitude? Aren’t people just “naturally” positive or negative or whatever?

While attitude is influenced by one’s personality, upbringing, and past experiences, there is no “attitude gene” that makes you one way or another. It’s not as simple as taking a pill, but attitude can be changed. If you’re committed to your goals, you can learn to adjust your attitude. The following are some things you can start doing.

Be More Upbeat with Yourself

We all have conversations with ourselves. I might do badly on a test, and I start thinking things like, “I’m just not smart enough” or “That teacher is so hard no one could pass that test.” The problem when we talk to ourselves this way is that we listen—and we start believing what we’re hearing. Think about what you’ve been saying to yourself since your first day at college. Have you been negative or making excuses, maybe because you’re afraid of not succeeding? You are smart enough or you wouldn’t be here. Even if you did poorly on a test, you can turn that around into a more positive attitude by taking responsibility. “OK, I goofed off too much when I should have been studying. I learned my lesson—now it’s time to buckle down and study for the next test. I’m going to ace this one!” Hear yourself saying that enough and guess what—you soon find out you can succeed even in your hardest classes.

Choose Whom You Spend Time With

We all know negative and positive people. Sometimes it’s fun to hang out with someone with a negative attitude, especially if their sarcasm is funny. And if we’ve just failed a test, we might enjoy being with someone else who also blames the instructor or “the system” for whatever goes wrong. As they say, misery loves company. But often being with negative people is one of the surest ways to stay negative yourself. You not only hear your own self-talk making excuses and blaming others and putting yourself down, but you hear other people saying it, too. After a while you’re convinced it’s true. You’ve developed a negative attitude that sets you up for failure.

College offers a great opportunity to make new friends. Friendships and other social relationships are important to all humans—and maybe to college students most of all, because of the stresses of college and the changes you’re likely experiencing. Later chapters in this book have some tips for making new friends and getting actively involved in campus life, if you’re not already there. Most important, try to choose friends with a positive attitude. It’s simply more fun to be with people who are upbeat and enjoying life, people whom you respect—and who, like you, are committed to their studies and are motivated. A positive attitude can really be contagious.

Overcome Resistance to Change

While it’s true that most people are more comfortable when their situation is not always changing, many kinds of change are good and should be welcomed. College is a big change from high school or working. Accepting that reality helps you be more positive about the differences. Sure, you have to study more, and the classes are harder. You may be working more and have less time for your personal life. But dwelling on those differences only reinforces a negative attitude. Look instead at the positive changes: the exciting and interesting people you’re meeting, the education you’re getting that will lead to a bright future, and the mental challenges and stimulation you’re feeling every day.

The first step may be simply to see yourself succeeding in your new life. Visualize yourself as a student taking control, enjoying classes, studying effectively, getting good grades. This book will help you do that in many ways. It all begins with the right attitude.

Overcome Fears

One of the most common fears of college students is a fear of failure—of not being able to make the grade. We all know that life is not all roses and that we’re not going to succeed at everything we try. Everyone experiences some sort of failure at some time—and everyone has fears. The question is what you do about it.

Again, think about your goals. You’ve enrolled in college for good reasons, and you’ve already shown your commitment by coming this far. If you still have any fear of failure, turn it around and use it in a positive way. If you’re afraid you may not do well on an upcoming exam, don’t mope around—sit down and schedule times to start studying well ahead of time. It’s mostly a matter of attitude adjustment.

Stay Focused and Motivated

Okay, you’ve got a positive attitude. But you’ve got a lot of reading for classes to do tonight, a test tomorrow, and a paper due the next day. Maybe you’re a little bored with one of your reading assignments. Maybe you’d rather play a computer Woman looking down with concentrationgame. Uh oh—now what? Attitude can change at almost any moment. One minute you’re enthusiastically starting a class project, and then maybe a friend drops by and suddenly all you want to do is close the books and relax a while, hang out with friends.

One of the characteristics of successful people is accepting that life is full of interruptions and change—and planning for it. Staying focused does not mean you become a boring person who does nothing but go to class and study all the time. You just need to make a plan.

Planning ahead is the single best way to stay focused and motivated to reach your goals. Don’t wait until the night before an exam. If you know you have a major exam in five days, start by reviewing the material and deciding how many hours of study you need. Then schedule those hours spread out over the next few days—at times when you are most alert and least likely to be distracted. Allow time for other activities, too, to reward yourself for successful studying. Then when the exam comes, you’re relaxed, you know the material, you’re in a good mood and confident, and you do well.

