Follow your dreams. It’s advice we’ve all heard—and something adult students are trying to put into action every day. Without a specific plan, though, it’s easy for your dreams for the future to feel too far away or too difficult to achieve.
Setting clear, actionable goals can help you more effectively develop a plan to get from where you are today to where you want to be tomorrow. It also helps you benchmark progress on a daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly basis, so you always have complete insight into how far you’ve come and what needs to happen next.
But how can you set good goals, and what separates achievable ones from unrealistic fantasies? Here’s everything you need to know.
Why Goal Setting Is So Important
Most of us have heard that we need to be setting goals. For many, this advice dates back to elementary school, when you might have written weekly tasks in a notebook at the behest of your teacher. But goal setting isn’t there just to keep you organized. There’s real science to support it—and the influence it can have on schoolwork.
A 2016 study compared students who participated in an academic goal-setting program to those who did not. Those who set goals had fewer academic difficulties and were more likely to graduate.
Similarly, a 2014 study followed students who participated in a goal-setting program. The study found that setting goals directly affected academic achievement, increasing students’ chances of reaching the benchmarks the student identified for themselves. Even when students set goals that were only indirectly related to school, such as reducing stress, they were more likely to achieve academic goals.
So why is goal setting so closely tied to academic performance? There are many reasons:
- If you don’t set goals, it can be very difficult to tie your daily activities to your plans for the future. Establishing a clear plan and specific benchmarks for achieving them helps drive a sense of purpose.
- Determining what you want out of your life offers greater motivation. It can also help guide your decisions about the type of degree to pursue and where to enroll.
- Studying, classroom time, and similar factors aren’t the only things influencing your college experience. If you don’t take time for self-care, you may quickly burn out. Likewise, if you can’t tend to your other obligations, you may have to scale back your efforts in the classroom. So setting goals even for unrelated aspects of your life may prove critical to graduating on time.
How Goals Help Adult Students Manage Their Time
Goals aren’t distant beacons of hope for the future. Instead, they should affect every aspect of how you live your life today. After all, the choices you make now offer the clearest path to where you hope to be down the road. Time is a truly finite resource. When it’s gone, it’s gone. Setting specific objectives helps you make the most of every moment. Here’s how:
- You can work backwards from big goals to create actionable steps. Want to become a lawyer? You may need to graduate college, take the LSAT, attend law school, pass the bar exam, and more. You need to graduate college first, so start figuring out what you need to do to accomplish this feat.
- It’s easier to accomplish big things when you break them down into smaller steps. What do you need to do this year, this month, this week, and today? Once you know that, you can better manage your time—not to mention gain a clearer understanding of how long it will take to reach the finish line.
- Setting realistic and achievable big goals makes it easier to break your dreams down into smaller pieces. When you achieve each one, you can build upon your success. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by a daunting goal. And feeling overwhelmed may deter you from taking the big first step.
Setting Goals for Your Future: Where to Begin
If you’re not sure how to make your dreams for the future a reality, you’re not alone. Many adult students feel frustrated by where they are, but unsure how to go somewhere else. For example, 60 percent of adults have contemplated a return to college, but worry that finances will get in the way.
Your plan for the future can help you decide what to do today. However, don’t rely on vague hopes to make money, publish a book, or have a better life. Get specific. These questions can help you focus on the right career path:
- What can you see yourself doing in the future?
- How much money do you need to make, and what sorts of careers can help you earn that money?
- What do people in the fields you are considering say about their work?
- What are the tasks you enjoy most in your current job?
Once you have the vision in your head, it’s time to figure out how to get there:
- What specific steps must you take to achieve this goal? Do you need a degree? Must you attend graduate school?
- How long will it take to achieve this goal? Is there anything you can do to expedite the timeline?
- What specific steps can you take right now to get closer to your goal?
Break your plan into smaller parts, with yearly, monthly, and weekly goals. You might endeavor to graduate college within two years, apply by the end of the month, and enroll by the end of the summer.
Monitor how closely you’re sticking to your goals. If you find yourself continually falling behind, you might not be sufficiently motivated—or your timeline might not be reasonable. Revisit your plan, and decide whether there’s a more effective path forward. Re-evaluating what works and what doesn’t is critical to all major successes, so don’t let a few setbacks deter you.
Sticking to Your Goals as an Adult Student
Picture your life as an adult student. It’s going to be busy. And though there’s a lot of joy in reaching for the stars, it can also be deeply stressful. You might not get to do everything you want to do right now. You may have to make financial sacrifices. You’ll almost certainly begin a complex juggling act. It’s a good idea to adopt a contingency plan now so that you’re ready for the tough moments. Here are some strategies that can help you remain on track:
- Make a list of all the reasons you’re returning to school. It should be as concrete as possible—more money, a bigger house, a college fund for your child. When you’re struggling with motivation, spend some time looking at it.
- Anticipate your biggest challenges. Do you have kids who need to stay busy while you study? Are you still working full-time? Looking realistically at these barriers now can help you develop a plan for smooth sailing when you enroll in classes.
- Develop a stress management plan. White-knuckling your way through it is not a sustainable option. You need to know how you’ll thrive in the face of adversity.
- Talk to other adult students about their strategies for succeeding. At SNU, you can lean on the wisdom of your cohort.
- Plan out your days in advance. If you wake up without a clear sense of purpose or specific understanding of what you need to accomplish that day, you’re bound to flounder. Dedicate a bit of time each evening to reflecting on the day’s achievements and planning for tomorrow.
How SNU Supports You
At SNU, we believe in the inherent value and worth of each student. We know you bring something unique to our community. We also understand that we play a critical role in helping you transform your innate gifts into something that improves your own life while serving humanity. We work with you to identify your plans for the future and implement strategies for achieving them.
Our financial aid office helps you figure out how to pay for college, with an eye toward the future so that you don’t take on too much debt. If you need help managing the stress of returning to school, our chaplain and counseling center are here for you. And for the daily challenges of academic life, take advantage of our unique cohort model, which pairs you with a group of peers who will become your professional network. Perhaps most importantly, we empower you to attend school on your own terms—either online or with just one class a week. School should be a part of a balanced life, not something that takes you away from everything else that matters.
We know you can succeed. If you’re ready to turn the page to the next chapter, we’re here to help. For more practical tips on succeeding as an adult student, subscribe to our blog.