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Students face unique pressures as they work through competing priorities and juggle numerous responsibilities. Your time as a student is also a crucial window during which you can make powerful connections and grow rapidly in skills and knowledge.

At the core of all of this is the ability to focus on the right thing and move toward strategic goals. SMART goals can be a powerful strategy for students who want to excel by focusing on the right thing at the right time. Learn all about this strategy and how you can use it to propel yourself forward in your studies or your career.

What Are SMART Goals?

SMART goals are goals that meet five specific criteria, making them more on-topic and easier to reach and measure. While it’s important for goals to be smart, the word SMART here is actually an acronym for the five criteria:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable (originally Assignable; sometimes Attainable or Actionable)
  • Relevant (sometimes Realistic)
  • Time-bound

The concept is extremely popular and shows up in nearly every industry context. It is based in the work of Peter Drucker’s concept of management by objectives, and the first known use of the acronym itself shows up in a November 1981 article by George T. Doran within Management Review.

Pro tip: You will find some variations on a few of those words, depending on where an organization pulls the acronym from. Most of the time, the variants mean essentially the same thing (achievableattainable, and actionable are very similar). Occasionally, a variant has to do with the context in which the system is being used. Relevant makes sense in wide-ranging, open-ended environments, whereas realistic makes better sense in more closed, manufacturing, or quota-based context.

Decoding SMART

One word alone may not be enough to teach each concept, so here is a little more information on each of the five SMART criteria:

Specific: Target a specific area for improvement. State what you intend to do. Use action verbs. You can use the “who, what, where, when, and how” method to guide you.

Measurable: An indicator of your progress toward your goal. These are the defined metrics you can review that show how well you are doing and how close you are to achieving your objective. If there is no clear way to know whether you have achieved a goal, then that goal does not qualify as a SMART goal.

Achievable: Your goal must be possible to realistically accomplish. A goal that you cannot reasonably reach is not good (nor is it SMART). The original term, Assignable, meant that a SMART goal is one that can be assigned to a specific resource. For students, that resource is yourself. A goal that relies on elements you cannot control may fail on this point.

Relevant: This is the “why” of your goal. Is it personally meaningful? Does this goal accomplish something that matters toward your big-picture objectives?

Time-bound: This is your defense against procrastination. A goal with no end in sight is not SMART because you never know whether you have succeeded or failed, and you can never recalibrate or reassess in any meaningful way.

The Importance of Setting Goals

Goal setting is important for students because anyone in college must deal with competing priorities. You have multiple classes within a school year, and you likely have work and social obligations, too. You may even have family responsibilities, and online students often juggle both their college studies and a full-time career.

At this stage in your life, you may feel like you are constantly prioritizing, deciding what to focus on, and what to minimize or let slide.

Goal setting helps you work through this process much more quickly. Does the task at hand contribute toward your goals? If not, delay, delegate, minimize, or even delete that task.

Additionally, SMART goal setting can keep you on task and motivated. When your goals are specific, measurable, and time-bound, you will see the progress toward completion happening. Seeing that progress can motivate you to continue pushing toward goal completion.

When goals lack specificity or can’t be measured, you may find it difficult to stay motivated. You may want to be the best at something or have ambiguous goals about “doing better,” but when you cannot measure the outcomes or see clear progress, you may become discouraged.

How to Write SMART Goals

Writing SMART goals can be tricky, but seeing a specific goal example can help you understand what is used to create SMART goals.

Imagine for a minute you want to get in better shape.

“I want to lose some weight and gain some muscle” is an admirable goal, but it is not a SMART goal. Below, we will add elements to this goal so that it meets each of the five criteria.

Specific: I want to lose 15 pounds, run a six-minute mile, and bench press x pounds.

Measurable: I’ll measure my progress by weekly workouts and weigh-ins.

Attainable: These milestones are attainable given my body type and general physical abilities.

Relevant: Being in better physical shape will improve my outlook on life and make me better able to focus on other goals.

Time-bound: I want to lose this weight and reach these fitness milestones by February of next year.

So, all wrapped into one, a fitness related SMART goal might look like this:

“I want to lose 15 pounds, run a six-minute mile, and bench press pounds by February of next year and will measure my progress with weekly workouts and weigh-ins.”

For this goal, attainability and relevance are implied, which is acceptable. Not every SMART goal will spell out all five attributes, but all five attributes must be real, even if they are obvious or merely implied.

Examples of SMART Goals for Students

Need more inspiration? Here are two more example SMART goals that make sense for students.

Earning a degree: I will earn a Master of Business Administration degree [specific] within the next three years [time-bound] by taking two courses each semester and summer courses to fill out the course requirements [measurable]. I can do this while continuing to work my current job [attainable]. (This goal spells out everything but relevance.)

Finding a new job: Within six months [time-bound], I want a new position in x department with 20% higher salary [specific] so I can further my big-picture career goals [relevance]. I will apply for two positions a week [measurable] and leverage my experience, achievements, and education [attainable] as I do so.

Is College One of Your SMART Goals? Consider Post University

If earning or completing your college degree is one of your SMART goals, Post University is worth a look. With programs across a wide range of study, along with online, hybrid, and degree completion programs, Post has something for just about every SMART goal-setter.

Learn more about the programs available at Post, or reach out today!

Thank you for reading! The views and information provided in this post do not reflect Post University programs and/or outcomes directly. If you are interested in learning more about our programs, you can find a complete list of our programs on our website or reach out directly!

Please note jobs, career outcomes, and/or salaries highlighted in this blog do not reflect jobs, career outcomes, and/or salaries expected from any Post program. To learn more about Post’s program and their outcomes, please fill out a form to speak with an admissions representative.