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How to Set Goals to Achieve Your College and Career Dreams

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how to set goals for college and careerAs 2014 begins, high school and college students like many people are making the obligatory New Year’s resolutions and setting goals to kick the year off right. If you’re in high school, you may want to get accepted to your dream school—but do you know what steps to take to apply? If you’re an undergrad, you may have your sights set on a specific career or grad school—do you know the skills you’ll need to get there? Do you know how to achieve your goals?

Getting detailed about your dreams can make a huge difference in your performance. Here are some tips to get you started on setting realistic, achievable goals.

1. Break your goals down into manageable chunks.

If your aim is simply, “Get into a top-tier college,” that’s not going to help you much. Consider deconstructing this into highly specific subgoals—such as (1) get my math grade up this term, (2) take a practice SAT exam once a week, (3) find a teacher who can write my letter of recommendation, and (4) join the school band. You’ll find it much easier to stay on track.

2. Do your research.

It’s a good idea to research schools and careers you’re interested in as soon as possible—preferably years in advance—so you can develop concrete goals.

If you’re in high school, make a list of colleges you would like to attend, including dream and safety schools. Find out the average GPA (or, if that’s not available, class percentile) and standardized test scores of accepted students. The Fiske Guide to Colleges is a great resource for finding this kind of data on hundreds of the country’s best schools. If you’re in college and plan on continuing your education, do the same thing for grad schools.

Read up on the requirements and skills for careers you’re considering. Ask people in those industries for advice on how to prepare. For a good (and free) introduction to many different types of careers, including their educational requirements, check out the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, available online at (click on the Index link to see a list of jobs).

Knowing what’s required will make it easier to set goals for your GPA, your curriculum, your test scores, your skill set, and much, much more—and with goals comes motivation.

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3. Don’t let uncertainty about your future overwhelm you.

If you don’t know what you want to do with the rest of your life, don’t despair. Many students are conflicted about their career paths, and this is the perfect time for exploration. Keep yourself motivated by focusing on more immediate, short-term goals.

For instance, in high school you can focus on:

  • Completing the coursework in each class to the best of your ability.
  • Fulfilling your school’s graduation requirements.
  • Preparing applications for college.
  • Applying for internships or jobs.
  • Studying for standardized tests.

If you’re in college, you have goals such as:

  • Deciding on a major. You can do this by looking at the requirements for each department, taking a wide variety of classes to see which ones you like the best, researching what kind of jobs are available for the majors you’re considering, and taking a career evaluation test at your school’s career services center.
  • Completing the requirements for your major, once you declare one.
  • Deciding on and completing a senior thesis, if required.

Even if you don’t have concrete plans for the future, try to do the best you can in every class. Good grades will help you no matter what you choose to pursue in the end. You’ll learn valuable skills in almost every subject, and at the very least you’ll come away with a better sense of what you like and don’t like.

Remember: Don’t let uncertainty about your future paralyze your present. Follow these goal-setting tips, and you’ll start the New Year on the right track for success.

For more tips, tools, and techniques for acing high school and college and achieving your dreams, check out The Secrets of Top Students by Stefanie Weisman in the College Countdown store.

learn more about the secrets of top students

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Tagged in: Careers Motivation

Stefanie Weisman became the valedictorian of Stuyvesant High School in 1999 and went on to study history at Columbia University. She was awarded the Albert Asher Green Prize for having the highest GPA in her class. After working for several years in corporate America, she got her M.A. in the history of art and archaeology. She was a Craig Hugh Smyth fellow at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. Around this time, Weisman developed an interest in technology and returned to Columbia to get a B.S. in computer science.

Weisman is the author of The Secrets of Top Students.