Planning is mostly a matter of managing your time well, as we’ll see later. Here are some other tips for staying focused and motivated:

  • If you’re not feeling motivated, think about the results of your goals, not just the goals themselves. If just thinking about finishing college doesn’t sound all that exciting, then think instead about the great, high-paying career that comes afterward and the things you can do with that income.
  • Say it aloud—to yourself or a friend with a positive attitude: “I’m going to study now for another hour before I take a break—and I’m getting an A on that test tomorrow!” It’s amazing how saying something aloud puts commitment in it and affirms that it can be true.
  • Remember your successes, even small successes. As you begin a project or approach studying for a test, think about your past success on a different project or test. Remember how good it feels to succeed. Know you can succeed again.
  • Focus on the here and now. For some people, looking ahead to goals, or to anything else, may lead to daydreaming that keeps them from focusing on what they need to do right now. Don’t worry about what you’re doing tomorrow or next week or month. If your mind keeps drifting off, however, you may need to reward or even trick yourself to focus on the here and now. For example, if you can’t stop thinking about the snack you’re going to have when you finish studying in a couple hours, change the plan. Tell yourself you’ll take a break in twenty minutes if you really need it—but only if you really work well first.
  • If you just can’t focus in on what you should be doing because the task seems too big and daunting, break the task into smaller, manageable pieces. Don’t start out thinking, “I need to study the next four hours,” but think, “I’ll spend the next thirty minutes going through my class notes from the last three weeks and figure out what topics I need to spend more time on.” It’s a lot easier to stay focused when you’re sitting down for thirty minutes at a time.
  • Never, ever multitask while studying! You may think that you can monitor e-mail and send text messages while studying, but in reality, these other activities lower the quality of your studying.
  • Imitate successful people. Does a friend always seem better able to stick with studying or work until they get it done? What are they doing that you’re not? We all learn from observing others, and we can speed up that process by deliberately using the same strategies we see working with others. Visualize yourself studying in the same way and getting that same high grade on the test or paper.
  • Separate yourself from unsuccessful people. This is the flip side of imitating successful people. If a roommate or a friend is always putting off things until the last minute or is distracted with other interests and activities, tell yourself how different you are. When you hear other students complaining about how hard a class is or bragging about not studying or attending class, visualize yourself as not being like them at all.
  • Reward yourself when you complete a significant task—but only when you are done. Some people seem able to stay focused only when there’s a reward waiting.
  • While some people work harder for the reward, others are motivated more by the price of failing. While some people are almost paralyzed by anxiety, others are moved by their fear to achieve their best.
  • Get the important things done first. We’ll talk about managing your academic planner and to-do lists later in the chapter, but for now, to stay focused and motivated, concentrate on the things that matter most. You’re about to sit down to read a chapter in a book you’re not much enjoying, and you suddenly notice some clothing piled up on a chair. “I really should clean up this place,” you think. “And I’d better get my laundry done before I run out of things to wear.” Don’t try to fool yourself into feeling you’re accomplishing something by doing laundry rather than studying. Stay focused!


Network for Success

Making friends with people with positive attitudes not only helps you maintain a positive attitude yourself, but it gets you started networking with other students in ways that will help you succeed.

People cutouts connected by stringDid you study alone or with friends in high school? Because college classes are typically much more challenging, many college students discover they do better, and find it much more enjoyable, if they study with other students taking same course. This might mean organizing a study group or just getting together with a friend to review material before a test. It’s good to start thinking right away about networking with other students in your classes.

If you consider yourself an independent person and prefer studying and doing projects on your own rather than with others, think for a minute about how most people function in their careers and professions, what the business world is like. Most work today is done by teams or individuals working together in a collaborative way. Very few jobs involve a person always being and working alone. The more you learn to study and work with other students now, the more skills you are mastering for a successful career.

Studying with other students has immediate benefits. You can quiz each other to help ensure that everyone understands the course material; if you’re not clear about something, someone else can help teach it to you. You can read and respond to each other’s writing and other work. You can divide up the work in group projects. And through it all, you can often have more fun than if you were doing it on your own.

Studying together is also a great way to start networking—a topic we’ll discuss more in coming chapters. Networking has many potential benefits for your future. College students who feel they are part of a network on campus are more motivated and more successful in college.

Tips for Success: Staying Motivated

  • Keep your eye on your long-term goals while working toward immediate goals.
  • Keep your priorities straight—but also save some time for fun.
  • Work on keeping your attitude positive.
  • Keep the company of positive people; imitate successful people.
  • Don’t let past habits drag you down.
  • Plan ahead to avoid last-minute pressures.
  • Focus on your successes.
  • Break large projects down into smaller tasks or stages.
  • Reward yourself for completing significant tasks.
  • Avoid multitasking.
  • Network with other students; form a study group.

Problem Solving: When Setbacks Happen

Even when you have clear goals and are motivated and focused to achieve them, problems sometimes happen. Accept that they will happen, since inevitably they do for everyone. The difference between those who succeed by solving the problem and moving on and those who get frustrated and give up is partly attitude and partly experience—and knowing how to cope when a problem occurs.

