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What Are SMART Goals: Examples for Students and Work

A SMART goal is an objective-setting technique designed to make goals more specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.

A woman writing down her SMART goals into a notebook

We all have areas in our lives we'd like to improve upon, whether that's getting a better job, focusing on healthier habits or completing a college degree. But it can be easy to get thrown off course as we try to accomplish our goals. We may be clinging to vague dreams for the future rather than setting concrete goals.

If this sounds like you, then take note: a proactive way to combat this tendency is to create a SMART action plan to reach your goals. Here's how.

Identify (and Create) SMART Goals

Shanita Williams and the text "Shanita Williams"Consider the difference between the statements “I want to be in the best physical shape of my life” and “I will work out three times a week for 45 minutes over the next three months.” The second statement is a SMART goal because it’s:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

“SMART goals are a part of my everyday life at work,” said Dr. Shanita Williams, associate vice president of people experience at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). She also sees SMART goals used throughout her department on an individual and organizational level.

SMART goals can include countless professional and educational examples, such as:

“Oftentimes we have goals and dreams, but SMART goals let us move toward those with intentionality,” Williams said.

To get a better sense of what SMART goals are, take a look at each letter of the SMART acronym.

S for Specific

Sometimes ideas about what you want are too vague to build an action plan around, and that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big.

Dr. Saecilia Jackson with the text Dr. Saecilia JacksonBut once you have a big idea, goal or dream, you can create definitive language around it, instead of ambiguous terms to help make your goals more specific, said Dr. Saecilia Jackson, a career advisor at SNHU.

To help narrow your focus, Williams recommends asking yourself:

  • How will you know the goal is successful?
  • What specific actions will you take to reach the goal?
  • When do you want to achieve the goal?

Williams said that answering these questions will help you identify why specifically your goal is relevant and meaningful.

Creating that framing around your goals can increase the likelihood that you'll achieve them and that they'll yield success, she said.

M for Measurable

Olivia Butler with the text Olivia ButlerHere’s a basic rule of thumb: It’s not a SMART goal if you can’t tell whether you’ve achieved it. For example, Williams said many people want to be more confident. But if you want to know whether you’re moving toward that objective, you need metrics you can review.

Measurement, Jackson said, could help to connect each goal to a single performance result. Doing so can help you keep an eye on your progress. "It can (also) help to set benchmarks for yourself," said Olivia Butler, a career advisor at SNHU.

Let's say you have a project or assignment due in four weeks. To achieve this, Butler said suggests a series of milestones to keep you on track:

  • Week one: Have a draft done
  • Week two: Get feedback from stakeholders
  • Week three: Address feedback and create a second draft
  • Week four: Polish and publish

By breaking out a measurable plan, you can see how a four-week project becomes more attainable. Of course, you can always use a journal or an app on your phone to help you track and measure your benchmarks and goals.

A for Achievable

A good goal is one you believe you can achieve.

"Think the SMART goal through with the final objective in mind," Butler said. She recommends asking yourself:

  • Why are you setting this goal?
  • What do you hope to accomplish?
  • How does this SMART goal align with or serve your ultimate purpose?

Once you answer these questions, you can dissect your goal even deeper to ensure your goal is both achievable and suitable for you.

For instance, if you have a dream job in mind, you may want to research the qualifications needed to attain the position. Do you need any certifications or a particular type of degree? You can also set career goals, including getting an internship or trying freelance work to continue building toward your goal. Understanding your end goal and how to get there helps make your goals SMART and more achievable.

R for Relevant

As we strive to make our goals specific, measurable and achievable, we risk losing track of that big dream that started us setting goals in the first place. For example, passing an introductory business course might be a more attainable goal for you than completing a challenging course in human anatomy. But, it's probably less relevant given it doesn't align with your long-term goal of becoming a nurse. Stay focused on what applies to what you want to achieve.

“Relevance to me is my ‘why,’” Williams said. “If you’re not able to clearly articulate a motivation for yourself, the rest of it doesn’t matter.”

In some cases, she said, students may come to college or into the workplace with goals in mind that are their parents, not their own. Unfortunately, that often means they feel less motivated to take the necessary steps forward than if they stopped and took the time to figure out the goals that felt personally relevant to them.

T for Time-Bound

The worst enemy of successfully achieving goals may be procrastination. You may have so many things you want to accomplish that if you're not careful, you can take half-steps toward some of them and not complete the things that are your highest priorities. That’s why deadlines are crucial.

Williams said that, in many cases, you need more than one deadline and several smaller end dates for taking steps toward your goal.

“If your goal is to run a marathon, you need to put in some mini-check marks (and) mini-SMART goals,” she said.

Achieving your most significant dreams will always be challenging, but with SMART goals, you have a clear path of manageable steps to get you where you want to go.

A degree can change your life. Find the SNHU degree program that can best help you meet your goals.

Nicholas Patterson '22 is a writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.