Goal Setting for Students: A Step-by-Step Guide

06 Oct, 2023 | Blog Articles, Get the Edge

You may not realise it, but as a student you set and achieve goals every day. This can be as simple as revising for an hour or two after school, or reading a chapter from a book before bed. 

It can be hard to take a step back from the smaller details of our daily lives to see all the personal and academic progress we’ve made. By formally setting out – and achieving! – clear goals, we can see how we’ve made that progress, and plan our next steps with confidence. 

Here’s our step-by-step guide to setting up these goals in order to become the best student you can be!

Why Should You Set Goals in High School?

Setting goals in high school can help you achieve your full potential in your schoolwork and assessments. It’s also an excellent way to start considering your plans for university and your future career. 

Let’s say you want to be an architect when you finish school. By setting small but meaningful goals, you can work to develop the relevant skills and knowledge for entry onto an Architecture degree. This could involve reading around the topic, practising drawing or sculpting, or enrolling on an extra-curricular course.

Keeping these goals in mind, and understanding that smaller tasks contribute to a broader aim, can boost your motivation and give you the drive you need to succeed.

What Are the Different Types of Goals You Can Set?

Goals can range from short-term targets or daily tasks, to long-term plans that span two or three years, so having a mixture of goals is essential. 

Long-term goals are great for staying motivated and helping you find purpose and direction, but by themselves they can feel a little overwhelming. It’s useful to also set yourself short-term goals. These are much quicker to achieve, but still contribute to your overarching goals. 

Think of your long-term goals as the peak of a mountain; to reach the top, you’ll need to do a lot of walking, but every individual step takes you upwards! Short-term goals could include researching work experience opportunities or staying up to date on industry news.

You can also consider personal development goals. Skills like time-management, self-confidence, and communication skills are valuable across all walks of life. If you were to set yourself the goal of improving your communication skills, a short-term goal might be to contribute more to class discussions. Little by little, your communication skills are sure to improve with practice!

Setting SMART Goals 

If you’re still unsure of the exact kind of goals to set yourself, you might find it helpful to work within the SMART framework, making sure your goals are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.

1. Specific

Setting yourself the goal to get better grades, without specifying how, is a bit vague and might be difficult to achieve. 

Instead, you could identify an important subject for the degree or career you’re considering, and aim to increase your grade from a B to an A. Now your goal is clear and concise, and you know exactly what you’re aiming for. 

2. Measurable

Similarly, instead of setting yourself the goal to read more, you might decide to read two books on your chosen subject. This means you can easily track your progress towards a tangible end goal. Once you’ve finished one book, you know you’re half-way there!

3. Achievable

We encourage you to set yourself ambitious goals, but make sure they’re not impossible! 

Setting yourself a goal that you can’t realistically achieve can be dispiriting. Nobody can read – and comprehend – War and Peace in six hours, or learn how to code in a single day. A good goal should inspire you, not dishearten you. 

4. Relevant

Next, double check that your short-term goals align with your long-term goals. 

If your long-term goal is to work in robotics engineering, a good short-term goal might be practising mathematics for an hour each week, or attending an engineering conference or industry event.

5. Time-bound

Finally, make your goals time-bound, and give yourself some soft deadlines to aim for! Try to add a gentle time limit to each of your goals, like aiming to read one book in one month, or to reach 80% in a past paper by the end of term.

This is great for keeping you focused and on track to achieve your goals!

A student planning their goals in a notebook.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating Your Goal Setting Action Plan

Now it’s time to create your action plan!

1. Identify your goals 

The first step is to decide on your long-term goals, and the more specific the better! For example, pursuing a career in law is a great long-term goal.  Pursuing a career in environmental law is an even better long-term goal! The more specific your long-term goals are, the easier it’ll be to set your short-term goals. 

Keep in mind that none of this is set in stone! The benefit of having both long- and short-term goals is that it’s a lot easier to adapt smaller goals to coincide with your wider objectives.

2. Break them down

Once you’ve set some long-term goals, you can break each one down into smaller tasks. 

