helping kids set goals college prep

A Four-Step Project to Make a Goal-Setting, Goal-Reaching Kid

Preparing for college is a lot about getting your child to start the habits that will help them reach their goals.

Recently I took a walk down memory lane in the form of cleaning out an old file cabinet. As my wife can tell you, that can take me a long time. Every picture has a story, and every scrap of paper was saved for some memorable reason. But as I went through one file drawer, I found some things that can be a helpful example for College Prep Parents: my old daily calendars from college.

Although my personal journals throughout life may have been a little “on again, off again,” I have consistently kept daily calendars. And the scheduled events from my four college years calendars are particularly revealing. Changes in my priorities are clearly visible from those four calendars. The number of calendar entries about study groups and review sessions became more frequent in later years – and the reminders about midnight donut runs appeared a little less. For me, those changes were a matter of deciding what was important for reaching my goals, and what was a distraction. As I got a better handle on my priorities, I experienced more success in college.

Goals Should Lead to Priorities

Students often talk to me about needing to change their priorities. “Priority,” by definition, means something that is more important than other things. The question for a busy student (like yours) is whether what they are doing is important for reaching their goals, or simply enjoyable in the moment. Do their current activities line up with the aims they have for getting into college, or for other goals (spiritual growth, good friendships, healthy finances, etc.)? Or is some of it “filler”? Are they over-scheduled? Do they even know what goals they’re trying to reach?

If a student masters the skill of prioritizing things that actually help meet their goals, then they’re far more likely to meet those goals!

But there’s an additional value in mastering this skill while a kid is in high school: They then are much more prepared for the rigors of college life. You don’t want your son or daughter to learn this skill “the hard way,” and you don’t want them to take several semesters to learn it, either.

A Four-Step Project for Better Priorities

Here’s one project that will help a college prep kid that wants to get a handle on this sort of priority-setting:

Step 1: Think Big (and Specifically) about Goals

  • List major goals that need to be reached within the next year. These goals can be intellectual, spiritual, physical – they just need to be important to the student. The key is to have goals that are worthwhile because of the time choices that must be made to reach them.
  • Of course, included on the list should be goals that will help build their “resume” for college.

Step 2: Tie Specific Actions to the Goals

  • List specific action steps and habits necessary to accomplish these goals. The more specific the plan of action is, the more likely it is to be used.

This is Step 2 (not Step 1) for a reason. I have seen many students try to set new priorities by focusing on actions, rather than starting with goals. Actions soon grow meaningless without a specific aim. People running to “get some exercise” are usually not as diligent as those running to prepare specifically for a 10K race. If your student simply says, “I need to study more,” they’ll soon forget exactly why they decided on that action in the first place. Instead, something like, “I want to raise my GPA by 3 points over the next year” provides a clear motivation for “studying more,” especially since progress can easily be measured.

Step 3: Start a Log

  • Have the student keep a time log for one week. They should write down, moment-by-moment, the activities that they are involved in. This includes specifics like sleep, time with friends in-person, time with friends online, video games, homework, TV, household chores, class, choir practice, working out, hobbies, time in the car, etc.
  • If possible, every half-hour (at least) should be accounted for. Some of the most “unprioritized” time for some people comes in the batches of time around other, larger tasks.
  • However, be sure your student understands that relaxation, fun, friendships, exercise, and other activities like these fit into the lives of healthy people. This project isn’t about removing all sense of balance from a student’s life… it’s making sure that the right things are prioritized.

Step 4: Analyze the Log

  • When this log is complete, a high school student can begin to see how much time they spend on important things and how much time they spend doing things that don’t matter as much. Seeing what they truly spend their time doing gives them an idea of how much time is available for things that really do matter… if they’re willing to stop doing the unimportant things.
  • With the student’s list of goals, and the plan of actions needed to reach them, help them analyze the time log and see what activities may need to be reduced, replaced, or increased. Make a list with those three words – Reduce, Replace, and Increase – at the top.

If the goals are worthwhile, any time commitment is an investment in success. I have known many students who would tell you that they became much more intentional about their lives when they started by setting goals.

Preparing for college is a lot about getting your child to start the habits that will help them reach their goals. Few habits will produce more success than the ability to think first about goals, and then make priorities that help meet those goals.

What’s Next?

Often when we hear about setting goals and action plans we hear about the need for “accountability” – having a person or group lend support and hold us to the plans we’ve set for ourselves. This can be the difference between success and failure for many people. If your college-bound kid wants to use you or a friend as an accountability partner, that would be fantastic. (Part of great college prep is assembling a team, remember!)

But may I suggest that another way you can help your kid is explain to them how you have set and achieved goals in your life, especially if you can point to the way you set your own priorities to meet your goals. And if your own goal-setting and priority-making has not been very intentional to this point (or in a long time), you might want to each do a version of Steps 1-3 and compare notes!

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