How to be Successful in College

Whether to achieve a life goal of getting a degree or the burning desire to advance your career, investing in yourself delivers a high return on investment.

Once the decision to further your education is made, it’s time to decide on exactly what steps to take to achieve your academic goals.

Steps to Success

While it is considered a given to make the transition to college immediately following high school, research shows that 67% of students continue on to college immediately upon completion of the 12th grade.

Research also shows that in 2018, 7.6 million students of adults aged 25+ were projected to return to college after taking a break after high school graduation.

There are a lot of different reasons for furthering your education.  Some of them include:

  • Family tradition / expectation
  • The “college experience”
  • Personal satisfaction / achievement / self-investment
  • Change in life status (divorce, job elimination)
  • More money / financial security
  • On-the-job advancement or promotion opportunities
  • Ability to move into a supervisory or managerial role
  • Obtaining further education or an advanced degree in current field or area of study
  • Better, higher-paying career options
  • Explore completely new career options
  • Expand knowledge, social circles and more control of career opportunities

While investing in yourself, learning new skills and expanding knowledge are all great reasons to return to school, it’s important to truly understand the specific “why” you want to achieve college success.

What Success Looks Like

Taking the time to figure out the real “why” you want to attend college takes time and true personal reflection.  The real motivating reasons to be successful are as individual as the college freshman.  The starting point to determine why you want to attend college is to drill down deeply and understand the motivating factor for your decision.

If you don’t have a strong enough “why,” success might be a bit more fleeting for you.  Exploring the decision to attend college should be a very personal, transparent thought process.  It should have deep meaning and motivation specifically for you.

Take advantage of meeting and consulting with academic counselors who can offer invaluable advice to help you choose courses wisely and work with you on a very personalized, custom college path.  This can save both time and money, in addition to giving you things to think about that you may not have considered on your own.  A heartfelt talk with an academic counselor can help reveal your college goals and your personal success motivators.

The time and thought given to uncovering your true motivation involves drilling down very deeply and honestly, keeping in mind all the things that will be involved for you to enjoy a successful college journey.  A real look into both the benefits and challenges is your goal of the upfront “why” exercise.

Some things for consideration to discover your success motivators include:


What sort of degree are you looking for and how long are you willing to dedicate the time and resources to achieve your academic goals?

Motivation and Challenges

  • You know your “why,” but what will keep you positively committed and motivated to excel?
  • How will you handle a potential decrease in motivation and the ability to get back on track?
  • What is the plan for going over, around or busting through distractions, setbacks and/or challenges as they come up?

By getting a handle on the reason(s) for that “fire in your belly” about attending college, how to stay committed to something and how to pull it off will make it easier for you to stay focused and able to reach your end goal.

Reasonable Goals and Honest Assessment

  • How many classes can you reasonably take on and hit your performance goals?
  • Do you know how to motivate yourself to study?
  • How much time needs to be allotted for achieving a good GPA and still have time for yourself, social activities, exercise, and fun?

Being honest in identifying your strengths and weaknesses is a critical part of your plan.

It has been said that past behavior is the best indicator of future behavior.  If you know that in the past, you tend to procrastinate or full you do your best when cramming at the last minute, admit it and work that into your plan.

If you fool yourself into believing that you will suddenly change into an organized, studying machine when you are just not that type of person, you are setting yourself up for overwhelm, stress and ultimately, failure.

Work with your strengths, work to strengthen your weaknesses and be honest enough to know the difference.  This is a secret to success.

Life Balance

What will it take to maintain a healthy balance between studying, homework, employment, keeping up with personal responsibilities and taking care of your health?

Attitude Gives Altitude

Having a positive, can-do attitude is one of the key success tips you can embrace as you get started.  Believing in yourself and although it might be challenging, you know without a doubt that you “got this.”

This unshakeable belief is a major difference between students who experience greater levels of success and those who struggle or end up quitting college and put their goals aside completely.