So, if your goal is to achieve a grade A on your A-level Chemistry exam, your smaller goals might look like:

  • Complete one past paper a week under exam conditions
  • Make concise revision notes for the organic chemistry module
  • Practice equation flashcards with Sophie every Monday lunchtime

These goals are much more manageable on a day-to-day basis but still keep the longer-term goal in mind. 

3. Set measurable milestones

Your short-term student goals are like a series of checkpoints on your way towards your long-term university or career goals. Setting these checkpoints at regular intervals helps your long-term goals feel more palpable, keeping you motivated and inspired. 

With a clear outline of steps to take, you’ll always be prepared for the next stage of your journey.

4. Assign deadlines 

Deadlines should be challenging but attainable. Your long-term goals can have broader deadlines, by age or by year. For example, you might want to gain a degree in International Relations by the time you’re 21. 

Your short-term goals can be laid out by day, week or month. Having this range of deadlines helps to maintain your focus, and develops your time-management skills in the process. 

As we said at the start, you’re achieving goals without even realising!

5. Prioritise tasks 

Just as important as assigning deadlines is assigning each task a priority level. 

If one of your goals is to do an hour’s revision a day for an exam relevant to your university application, this would likely take priority over reading a book on a topic of interest each month. 

The latter goal is of course important and enriching, but the revision is more time sensitive. The extracurricular reading is a goal best suited for when you have more free time. 

6. Gather resources and support

Achieving your goals is difficult without the correct resources. Thankfully, the internet is packed full of useful articles, textbooks and films relevant to every  subject.

Google Scholar is a great tool for finding a number of academic  books and peer-reviewed essays on a huge variety of topics. 

Work experience and summer courses are excellent for making the most of your summer break and can support your personal development goals like increasing self-confidence, communication skills and critical thinking.

7. Develop strategies

Each task will be challenging in its own way, and thinking about how to tackle them is an important step. In our increasingly technological world, there are more distractions than ever, meaning that focusing on your goals can sometimes take a lot of willpower and determination. 

Consider the possible challenges that might arise for each goal, and how you can successfully manage them. If you’re prone to checking your phone while studying – and suddenly you’re scrolling TikTok for hours! – then you might want to download the Forest focus app. Similarly, if you’re often tired after school, you might want to do your hour of revision in the morning.

The internet has a wealth of resources on how to be a successful student and how to achieve your goals, so be sure to take advantage of it! 

8. Track your progress 

Tracking the progress you make towards your goals can be extremely rewarding.

Whether you track your progress through a digital calendar, a journal, or a goal-setting app, having a comprehensive log of all your achievements will come in handy when you’re writing your personal statement or putting together a CV

9. Stay flexible

High school is a time of growth and development, and your goals are likely to change a little – or a lot! Although the more specific you can be with your long-term goals the better, there’s always room for flexibility if you decide to change direction. 

The short-term goals you’ve already achieved will always be valuable. Personal development skills like communication, time-management and critical thinking can be adapted to any career and are essential in setting you apart from other candidates.

10. Celebrate achievements 

Achieving your goals, big and small, is a very worthy cause for celebration! Whether it’s a film with your friends or your favourite snack, little celebrations for reaching milestones can help you to stay motivated and committed.

11. Seek accountability

Setting goals and sticking to them involves holding yourself accountable, but sometimes it’s good to have other people on board too! 

Sharing your goals with someone you trust means you’ll have support every step of the way. They can root for you and encourage you to achieve your full potential, even when you’re not sure you can. Friends, family, teachers and mentors are great accountability partners

12. Stay positive and persistent

This final step is to stay positive!

A positive mindset and a little extra determination can help you to overcome any obstacles and achieve your goals! 

An Oxford Scholastica student using a laptop to set goals.

We hope this guide has been helpful – and that your new goal is to set lots more goals! 

Your future place at university or your dream job may seem like a long way off right now, but it’ll soon be within touching distance. Remember, you can achieve anything you set your mind to!


By Sam Cox

Sam is a recent English graduate from the University of Bristol whose interests include twentieth-century fiction, film, and cultural criticism.

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