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Powerful Goal-Setting Strategies for the New School Year

Setting goals for what you want to achieve in the upcoming semester is a fabulous way to start the school year!

In order to have a “successful” semester, you need to know what success means to you, and identify exactly WHAT you want to accomplish – and that’s what goal-setting is all about.

Why is setting goals so important? There are numerous reasons, but here are 3 of the big ones:

  1. Setting goals encourages you to become proactive, rather than reactive.“Proactive” literally means “forward action” — it means that you are looking towards what you want, and taking action to create it without waiting for someone else to tell you to do it. Proactive people take responsibility for their lives, and recognize that they are in control of the results they achieve. In contrast, “reactive” comes from the root word “re”, or “back”. Being reactive means that you are responding to other people or events, and letting external circumstances dictate your results. Setting goals is a great way to become more proactive!
  2. Goals motivate you to adopt good habits. Scientists estimate that 40% or more of our behavior is governed by habit, and happens automatically without us even thinking about it. This can be very helpful when it comes to habits like brushing your teeth, because it reduces the number of decisions you have to make every day. However, putting your behavior on autopilot can create problems when you develop habits that aren’t so helpful – like waiting until 9 pm every night to start your homework – that take you in a direction you didn’t really want to go. Pausing to reflect on the results you achieved last year, and setting goals for the upcoming semester, can give you the perspective you need to change your behavior. Clear, motivating goals act as a valuable reminder of your desired destinationand encourage you to consciously adopt new habits that will support you on your journey.
  3. Having goals simplifies everyday decisions, and makes choices easier.We’re often faced with situations where we have to choose between an activity that is going to give us an immediate reward and one that is going to lead to benefits down the road. Having clear, motivating goals for the semester that you’re excited to achieve can make it easier to put these daily choices in perspective and make it easier to decide what to do. Making decisions with your goal in mind also means that you’re more likely to feel good about those choices when you look back on them 3 months from now.

The bottom line is that goals put YOU in control of your life by making you more proactive, encouraging you to adopt supportive habits, and making decisions easier for you, and making it easier to stay focused and motivated.

For all of these reasons, goals can be a wonderful tool…if they are used properly. Unfortunately, the way that most people set goals is wildly ineffective.

Here are 7 common mistakes many people make when setting their goals:

  1. The outcome is not in your control
  2. It’s about what think you “should” do, rather than what you actually want.
  3. Focusing on what you want to avoid, rather than what you want to achieve
  4. It’s so ambitious you don’t really believe you can accomplish it
  5. It’s too vague
  6. Not writing it down
  7. Writing it down once and then forgetting to look at it again

If you’ve tried setting goals before and haven’t gotten the results you were hoping for, you may have been making one of these mistakes. New Year’s Resolutions are a great example of this: they are usually very general, they’re focused on things people think they should do – or should avoid doing, like losing weight or eating less chocolate – they have no deadline, and they are written down once and then forgotten. No wonder only 8% of people who set New Year’s resolutions actually achieve them!

Happily, there are some very easy steps you can take to ensure that your goals are far more effective.

5-step formula for setting goals that WORK:

  1. Choose a meaningful goal, and know why it matters to you. Choose a goal that is meaningful to YOU (not just your parents or your teachers), and know WHY it matters. If you can’t write down at least 3 reasons why achieving this goal is really important to you, it’s probably not a good choice.
  2. Make sure the goal is something you are excited about achieving. The most effective goals are the ones that you pursue for their own sake – because they are enjoyable, fun, interesting, and challenging…and because accomplishing them makes you feel good about yourself. If you imagine yourself achieving your goal and don’t feel happy & excited, that’s probably not a good goal for you. If you can’t think of any goals that sound exciting, do you have a “wish” or “dream” you want to achieve? As long as it’s something you genuinely want, and it’s possible for you to achieve, a “wish” or “dream” can work just as well as a goal (or even better, if it’s more motivating for you!)
  3. Choose a goal that is big enough to be exciting, but small enough to be achievable. If you’re 80% confident that this goal is something you can achieve if you really apply yourself, that’s about the right level of difficulty. If it’s too much easier than that, it’s probably a relatively unimportant goal that you won’t feel very excited or motivated about achieving. If it’s too much harder, it can seem impossible to achieve, which will lead you to avoid or procrastinate on it. If you have a big goal and want to shrink it, try breaking it down into steps and setting the first step as your initial goal. Or extend your deadline to give yourself more time to accomplish it.
  4. State your goal in the POSITIVE! Set goals for what you want to ACHIEVE, not for what you want to avoid. For example, if you were setting a goal for the grade you want to get in English this semester, it would be better to say “I want to get a B or higher”, rather than “I really don’t want to get a C.”The trouble with setting a goal about what you DON’T want is that your brain is highly visual, and you can’t visualize “NOT getting a C” except by imagining yourself getting a C…and then telling yourself that you don’t want that. But your subconscious brain can’t tell the difference between vividly imagined images and reality, so by repeatedly imagining yourself getting a C you’re actually creating a subconscious expectation of yourself getting a C, which makes that outcome more likely to happen.