Guide to Goal Setting

Setting realistic, achievable goals and developing daily habits to actively reach them offers measurable results towards your goals.  Successfully hitting goals also helps foster and bolster a healthy mindset for success.  Both a positive attitude and consistently achieving goals are important elements for succeeding in college.

An overall goal plan gives you a blueprint, a guide to keep taking positive action steps forward.  Setting goals allows you to see what is working and what may need some tweaking for you to succeed.

Breaking down big projects into manageable pieces is one way to do this.  Another important skill to develop is discipline.  For example, choosing to study or to finish an assignment over social time or binge-watching Netflix will prove to be a great long-term decision.

There should be flexibility in your plan because life never always goes the way you think it will, but a plan and specific goals are an important beginning baseline for success.

Take the time to determine daily, weekly and monthly goals and how they all work together for the ultimate and greater good.

  • Daily Goals – Break down all the big projects into bite-size chunks. The projects become less overwhelming and are easier to digest when broken down into daily bites.  Determine what you can do every day to chip away at bigger goals.  Although it may not seem like you’re gaining headway on a daily basis, you will be surprised how much closer you get to your goals by developing small, consistent steps towards bigger goals.
  • Weekly Goals – At the beginning of each week, decide what it is you’d like to accomplish by the end of the week. Incorporate your daily goals to help you achieve this.  At the end of the week, review your progress.  The review of weekly goals should give you a clear picture as to what if anything you need to rearrange, tweak or change to hit next week’s goals.
  • Monthly Goals – At the end of each month, decide what it is you’d like to accomplish by the end of the month. Take a look at the daily and weekly goals to help you get there.  After reviewing your progress at the end of the month, you can determine the next month’s goal.

After building this habit, you will discover that it’s the little, unexciting steps taken on a consistent basis that get you successfully to the finish line.

  • Ultimate Jobs Goals – Along with understanding the success motivators behind the decision to attend college, it’s important to know where it is you ultimately want to go. It helps if you understand where you want to be at the end of the collage finish line, whether it be to advance your existing career path or maybe switch careers entirely.

With the end result in mind, it’s easier to determine a specific path to get your degree as soon as possible.  It will keep you on a straight path without wasting time and money on unnecessary steps and keeps setbacks to a minimum along the way.

Is it a specific degree in a narrower niche you’re looking for (i.e.; nursing or engineering), or a general “marketing” or “business” degree that will open a lot of career options for you?

Keeping in mind your strengths and interests and whether you have your eye on the prize of dream job or position also helps keep the college goals tight and focused.

There are marketing resources that can take a vague idea you are kicking around and turn it into a more concrete education plan.

Success Tips

Don’t ever isolate yourself or feel like you’re in this journey alone.  Take full advantage of technology by using motivational and goal-setting apps to ace your organizational goals.  These apps can really help keep you focused by reminding you of your next step, keeping you organized and giving you inspiration on a daily basis.

Also don’t be afraid to ask friends and family to act as your “accountability partners.”  A simple text from someone close to check in periodically and ask how you’re doing, how your goals are coming along and offer encouragement can do wonders for your attitude, motivation and goal busting success.

College Goals

Depending on your field of study, take a look at the options available to you.  From there, consider the following:

  • Are you going to enroll as a full-time or part-time student?
  • Would evening classes work better for your schedule?
  • If you are a parent, how will you juggle the responsibilities of child care and college?
  • Are you planning to attend a tech college or a local community college?
  • What sort of accreditations does the school have to offer?

Compare the costs, distance and perks they offer such as on-line access, courses and study guides.


You probably already know that continuing education will cost money.  The ultimate decision on where you attend college will depend largely on what you can afford.

You should start the financial due diligence process early, especially if you need to apply for financial assistance.  Contact school advisors who can talk to you in greater detail about the costs and financial options available to you.

Be realistic about your budget and how long you may have to carry debt as you review your financing options.

