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Three Goal-Setting Tips That Every Student Should Know

Yearly planner with title: Three Goal Setting Tips That Every Student Should Know

By Chelsea Latorre, M.Ed.

How are those New Year’s Resolutions holding up this time of the year? Are you having trouble keeping your goals on track? How often do you feel guilty or upset with yourself that you are not meeting your goals? Do you need help narrowing and refining your goals to meet you where you are at today, in this moment, and not back in January of this year?

The problem of maintaining goal-achievement happens to most of us. We assign a goal to ourselves and beat ourselves up when it’s difficult to achieve or maintain. Let’s face it - January was a long time ago and it is time that we focus on how we can create and track our goals effectively in the present moment. 

Try these three strategies when setting goals and you will be able to accomplish more and track your performance along the way:

Consider your language

One of the biggest problems we have when setting goals has to do with how we word and frame our goals. Something as simple as changing the words in your goals and focusing the phrasing of your goals can help to improve motivation and increase opportunities to accomplish these goals.

There are two different types of goals we set: avoidance and approach goals. Avoidance goals are goals that emphasize a negative outcome and they tend to focus on moving away from undesirable outcomes. Examples of this type of goal would be “I want to stop eating fast food” or “I don’t want to be sad anymore.” Notice how (1) the phrasing of these goals has a negative connotation (using the word stop or don’t want to) and (2) are focused on staying away from the “bad” outcome (eating fast food or being sad).

On the other hand, approach goals emphasize positive outcomes and focus on moving toward a desirable outcome. If we changed the above goals to be approach goals, it would read “I want to eat healthier food options” and “I want to improve my mood.” The premise of these goals is the same as the goals listed above as avoidance goals; however, they focus more on the target of what we want (healthy eating and happiness) versus the things that might signal failure to us (unhealthy eating and sadness).

Why is this important? Research shows that people who use avoidance language to shape their goals tend to show less improvement, experience lower levels of well-being, have decreased motivation to accomplish their goals, and identify more reasons for failure and more barriers to accomplishing their goal. In addition, people who ended up accomplishing avoidance goals indicated being less happy about their achievements compared to people who accomplished approach goals. 

What type of goals are you setting?

When creating a goal, most people just think of an outcome they want and then shape their goal around that. The examples above illustrate that – wanting to be happier and eat healthier. These are examples of outcome goals. Outcome goals are focused on an end-goal (obviously) and are helpful to create benchmarks for goal-tracking. 

The second type of goal is a process goal. Process goals are focused on daily action steps that are taken to reach outcome goals. These kinds of goals improve our motivation and make it easier for us to accomplish our outcome goals.

The good thing about process goals is that we are more in control of accomplishing these in the short-term. So, it’s important that we have both types of goals. Take a look at your goals and break them into outcome and process goals – each outcome goal should have at least three independent process goals that are related. For example, if your outcome goal is “achieve a 3.5 GPA this semester” some examples of process goals might be: monitoring caffeine, exercise, and electronics before bed; sticking to a planned bedtime; and limiting distractions. 

Track your performance

After you have structured your goals with “approach” language and created outcomes goals with subsequent process goals, the next and final step involves tracking your performance. This is the part that many people miss or overlook – we often think about and write out our goals out but we don’t do anything to track them. Tracking is one of the main things you can do to make sure you accomplish, or work toward accomplishing, your goals.

First, you will want to write out your goals on a weekly calendar. Something, like this: 

Weekly planner layout with goals listed on left

You will want to keep one of these for every week of the semester (or every week that you want to keep working toward the goal). For every day that you accomplish one of the process goals, you will want to add a star. For every day that the process goal was not accomplished, you will want to add a “X.” So after week one, your tracking sheet may look something like this:

Weekly planner with goals listed on left, and markings under each day of the week stating whether or not the person reached their goal

There are several advantages to keeping a tracking sheet. First, a tracking sheet helps to make your goals visible. When goals are visible, they are more likely to be attended to and accomplished. The tracking sheet also gives you the opportunity to see what patterns occur during your week and you may be able to see what barriers and obstacles you run into. By tracking these outcomes, you can plan for ways to face upcoming barriers and obstacles in the upcoming week. Lastly, this tracking sheet can be a source of accountability and be the motivation you need to work toward that goal every single day.

Remember, “what gets measured, gets managed.” Consider these three tips when setting goals you wish to accomplish in the future and notice ways your perseverance toward these goals enhances compared to previous goal-setting strategies. On a final note, I challenge you to create a variety of different goals, whether they be related to academics, social life, self-care, diet, sleep hygiene, physical exercise, etc.


Chelsea Latorre

  Chelsea is a 4th year doctoral candidate in Counseling Psychology at WVU. She is a supervised advanced trainee at the Carruth Center, where she provides individual and group counseling to students. She is involved in various outreach programs on-campus and is passionate about helping students achieve their full potential. Check out our upcoming workshops ! Interested in scheduling a workshop for your organization/group on campus? Request a program on our outreach and consultation page .  

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