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Setting goals after college is an effective strategy for crafting the life you want, but goal setting can be easier said than done.

We've asked experts to weigh in on the best ways to set — and accomplish — your goals.

Step 1. Define Your Goals

Before you can achieve your goals, you must define what they are. Common high-level goals after college include milestones like finding a job or paying back student loans, but you might want to start smaller.

"When graduates feel overwhelmed by their goals after college, it's typically because they haven't set up the steps to attain their goals," says Kim Oppelt, research director at Hobsons, a college and career readiness institution based in Cincinnati. "By setting such micro goals, you can begin to work toward the ultimate goals of employment, graduate school or being financially stable."

To make micro goals effective, make them SMART goals so you have a realistic and clear framework to measure against, Oppelt recommends. SMART goals are:

  • Specific: Set a clearly-defined and specific goal. For example, if you're looking for a job, instead of saying, "I want to get a job," say "I want to get a job as a Jr. Project Manager in the Boston area."
  • Measurable: Establish goals you can measure such as applying to three jobs per week, attending two networking events each month, and connecting with at least one person afterwards.
  • Achievable: Make sure you establish realistic goals. For example, attending networking events every night may not be realistic with everything else going on in your life and could cause you to burn out quickly.
  • Relevant: Make sure every micro goal aligns with the larger goal such as attending industry-specific events or searching for positions that reflect your experience, skill set, and passion.
  • Time-Bound: Define an end date to help you stay motivated. For example, "I want to start my new job by October."

Step 2. Develop a Plan and Put it in Writing

After you're done defining goals, write them down and develop a plan you can use. Research by Gail Matthews at Dominican University in San Rafael, California, found that people who wrote their goals down accomplished significantly more than those who did not.

When you develop your future plans after college, create realistic timelines and include a Plan B, but be cautious about firming up your plans too much.

"Life happens, and a rigid timeline could derail progress if a milestone isn't met and you are too hard on yourself," says Joshua D. Walker, director of career development at Centenary University in Hackettstown, New Jersey. "Just stay focused on the end goal, and allow yourself some wiggle room when necessary."

When you develop your plan, it can be helpful to reach out to other people. Janet Long, executive director of Career Design and Development at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, recommends that recent graduates recruit a personal board of advisors.

"The idea is to enlist a small number of individuals — three to five is ideal — who have a stake in your future success," she says. "These might include a college advisor with whom you remain connected, a supervisor you admired from a part-time work experience or internship, or even a favorite relative." Long suggests sharing your thoughts with the "board," and seeking candid feedback along the way pertaining to your goals and future plans after college.

Step 3: Set Check-In Markers

An integral part of any goal-oriented process is a regular check-in. This not only helps you ensure that you're heading in the right direction, but it also allows you to make any adjustments in order to reach your ultimate endgame. "Check-ins on progress are a great time to reassess goals and make sure that the original goal is still aligned with your short- and long-term needs," says Walker.

The most important thing when it comes to check-in is not to panic. The path to goal achievement is often a marathon, not a sprint, and it's OK if the path is rocky.

"If you are not progressing toward a goal at the speed you originally intended to, just take a breath and evaluate what roadblocks may have prevented you from being where you want to be," says Walker. "How can you remove those roadblocks?"

Step 4: Celebrate Your Successes

By allowing yourself to recognize and celebrate achievements, you'll be more likely to work hard at reaching your next goals.

Whether the celebration includes something traditional (like a cupcake) or something symbolic (like a small purchase), Walker says that each celebration serves as a reminder when we stumble that we are still moving towards success.

"The little things add up to big things," he says. "Even the smallest milestones are an indicator of progress toward success."


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