How to Set Academic Goals

Six years ago, I made my goal of getting into medical school. I’m thankful to my past self for setting a goal, sticking to it, and then achieving it three years ago. This goal was a tricky one, because many aspects of it weren’t in my control. But I was determined to set the right goals for things that I could control. For instance, I broke my bigger goal into manageable chunks. And then I broke those chunks into even more manageable chunks. For my goal of doing well on the CASPer® test, I divided it up into a bunch of mini goals. One was practicing 3 mock tests beforehand. Another was to improve my typing speed with free typing resources. Yet another was to prepare answers in advance to questions that could show up on the test (I wrote about some of these here).

Other than breaking up big goals into manageable pieces, there are many other science-backed strategies to set goals, whether they’re for academics or not.

One of the articles I recommend is Goal Setting: A Scientific Guide to Setting and Achieving Goals by James Clear. He is a fantastic author, and I also recommend his book Atomic Habits to dive deep into how to better accomplish your goals through habit change. In the article, he covers all aspects of goal setting, including the need to determine if you truly want the result. I think this is a commonly overlooked part of goal setting, especially for a long-term goal like getting into a specific degree program. He writes, “it’s easy to sit around and think what we could do or what we’d like to do. It is an entirely different thing to accept the tradeoffs that come with our goals.”

I wrote a bit about this in our article about choosing your specialty where I recommended WOOP. WOOP is an acronym that stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacles, and Plan. It’s a science-based practice to help you reach your goals by getting you to navigate what you want to do and what it will take to actually get there. Check out this website to learn how to WOOP.

And then we have the tried-and-true SMART goals. SMART is another acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. This article from UMass is all about SMART goals for students, including examples of long-, intermediate- and short-term goals. I made sure the CASPer® test goals above were made into SMART goals before I started. For example, I set the goal of writing one practice test a week for three weeks before the real thing. This was easily measurable, realistic and time-limited. What's one achievable goal you could set for yourself today that would get you closer to your academic aspirations?

Now get out there and crush your goals in 2021!