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Featured, Career Success, Personal Growth

How to Set SMART Goals and Follow Through on Them

By Graham C. Knowles

Goal setting is supposed to be an inspirational process to help you write down your goals and map out the steps to achieve them. However, for some, this process is overwhelming, confining, and even intimidating, especially as you think about the steps and challenges you may face along the way.

But for your dreams to become a reality, you must stop hoping to achieve your goals and map out the specific steps you'll take to achieve them. Luckily, setting SMART goals is an easy process that ensures you're setting realistic and achievable goals, while also providing you the opportunity to adjust them as needed.

Let's dive into why goal setting is important and how to create your SMART goals.

Why Goal Setting Is Important for College Students

I once read a quote from Jeff Selingo, an author who has written about higher education for more than two decades, that said, “Two-thirds of college students go through college without much intentionality.” I know several students who feel like obtaining a degree should land them that dream job and start them on their career. Unfortunately, in this day and age, that alone is not going to differentiate you.

College teaches you the technical knowledge for the major you are seeking, but your career is founded on your professional development growth, derived from experiences that shape and define you.

To begin your career at your dream job or even in your dream industry, you must create a plan for how to get there, so your actions are intentional. Otherwise, you'll float through life just hoping you'll land that job.

As an instructor, I use SMART goals in my curriculum to help students shape their professional dreams. Understanding what SMART goals are and what the acronym stands for is important, so let’s take a look.

What Are SMART Goals?

SMART goals are a goal-setting technique that was originally created by business consultant Peter Drucker as part of his Management by Objectives concept outlined in his 1954 book, The Practice of Management.

SMART is an acronym that stands for:






Over time, different organizations have changed some of the words associated with different letters. For instance, some may use Simple or Significant for ‘S’ and Meaningful or Motivating for ‘M’. To keep things simple in this article, we’ll use the original definition.

But no matter the terminology, the main thing is to use this technique to set goals and to map out the steps to help you achieve them.

How to Set SMART Goals

S – Specific:

To start, write your goal with as much detail as possible, while also respecting the fact that you may not know certain aspects or challenges you may face. A common goal I see college students make is to “obtain an internship.” But that is too vague to create a detailed plan of how to achieve it.

Make that more specific by indicating in what field or industry and the geographical location you want the internship. For instance, a more specific variation is: “To obtain an internship in the fashion industry located in Western Europe.”

Now you use that to map out the steps needed to achieve it.

M – Measurable: 

How will you know if you have or have not achieved your goal? For some goals, this may be tougher to quantify. For instance, if your goal is “To be a stronger public speaker,” how can you measure “stronger” or “feel more confident”? It may be an internal feeling which can be tough to pinpoint.

Take some time to reflect on how you define that feeling so you can clearly measure it. Is it really about eliminating or reducing the number of distracting non-verbals? Or is it initiating engagement from your audience?

Another way you can measure this would be to provide a short survey to attendees after your presentation to gain feedback from your audience. Then you can track the results to see how you’re improving.

A – Achievable: 

Do you have the resources, such as time, finances, and access to equipment, to make this happen? For some of these resources, you may need to develop a plan to acquire them because without them your goal may not be achievable.

If you set unrealistic goals without considering how achievable they are, you may get discouraged halfway through your plan and eventually give up. We all have lofty goals and dreams, but if you take the time to ensure they are achievable at the beginning you’re more likely to avoid this scenario. And, if you realize a goal is too easy, you can always change it based on the new information.

R - Realistic: 

This is critical. Goals should stretch you and make you work for them. So, as you develop your SMART goals, ask yourself these questions: 

  • Will this goal be met without much effort? 
  • Based on other resources, is this goal too much of a stretch?
  • Did you write down all of the challenges you may face?

Here is an example: I had a student who indicated that their goal was “to perform as a concert pianist on the stage in Carnegie Hall by the end of the summer.” When I read it, I immediately began to ask some questions about the Achievable and Realistic attributes of their goal.

