Succeed with SMART Goals!

Smart Goals

Why SMART Goals?

Getting into medical school requires intelligence, focus, passion, ambition, and tons of hard work. In fact it can be both exhausting and overwhelming just thinking about everything that stands between you and that acceptance call. Just being smart and passionate isn’t enough – you need to be organized and you need to have the right tools. Mentoring is one such tool, another is what we’ll talk about today – SMART Goals!!

It’s tempting to try and rush ahead and get everything done as quickly as possible. However, rushing puts you at risk of burning out, or even worse, looking sloppy to the people you’re trying to impress – aka teachers, pre-med advisors, and admissions committees.  

SMART Goals are a great way to get organized and avoid this problem. I used them every single day in medical school and I can confidently say that as a pre-med student they helped me excel in my classes and get into my top pick medical school. I used them to structure my studying, prepare for the wards, finish my board exams, research schools for residency interviews, and earn my MBA while in medical school!

What are SMART Goals?

The 'R' and the 'T' sometimes stand for different words, but the concepts are universal!

SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Sensitive. A SMART goal is… I think you can guess it… one that is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Sensitive. They were first proposed as a management tool in the 1980’s, but have found to be useful in any complex field that can benefit from clearly structured goal-setting. Why are they so useful? Because they help us breakdown really complex goals into smaller, achievable, tasks.

Consider the very complex goal of getting into medical school. This is a big goal with many, many, many steps. 

 Goal: Get Into Medical School

Step 1: Maintain a 4.0 GPA
Step 2: Obtain LORS from two teachers and a Physician
Step 3: Obtain Work Experience as a Medical Scribe
Step 4: Volunteer
Step 5: Do Well on MCAT
Step 6: Network with Med School Admissions
Step 7: Take on Leadership in Pre-Medical Organizations
Step 8: Research Medical Schools
Step 9: Submit Completed Application
Step 10: …… 
Step 11: …………..
Step 12: ………………..

You get the idea, there’s a lot of steps! 

Let’s focus in on just three of the sub-steps that make up these larger steps.

  • Step 1: Maintain a 4.0 GPA
    • Sub-Step: Ace Organic Chemistry 1 in the Fall
    • Sub-Step: Ace Physics 1 in the Fall
    • Sub-Step: Ace Cell Biology in the Fall
    • Sub-Step: Ace English Lit in the Fall
    • Sub-Step: Ace Philosophy 101 in the Fall
  • Step 2: Obtain LORS from two teachers and a Physician
    • Sub-Step: Find Two Teachers I Like (and who like me)
    • Sub-Step: Find a Physician who lets students shadow them
  • Step 3: Obtain Work-Experience as a Medical Scribe
    • Sub-Step: Research Medical Scribe Companies in the Area

But of course these sub-steps have their own sub-sub-steps!

  • Step 1: Maintain a 4.0 GPA
    • Sub-Step 1: Ace Organic Chemistry 1 in the Fall
      • Read up on Lab for Thursday for Pre-Lab Quiz
      • Watch You-Tube Video on Lab
      • Complete Homework Due on Tuesday
      • Read Chapters 1 – 3 to keep up on reading
      • Start studying for 1st exam

And so on and so on. If you don’t have the right tools and the right way of thinking this can get overwhelming fast. So let’s continue to look at Organic Chemistry through the framework of SMART goals

Using SMART Goals to Ace Orgo!

So let’s look at Organic Chemistry through the framework of SMART goals.

‘S’ is for Specific! I like to build my study goals around exams. Let’s say my Orgo class has three written and two lab exams. My first two Specific goals would be #1 Ace Written Orgo Exam 1 and #2 Ace The First Lab Exam.

‘M’ is for Measurable. The nice thing about grades is that they are VERY measurable. You’ll know right away if you met your goal or not. You can also measure progress in other ways – like completing a certain number of problems each day. Can you do and understand all the problems in the chapters that you’re working on? That’s a measurable goal.

‘A’ is for Achievable. Every class you take on the road to being a doctor is hard, but it’s also achievable. It’s a road walked by many before you. Setting SMART goals will make it easier, getting advice from mentors, classmates, tutors, and trusted online sites all help. Achievable doesn’t mean easy, but getting an A in Orgo is an achievable goal!

‘R’ is for Realistic. Getting an A is realistic, cramming the night before the exam and still getting that A is probably not. It’s definitely not realistic if you’ve been struggling in the weeks leading up to the exam and / or not putting the work in beforehand. A realistic goal for acing the first exam of orgo may be to do five problems every day. When I was orgo I would redo the same homework problems over and over again throughout the week. A great book I used was Organic Chemistry as a Second Language. The $25 bucks I spent grabbing a copy turned out be far better use of money than my $200 text book!

‘T’ is for Timely. If you set goals for yourself without establishing realistic timeframes for those goals you’re setting yourself up for failure. For instance a goal of doing “100 practice problems before the exam” could lead you to trying to cram those problems in the night before the exam. I like to use tools like CramFighter to setup daily / weekly / monthly goals. You don’t even need something fancy, a dollar-store calendar, or a free app is enough to set tasks and hold yourself accountable.

I’m still using SMART goals as I prepare for boards and get ready for residency interviews. All of my schedule is built around specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely goals. I think you’ll find that it becomes second nature to set SMART goals one you get into the habit. 

One last note. Sometimes you fall short of your goals and that’s OK. I set out to maintain a 4.0 in my pre-med science classes and I fell a little short of that goal, but I didn’t let it get me down. I just kept setting SMART goals and was able to achieve my goal of getting into medical school and you can too!

Next Steps

Head to our Pre-Med Discussion Forum and post your SMART goals. Then update your profile to list your SMART goals. Planning out your goals in this way is a great way to stay on track and if you pick up a mentor it really helps to crystallize your goals. See what kinds of feedback you get and keep us updated on your progress! 


Good luck future student doctors!

The Path to Medical School Can Feel Long And Unclear

But never forget that we’re here to help. Do you have a question about something you just read in our BreakThru Learner Series?

Use the BreakThru Feed to Ask and Inspire others with your questions. Our Medical Student Mentors are always here to help you, for free, anytime.

Where Mentoring Happens

Related Articles