Lots of different kinds of setbacks may happen while you’re in college—just as to everyone in life. Here are a few examples:

  • A financial crisis
  • An illness or injury
  • A crisis involving family members or loved ones
  • Stress related to frequently feeling you don’t have enough time
  • Stress related to relationship problems

Some things happen that we cannot prevent—such as some kinds of illness, losing one’s job because of a business slowdown, or crises involving family members. But many other kinds of problems can be prevented or made less likely to occur. You can take steps to stay healthy, as you’ll learn in Chapter 10 “Taking Control of Your Health”. You can take control of your finances and avoid most financial problems common among college students, as you’ll learn in Chapter 11 “Taking Control of Your Finances”. You can learn how to build successful social relationships and get along better with your instructors, with other students, and in personal relationships. You can learn time management techniques to ensure you use your time effectively for studying. Most of the chapters in this book also provide study tips and guidelines to help you do well in your classes with effective reading, note-taking, test-taking, and writing skills for classes. Preventing the problems that typically keep college students from succeeding is much of what this book is all about.

Woman frowning in front of computerNot all problems can be avoided. Illness or a financial problem can significantly set one back—especially when you’re on a tight schedule and budget. Other problems, such as a social or relationship issue or an academic problem in a certain class, may be more complex and not easily prevented. What then?

First, work to resolve the immediate problem:

  1. Stay motivated and focused. Don’t let frustration, anxiety, or other negative emotions make the problem worse than it already is.
  2. Analyze the problem to consider all possible solutions. An unexpected financial setback doesn’t automatically mean you have to drop out of school—not when alternatives such as student loans, less expensive living arrangements, or other possible solutions may be available. Failing a midterm exam doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to fail the course—not when you make the effort to determine what went wrong, work with your instructor and others on an improved study plan, and use better strategies to prepare for the next test.
  3. Seek help when you need to. None of us gets through life alone, and it’s not a sign of weakness to see your academic advisor or a college counselor if you have a problem.
  4. When you’ve developed a plan for resolving the problem, work to follow through. If it will take a while before the problem is completely solved, track your progress in smaller steps so that you can see you really are succeeding. Every day will move you one step closer to putting it behind you.

After you’ve solved a problem, be sure to avoid it again in the future:

  1. Be honest with yourself: how did you contribute to the problem? Sometimes it’s obvious: a student who drank heavily at a party the night before a big test failed the exam because he was so hung over he couldn’t think straight. Sometimes the source of the problem is not as obvious but may become clearer the more you think about it. Another student did a lot of partying during the term but studied all day before the big test and was well rested and clearheaded at test time but still did poorly; he may not yet have learned good study skills. Another student has frequent colds and other mild illnesses that keep him from doing his best: how much better would he feel if he ate well, got plenty of exercise, and slept enough every night? If you don’t honestly explore the factors that led to the problem, it’s more likely to happen again.
  2. Take responsibility for your life and your role in what happens to you. Earlier we talked about people with negative attitudes, who are always blaming others, fate, or “the system” for their problems. It’s no coincidence that they keep on having problems. Unless you want to keep having problems, don’t keep blaming others.
  3. Taking responsibility doesn’t mean being down on yourself. Failing at something doesn’t mean you are a failure. We all fail at something, sometime. Adjust your attitude so you’re ready to get back on track and feel happy that you’ll never make that mistake again!
  4. Make a plan. You might still have a problem on that next big test if you don’t make an effective study plan and stick to it. You may need to change your behavior in some way, such as learning time management strategies. (Read on!)


  • Goals should be realistic, specific, and time oriented, and you must be committed to them.
  • Setting priorities helps keep you focused on your goals but doesn’t determine how you use your time at all times.
  • Attitude is often the major reason students succeed or fail in college. Everyone can work on developing a more positive, motivating attitude.
  • Planning, the essence of time management, is necessary to stay focused and continue moving toward your goals.
  • Networking with other students helps you stay motivated as well as making studying more effective.
  • Since problems and setbacks are inevitable, knowing how to solve problems is important for reaching goals. With a good attitude, most common student problems can be prevented.


  1. Which of the following goal statements is written in a way that shows the person has carefully considered what he or she wants to achieve?
    1. I will do better in my math course.
    2. I will earn at least a B on my next English paper.
    3. I will study more this term.
  2. List ways in which a negative attitude can prevent students from being successful in college.
  3. Think about your friends in college or other students you have observed in one of your classes. Choose one who usually seems positive and upbeat and one who sometimes or frequently shows a negative attitude about college. Visualize both their faces—side by side—as if you are talking to both of them. Now imagine yourself sitting down to study with one of them for a final exam. Describe how you would imagine that study session going.
  4. Look back at the four students described at the beginning of the chapter. Each of them is experiencing some sort of problem that could interrupt their progress toward their goals. Think about each student and write down a solution for each problem that you would try to work out, if you were that person.
    1. For Juan:
    2. For Becky:
    3. For James:
    4. For Sachito:
  5. List a few things you can do if you’re having trouble getting motivated to sit down to study.