Did they play the piano? How much time were they investing in the goal to achieve this perceived lofty goal? Have they already played at Carnegie Hall before? If so, then that goal wasn’t very challenging.

Often, Achievable and Realistic go hand-in-hand, but it’s important to consider both when creating your SMART goal.

T- TimeLY: 

Your goal must have a deadline. Without it there is no sense of urgency and the intentionality that Jeff Selingo was referencing is missed.  When thinking about a deadline, consider the final result and all of the other responsibilities you have in your life to set a realistic deadline.

I use SMART Goals all the time in my professional and personal life. For instance, when I was turning 40 I had the desire to improve my fitness and do something that I had never done before. I set a SMART goal of competing in the North Country Sprint Triathlon in a combined time of less than 2 hours and 15 minutes. 

In order to reach this goal, I had to break it down into many action steps. As my training went on, I began to realize that this goal was becoming too easy to achieve, so I then reevaluated and made it 2 hours. After months of training and preparing I finished in 1 hour, 42 minutes and 31 seconds. 

3 Questions to Ask Regarding Your SMART Goal

Setting your SMART goal is an important first step. But along the way, you need to make sure that the goal still aligns with your plans, that it’s difficult while still being achievable, and that you are in control of achieving it. You should also share your goal with others so they can provide feedback and hold you accountable.

Ask yourself these three questions to make sure that you’re on the right path.

Do You Need to Reevaluate Your Goal?

After you have created your SMART goal it is perfectly fine to reevaluate it. In fact, this is a really important step that many students don’t do. As you progress through trying to achieve your goal, you may have to adjust some elements, just like I did while training for the triathlon.

Sometimes, that means changing how Realistic your goal is. Maybe you have to scale it back because it’s harder than you initially thought. Or you may need to change how it’s measured or your time frame.

Updating your goal is a natural progression as you work through the various steps. And it provides you an alternative to quitting if your goal is harder (or easier) than you originally thought. Simply reevaluate and realign your SMART goal based on the new information.

Do You Have Control Over Your Goal?

Another aspect to consider is the amount of control or influence you have over actually achieving your SMART goal. I have worked with several student athletes who sometimes confuse a team goal with their individual goal, such as “winning a national championship.”

A lofty goal for sure but how much of it is solely in the student athlete’s control or influence?

When setting your SMART goal, make sure you can achieve the goal. For instance, you can contribute to your team winning the national championship by averaging two more assists than you did last year. Just make sure that it’s a realistic goal based on your playing time and other factors.

Have You Shared Your Goal with Others?

Lastly, after you have created your SMART goal, share it with others. They can help you in achieving your goal by offering guidance, support, and accountability. The powerful connections that you make by showing and sharing your goals in life are a powerful networking tool.

Many leaders constantly ask for feedback from their peers and network to make sure they are on the right track to achieving their goals. In fact, there are even techniques to solicit negative feedback if your manager doesn’t want to give it. By sharing your goal with others at the beginning, it makes it easier to solicit feedback along the way.

This is why the NSLS incorporates goal setting into its leadership program. And we’ve found that sharing your goal with your Success Networking Team provides an opportunity to hear feedback on your goals and keep you accountable to taking the steps to achieve them.

Start Setting SMART Goals Today!

No matter what your goal, it should be purposeful and meaningful to you. Keep dreaming and keep setting those goals! And remember to keep them Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Bound.



Graham C. Knowles - RPIGraham C. Knowles is Associate Director/ Lecturer for The Archer Center for Student Leadership Development at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he teaches several required courses in School of Engineering and Management and also facilitates custom-designed workshops and programs for any organization.  Graham also serves as the department’s outreach to our Athletic teams. Additionally, he serves as the academic liaison for the Men's Lacrosse team and Softball. He is a certified MBTI facilitator and advisor for the Rensselaer chapter of The National Society of Leadership and Success.

In his spare time he is very involved in the local soccer and school community in Colonie, NY.