    This has been verified by scientific studies, which show that setting “avoidance goals” leads to more anxiety — and lower grades — than setting no goals at all. So, make sure your goals are phrased in the positive!

  5. Choose goals for which the outcome is completely within your control. If the outcome is not in your control, setting goals can create a lot of stress. Students often run into this problem by setting goals around their grades, which are, unfortunately, NOT completely in their control. For instance, imagine that you decide “my goal is to get an A in English this semester.” The problem is that whether or not you are able to reach this goal is not totally in your control. What if you end up with an English teacher who prides herself on being extremely demanding, and has only given out A’s to 3 of her students in the past 20 years? There’s a good chance that, no matter how hard you try, you might not reach your goal of getting an A in that class.The trick in this situation is to set a goal to achieve the outcomes that generally result in high grades (e.g. understanding the material and producing high-quality work), but that ARE completely in your control. For example, your goal could be: “I will start working on each English assignment the day it is assigned, complete every project by 10 pm on the night before it is due, and spend at least 2 hours studying during the 2 days prior to each test”.

This is a better goal to focus on than “I will get an A in English” because it’s completely in your control. So, no matter what your teacher does, you get to determine whether or not you achieve your goal. It’s also more motivating, because it keeps you focused on the actions you can take to achieve your goal.

If you follow these steps, you will have a well-formed goal with the power to help you create great results! However, if you put it in a drawer and never look at again, you’re unlikely to achieve it.

If you want to maximize your chances of success, here are 4 critical steps to take AFTER setting your goal to ensure that you ACHIEVE it:

1. Once you have your goal, make sure that you WRITE it down.
The wording you use when you write it is also very important.

Make sure that your written goal is:

  • Specific (so you know exactly what you’re aiming for)
  • Measurable (so you’ll know when you’ve accomplished it)
  • Deadline-driven (so it feels more urgent & motivating) 
  • Stated in the PERSONAL, present tense (“I am”)
  • Includes the emotion you will feel when you achieve it (“so happy and grateful”).

Wording your goals this way may SOUND a little strange, but it is the most powerful way to communicate this goal to your subconscious brain. And since your subconscious brain controls about 95% of your behavior, it’s very important to get it on board!

2. Create a PLAN for how to accomplish it. For instance, if your goal is: “I will complete all of the assigned work in my English class and turn in every assignment on time.” then your action steps could be:

  • By August 28, I will get a copy of the syllabus from the teacher and write down all of the major due dates for tests and projects on my calendar.
  • I will complete every assignment by 10 pm on the night before it is due
  • I will start working on long-term projects the day they are assigned
  • I will spend at least 30 minutes of focused study time a day reviewing the course material in the week before the exam.

Notice that this plan has a mixture of tasks with deadlines and ongoing tasks. This is OK – most goals will have a combination of date-specific action steps and regular, ongoing daily or weekly actions or habits.

3. Create reminder systems that will keep your goal – and your action steps — fresh in your mind.Some great ways to do this are:

  • Write your goal on an index card, and keep it with you all the time. Review it multiple times every day. Post your goal-setting worksheet (described below) on your bedroom wall or paperclip onto the inside front cover of your school planner and review it at least once a day. 
  • Record one-time or date-specific action steps on a to-do list or calendar.
  • Record any regular, ongoing habits on a daily behavior checklist for at least 30 days until the behavior becomes a habit. You can see examples of behavior checklists at http://Goalforit.com orhttp://www.42goals.com

4. CELEBRATE! Acknowledge yourself for each step you take towards your goals! Just by reading this article you’re already on your way to an incredible fall semester!

Next Steps:
Now that you’ve read this article, you know more than most adults about how to set effective goals that really work. Now it’s your turn to let’s put these strategies to work for you!

How can YOU apply this information to your OWN life?

Think about what YOU want to achieve this semester, and use the tips in this article to set an effective goal and accompanying action steps!

I’ve also created a special goal-setting activity sheet that will walk you through the steps for how to create a powerful, achievable, and effective goal for your fall semester. I use this sheet with my private clients in our coaching sessions to help them select and create meaningful, motivating, and actionable goals.

You can get your own copy of this special goal-setting template by visiting my website at http://creatingpositivefutures.com/goal_sheet

I hope this article has been helpful! If you have more questions about goal setting, or want to learn more about how I can support you setting and achieving your academic goals, please feel free to email me at [email protected]


About the Author

Dr. Maggie Wray is an Atlanta-based academic coach who helps high school and college students get organized, manage their time more effectively, feel happier and less “stressed out”, and identify careers and majors that are a great fit for their personality and strengths.

Maggie graduated with honors from Princeton University, earned a Ph.D. in neurobiology and behavior from Cornell, and taught undergraduate classes at Cornell for 4 years. In addition to running her own coaching practice, Creating Positive Futures, she works part-time with Applerouth as a premium-level tutor for SAT, ACT, and college essays. If you would like to learn more about Dr. Maggie and how she helps prepare students for success, please email her at [email protected] or visit her website at http://CreatingPositiveFutures.com.


Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 866-789-PREP (7737) or [email protected].

  • Patricia Butts

    Thank you for this information it has motivated me to get my degree even more