1 Successful students have goals

Succeeding in college is rather like succeeding in life. It’s really much more about you than it is about college. So the most important place to start is to consider why you’re here, what matters to you, and what you expect to get out it. Even if you have already thought about these questions, it’s good to reaffirm your commitment to your plan as we begin to consider what’s really involved in being a college student. Let’s take a look at successful student have goals.

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Students who have long term life and career goals see college as one step towards achieving their goals. This can set a purpose and a direction for students. It can increase students’ day-to-day and semester-to-semester motivation because they see that each course is part of a greater whole that will help them in the future. This can also help with persistence, with keeping at it when things are tough. There will be challenges during your college career. There may be times you feel like giving up or you just don’t feel like going to class, reading your textbook, or writing that paper. Having that purpose, that long term goal can help you decide to move past that challenge and keep going. We call this resiliency.

Goals help you set priorities and remain motivated and committed to your college success. Setting a long term goal usually leads to setting medium and short term goals. These are practical goals related to being a student that can help you make better decisions when considering your choices of how to spend your time. Setting priorities with shorter term goals can help you see what you need to do next. Working through goals can help you feel more in control and can reduce stress.

Attitude is the largest factor determining success in college. Work to stay positive and surround yourself with positive people, and you’ll find you are motivated to carry out the activities that will help you succeed in your courses.

Goal Setting

A 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.

It all begins with setting goals and thinking about priorities.

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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.

Write out your goals.

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.


Everything people do and how they do it starts with attitude.

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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, frustration, resentment
  • Lack of motivation for work or studies
  • Hesitant to change or seek improvement
  • Unproductive use of time, procrastination

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 game. 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.

Plan ahead

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, there is more about this topic in the Successful Students Get it Together chapter.

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.
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  • 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.
  • Get the important things done first. Stay focused, motivated and 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!
  • 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.
  • 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.


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 and see if you can rank each goal as a

  1. Top priority
  2. Middle priority
  3. Lowest priority

It 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?

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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.


Key Takeaways

  • Having long-term goals (college diploma) lead to setting midterm goals (by semester) which can be broken down into short-term goals (completing an assignment).
  • Writing out your goals helps you think more clearly about what you want to achieve.
  • Having enthusiasm for daily life, accepting responsibility, being motivated and flexible, and making effective use of time are signs of a positive attitude.
  • Planning ahead is the single best way to stay focused and motivated to reach your goals.
  • When deciding what to do with your time, considering your priorities is a good way to decide what to do next.
  • Goals help you set priorities and remain committed to your college success.



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A Guide for Successful Students Copyright © 2019 by St. Clair College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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