Financing Options

  • Student Loan / FAFSA – Applying for financial assistance to attend college requires the time to apply by deadline, provide financial documents and possibly secure a co-signer. Pay attention to application deadlines if you are planning on financial assistance to attend college.
  • Grants – Another source of financing can be found from college grants. A meeting with a school advisor might help shave off time on grant research.  Ask for guidance on leads or recommendations for grants you may qualify for.  In most cases, grants require applications, essays or other requirements be submitted by a deadline.
  • Personal Loan – With a good credit rating, you may be eligible to apply for a personal loan at a lower interest rate. Give yourself time to shop around for options and rates that might work with your budget.
  • Savings / Family Assistance – Another option may be found in the form of family support, money put away for college or a family member who is in a financial position to help offset your college expenses.

As you put together the costs involved in financing your education, remember to include books, supplies, additional course materials and food/lodging if applicable.  There may be “hidden” costs such as parking, orientation fees, technology fees, activity passes, etc.

Do not be shy about asking questions to uncover hidden fees to avoid expensive surprises and hits to your budget down the road.  Pay attention to the details and read the fine print.

Be realistic as you compare your educational fees against your budget.  Depending on how long you will be attending college, the longer you will have to stretch those college budget dollars.  Be realistic, frugal and look for ways to offset costs whenever possible (i.e.; purchase gently used books from on-line campus stores instead of buying brand new).

Perhaps financing will have a major impact on the timeline of securing your degree.  The financing options will also let you know if you need to work to help pay for your education.  The financing plan will play a big part in setting goals and creating a plan for balancing finances, school work and employment.

Organizational Goals

Sharpening your organizational skills is a must if you want your plan to succeed, which ties back into the need to set reasonable goals.

If you over-extend yourself, you are sure to experience burn-out very quickly and will become tired, frustrated and may give up on your dreams.

It’s important to realistically figure your college plans into your life plans.  It will certainly be a sacrifice of time and social activities may be on hold for a while, but you must weigh your wants against your needs.

This is the reason for determining your “why” very early on in the process.  If you have a strong “why,” the “how” becomes a little more clear and easier to figure out.

Reasonable goals include taking time to take care of yourself, as well.  It’s not a good idea and is unrealistic to think you can sacrifice on sleep.  While sleep will become a premium, it’s important that you take the time for rest.  Getting enough rest will help you perform better, focus and be able to handle any stress and head off overwhelm at the pass.

Eating well, finding time for exercise and relaxation are all things that need a place in the plan.  While returning to college is a great investment in yourself, burning the candle at both ends isn’t a good way to get there.


While it’s important to have a focused game plan, allow flexibility in your plan because you can always expect the unexpected.  Instead of becoming stressed out or overwhelmed, you know you can always juggle or modify the schedule because it’s not written in stone.  Be open to allow for flexibility as needed.

Your college plan is merely a guideline or a basic operating plan.  While it’s important to maintain a schedule and dedicated study and homework time, it’s unrealistic to think that the plan is written in stone and you can’t deviate from the plan.

As you go along and get more familiar with the professors, their teaching styles, what kinds of homework loads to expect and perhaps an outline of the class with goals you can incorporate into your goal list, it helps you plan better and know where you will need some flexibility.

Celebrate the Milestones

One of the best things to do for yourself is to celebrate those milestones!

If you aced an exam or wrote an essay paper way before deadline, treat yourself.  Any time you knock off a step towards or goal, or especially when you accomplish a goal, take the time to give yourself credit and acknowledge the accomplishment.

Reward yourself with a special coffee drink, take in a movie with friends or take an extra long nap.  Pat yourself on the back for achieving each step along the way.  By rewarding yourself for achieving little milestones along the way, you’ll set yourself up for looking for that ultimate big milestone of bringing home that college degree.

More Success Tips

Different ideas resonate for different people. Let’s take a look at a few additional tips.

  • Stay Upbeat – If you experience a setback, miss an assignment or don’t perform as well on an assignment or test as you would have liked, don’t beat yourself up. A temporary setback does not spell failure.

