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The Importance Of Goal Setting As Part Of College And Career Exploration

Goal setting has always been important - but the way counselors address it needs to keep up with the postsecondary world their students are graduating into

SchooLinks Staff
SchooLinks Staff

Nov 19, 2021

Over the last two years, nearly every element of life has been abruptly changed and transformed. No sphere has been left untouched, with education and schooling seeing some of the most marked changes in our society. Students, teachers, and school leaders have been forced to reconsider how things are done and recalibrate and adjust the dynamics of teaching and learning. Though many of these changes have been forced upon us and are challenging, this once-in-a-generation collective event also provides educators with an opportunity to reimagine how to best support students and prepare them to be successful adults once they leave the structured K-12 educational setting. 

All college and career counselors know how important it is for students to have tangible goals that they are working towards. However, the world has shifted and changed at an exponential pace, and the post-secondary context that will meet students is much more complicated and challenging than in the past. This is a great moment to pause and think through how to bolster goal-setting practices to ensure that students are setting goals that they are excited and passionate about for their lives beyond graduation paired with an actionable, tangible plan for how they will meet those goals. As part of this goal setting, students need to be able to effectively utilize their time, manage their finances, and make thoughtful choices in order to be a productive individual and contributing member of a community. And, they need to be able to adapt to changes and pivot when presented with unanticipated challenges.  

School counselors can play a vital role in ensuring that all students have a goal, the knowledge to understand what it will take to make that goal a reality, and how their goal will impact their future life opportunities and choices.

Deeper and Meaningful Goal Setting

It is natural for children and adolescents to dream about the future. From an elementary student excitedly announcing, “I want to be a veterinarian when I grow up!” to an adolescent trying on their independence and declaring that they cannot wait to move to a big city and live on their own, students regularly think about their future and how they hope it will turn out. This has not changed during the past two years. However, these student dreams, while powerful, are not sufficient on their own for driving career and college readiness. 

Counselors and teachers can provide guidance and encouragement to students to productively transform dreams into tangible goals. The goals should start with the student and be meaningful and relevant to them and their passions, hopes, and dreams, but must also include a map for how to get from the present to that future goal. The process of goal-setting should begin as early as middle school and be continually revisited as a regular part of college and career readiness preparation as the student grows, changes, and nears graduation.  

As part of this process, students need to consider both short- and long-term goals and how different goals build on one another. For instance, a student who hopes to someday be a doctor needs to understand that there are math and science courses that are required in order to reach medical school and that there are other potential career options, such as being a registered nurse or a sonographer, that also might be of interest. Knowing this information and understanding the necessary steps to make a goal happen, as well as alternative goals that could be a potential path, help the student to see the big picture and construct their decisions throughout school to achieve postsecondary success. SchooLinks offers an interactive tool to guide students through the process of setting longer-term postsecondary goals and also provides the ability to set smaller, SMART goals. This action plan is visible to a student’s counselors and academic support system, providing an easy way to track and support students along the path to their goal. 


As students are setting goals, counselors can help them understand the broader economic context they will meet beyond graduation and how their goals will intersect with that reality. Counselors can help students explore emerging fields, learn about the global nature of many types of work, and identify specific industries that are predominant in their community or a place they hope to live. Counselors can also illuminate multiple potential pathways for students beyond graduation--including direct-to-career apprenticeships, 2-year programs, military options, and 4-year college paths. For more information on the value of expanding students’ understanding of possible pathways and ensuring their plans connect with current and future job prospects, see Success in the New Economy. The more that students understand about the economy they will enter, the more likely it is that their plans and interim work will align with realizing their end goal.


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Financial Literacy as a Core Component of Goal Setting

A core component of goal setting--and a fundamental piece of postsecondary success--is to ensure that students understand the financial realities required to sustain themselves, much less meet their goals. Students often have grand ambitions, but they lack the knowledge and experience to understand the financial implications of current decisions on future plans. Life readiness in high schools, including basic financial literacy, has seen some growth in the past decade. And recently, some districts and some states have begun offering courses or other requirements in financial literacy with some jurisdictions even requiring financial literacy for graduation. 

Regardless of whether there is a credit requirement, every district needs a comprehensive college and career readiness approach that includes time and resources dedicated to students learning how to manage and anticipate financial, logistical, and other basic components of post-secondary life as well as how future goals will impact a student’s quality of life and available resources. As part of this financial literacy learning, students should gain the knowledge and skills to make good financial decisions in an effort to support long-term financial stability and well-being. Topics should include:

  • How to create and balance a budget that includes housing, food, transportation, education, and utilities;
  • How to balance spending versus saving;
  • How to plan for unanticipated costs such as health care needs or gaps in employment; 
  • How a chosen career path will impact earnings; and 
  • How costs of living vary by location.

SchooLinks provides students with opportunities to explore the financial reality of different career and spending choices with their Game of Life interactive resource. To help students understand the minimum cost of living in different locations and determine if a particular career’s anticipated salary would be sufficient, encourage them to utilize a cost-of-living tool like this Living Wage Calculator from MIT.

The Negative Impacts When Students Fail to Set Goals

Effective goal setting is vital to post-secondary success. Conversely, when students fail to have a realistic goal and plan for after graduation, it can have far-reaching negative ramifications. A student who leaves high school without a clear path often gets lost without the structure and support of schooling. They often remain dependent on their parents and can feel isolated from peers who are moving forward on their career or college path and emerging into adulthood. These young adults lose the natural momentum of school progression and can spend large amounts of time floundering without knowing what to do to move forward. Without secured employment or participation in a college, career, or technical program, they can struggle with financial challenges, bad credit, housing insecurity, and emotional hardship. 

And, once a student is off-track, it is very challenging to get back on a productive path. Students have far fewer resources, both in adults to consult and supports to make plans, after graduation. Once disengaged from the structures of high school, students often find themselves disconnected from peer groups, activities, and various other elements of life. For many students there is a deep sense of loss, and they find themselves needing to work through a period of unhappiness. Without these personal goals, and community connections, graduation becomes a time of uncertainty and instability.

In the long-term, there is a profound economic cost--to the individual and society--when students graduate without goals. For an individual, even a year or two without direction leads to life-long financial impacts as they scramble to do the planning that could have been done in school. These mis-steps and consequences compound over time. Future employers question the holes on resumes, unstable employment feeds challenges achieving independence, and the gaps between these individuals and their peers widens over time.  

Lifelong Benefits of Effective Goal Setting and Financial Planning

By broadening the conception of goal setting, schools can provide students with the opportunity to set goals and determine the event milestones and timelines along the path to the goal. This kind of planning, an applied form of critical thinking, helps students understand how and why one life event or decision leads to another and that different goals require different investments--whether that be time, sacrifice, or effort. This type of planning also allows students to create multiple scenarios in their planning. Working through multiple possibilities helps students envision flexibility and adaptation, thereby preparing them to be resilient in the future. 

More than just financial stability, helping students to set goals early, thoughtfully plan for how to reach those aspirations, and adapt when necessary, sets students up for success and satisfaction in their life. Updating the goal setting process to ensure that students have an actionable and realistic plan cognizant of the many facets of adult life, and know how to plan and pivot in the future, is well worth the time, organization, and resources schools can dedicate. 


Goal settings requires access to explore opportunities, knowledge of how to structure goals and tools to monitor goal progress. See for yourself how SchooLinks supports all of these activities, and more.

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