Take a walk to clear your head and shake off any negativity or defeating words that may enter your mind.  Taking negative emotions out of the setback, try to brainstorm ways you can get through, go around or tackle the issue.  Think about and write down potential solutions to the issue.

Many times, just thinking more positively or coming up with solutions or options makes you feel empowered and more positive about the situation.

Anticipate ahead of time that there will be some setbacks and you will be prepared for them when they come.

  • Take advantage of technology and download organizational apps. Keep track of assignments, deadlines and any legwork you need to do to keep on track.  Break down large projects into smaller sized chunks so it’s not so daunting and too big for you to be motivated to even get started.

Enlist a motivation coach to help keep you focused, positive and motivated if the going gets tough.  This can be a friend, family member or a motivational app to remind you why you’re doing this.

Jot down any great thoughts or ideas regarding a paper or homework assignment so you can refer back later and incorporate these things into your work.


One of the biggest factors that can make or break your college career is your mindset.  Your mindset and attitude, while related, are two different things.

While a positive attitude is essential, your positive mindset runs deeper.  Your mindset embraces what you believe deep down and keeps you motivated and on track.

When things get stressful because you’ve got a ton of studying and homework and not enough time, a positive mindset allows you to move from panic to empowerment.  It gives you the strength to take a deep breath and remind yourself that you’ve “got this.”

Without parents or teachers holding your hand and making sure your homework and studying gets done on time, you’ve really got to take the responsibility for yourself and knowing how to accomplish your goals.

By consistently taking positive daily steps and checking off the “to do” items relative to your daily, weekly and monthly goals, it automatically leads to a solid, success-focused mindset.

How to Motivate Yourself to Study

If experiencing a hectic time where it seems all assignments are due, there are tests coming up and you’re falling behind on personal responsibilities, although it sounds counter-productive, sometimes the most productive thing to do is just stop and take some time out.

Go for a walk, call a friend, walk the dog…just step away from the stress for a few minutes.

By taking your mind off of the stress or large, looming workload, you free up some space in your head where solutions and an action plan can develop.  By separating yourself from the stress, you give your mind a cleansing rest and you can get back to work with a renewed sense of purpose and a more positive attitude.

You may have experienced a day or two in life where you seem to wake up on the wrong side of the bed and it seems like simply everything goes wrong.  You run late, the computer crashes, you get stuck in traffic and on it goes.  The more you press forward and try to force things to turn around, the less likely they are to cooperate.

However, when you step back, take a deep breath and take a break for a few minutes, you can re-approach the day in a more relaxed, calm state which will definitely help you accomplish the next set of tasks or goals.

How to Stay Focused on Your Goals

A lot of times, just thinking about how much there is to do or how long it will take to complete a project makes it seem worse than it really is.  Typically, once you get started and get on a roll, it’s rarely as bad as you made it out to be.

Tell yourself you’ll start on a project and work on it for merely 10-15 minutes.  Once you get started, you find that it’s not that bad and you’ll be more compelled to keep at it and accomplish far more than you thought you would.  You tend to spend well over 10-15 minutes once you just get started.

The key is to get started.  Getting started is the hardest part.  Sometimes it’s hard to get anything done if you’re tired or experiencing other distractions in your life.  By committing to only 10-15 minutes, you know you can do that much.

This is especially true with reading goals, which take up a large chunk of college studying time.  The bonus is that you will feel very proud of the fact that you get the job done and feel more positive and confident that you are prepared for the next step.

You also realize that putting it off wasn’t necessary and you created the stressful situation.  Once you get this, it increases the chances that you won’t procrastinate in the future.

Secret to Success

By taking the time to put all these pieces together, you know how to be successful in college.  All the steps for success are intertwined and build upon one another to gain strength.

If you take the time upfront to understand the “why” and develop a well thought out plan from there, it is much easier for the “how” to fall into place.

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