Write It Down, Watch It Happen

By Melissa Brock

Jessica Hess, director of admissions at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, is a big fan of goal-setting.

“When I do staff reviews, we review goals. Some are definitely more quantifiable,” she said. She can catalogue an impressive list: application; texting and phoning goals; visit, admit, deposit goals; and more.

Yet, Hess admitted that some goals are not quantifiable at all. “For example, if we have a newer person who would like to get more familiar with Slate or someone who went to another school who wants to get to know the academic departments here better, [those goals are] put into review documents we utilize as a college.”

According to Hess, both quantifiable and unquantifiable goals are valid—as long as they work in concert with her college’s mission. She believes the most successful and impactful staff members align their skill sets with office goals to benefit the institution.

Why Set Goals?

Edwin Locke, an American psychologist and pioneer in goal-setting theory, began to examine the concept of goal-setting in the mid-1960s. Locke, one of the first individuals to establish a positive relationship between clearly identified goals and performance, published Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives in 1968. Fast forward 50 years, and Locke’s theories still hold true:

  1. Employees are motivated by clear goals and appropriate feedback.
  2. Working toward a goal provides a major source of motivation to reach the goal, which also improves performance.

Alice Robertson, school counselor at Chantilly High School in Chantilly, Virginia, believes that goal-setting is important regardless of who you are or even whether goals are personal or professional. “Writing down and literally thinking about your goals has some definite power regardless of age, whether you’re a high school student or a professional in your 10th year,” she said.

Write It Down

More specifically, Robertson acknowledges that the most important action her staff members can take is to physically write down their goals. “Putting pen to paper or text to screen allows you to think about what you’re planning to achieve and how you might achieve it. Generally, when you write something down, it’s pretty important,” she said.

Other research studies have also proven the efficacy of goal-setting.

One such example was accomplished by Gail Matthews, psychology professor at Dominican University of California. She recruited 267 participants for a study on how achievement in the workplace is influenced by writing goals.

More than 70 percent of the participants who sent weekly updates to a friend reported successful goal achievement, compared to 35 percent of those who kept their goals to themselves and didn’t write them down.

Vern Granger, director of admissions at the University of Connecticut, has no doubt that writing down goals is key to attainment. “The simple task of writing something down makes it sort of official, whereas if you don’t take that step, it leaves them open to interpretation. Memories fade, things come up. It focuses everybody on what they’re trying to accomplish.”

Tracy Jackson likens goal-setting to a New Year’s resolution. Jackson, school counseling supervisor for Loudoun County Public Schools in Ashburn, Virginia, said, “Writing down goals puts them into existence, and it’s a higher likelihood that they’ll come to fruition. Furthermore, when it’s tied to an evaluation, it’s about accountability. It’s how we measure how the individual is successful in his or her job.”

On the whole, an article by the Harvard Business Review reported that for managers, goal-setting requires a several-pronged approach: 

  1. To motivate employees in the best way possible, goals should be carefully and intentionally chosen.
  2. Employees perform better when they’re committed to achieving certain goals, and if they’re personal goals, they’re also more motivated to achieve them.
  3. Be sure that employee goals are attainable. The tougher they are to achieve, the less likely employees will be motivated to achieve them.
  4. Aim for more specific goals.
  5. If employees are held accountable, they’re more likely to reach their goals.

Goals and Motivation
Experts agree that goals motivate employees when they’re tied to larger organizational ambitions. Employees who don’t understand the roles they play in company success are more likely to become disengaged.

Hess strives for a “supportive, but independent” approach with her staff. She said, as their supervisor, her biggest responsibility is to provide them with the right resources to meet their goals. This includes providing them with small items, from the right data to larger overarching support, such as helping them build the skills to manage tasks as professionals.

Kirk Kluver, director of admissions at the University of Iowa, notes that goal-setting can often be a very reactive process instead of a thoughtful, targeted action. “Goal-setting takes a lot of discipline, but goal-setting is often done as a necessity as part of the review process, and sometimes done hastily as part of the review process,” he said. During his career, he’s witnessed individuals who quickly drum up some goals for an upcoming review, shelve them, and never look at them again.

To combat “goal-setting fatigue,” Kluver implemented fall “kick-off conversations” to rejuvenate every new admission cycle. He likes to do a check to see if staff goals have changed since employees’ annual review. To get the gears turning in his staff members’ minds, Kluver has implemented a written piece in addition to one-on-one conversations with a supervisor—which all happens during the calm before the storm. “We decided that August before the start of fall travel season was a nice time of the year to put these things in writing,” he said.

Commitment and Personal Goals

Granger said in the midst of helping any institution meet its goals, he never loses sight of his staff members’ personal goals. He believes that a supervisor should account for the interests of the whole person. He also knows that when employees choose goals for themselves, they’re more likely to achieve them.

Granger acknowledges that different individuals are at different stages in their career and their lives, which affects their goals. He helps employees who want to become admission office directors by providing them with key oversight and strategic focus areas to prepare them to lead their own admission teams. “Some folks aren’t natural public speakers, and they’d like to develop their public speaking skills. Some are not good at interpreting data and they’d like to become more proficient in that area. Some of the goals are to have a better work-life balance,” he said.

Kluver has also seen a number of employees reach personal goals alongside their in-office goals. Several of his employees have attended and presented at national conferences and have also achieved advanced degrees. “A few staff members have started master’s programs here. It started on paper, entered into conversations, and then came to fruition. It’s a great employee retention tool,” Kluver said.

Make Them Attainable and Be Specific

In one study, Locke reviewed a decade’s worth of laboratory and field studies on the effects of goal-setting and performance. He found that 90 percent of the time, specific and challenging (but not too challenging) goals led to higher performance than easy goals, “do your best” goals or no goals at all.

According to the Harvard Business Review, it’s important to be careful: Your team members are less likely to perform well if you insist on goals that are too challenging to accomplish. At the same time, you don’t want to aim too low.

Locke’s goal-setting theory finds that setting specific goals, such as “I want to earn $1,000 more a month” leads to higher performance than broader goals like “I want to earn more money.”

The more specific supervisors encourage employees to be, the more likely they’ll achieve exactly what they set out to do. For example, an admission counselor could write, “increase yield,” or a manager could encourage that admission counselor to be more specific and pen, “Increase yield in New York state by 15 percent by May of 2020.”


Calvin Wise, director of recruitment at Johns Hopkins University (MD), believes that a big part of being successful as a manager is making sure that once employees identify their goals, have a conversation with them to create a lasting impact. He said that it’s easy for admission representatives to fall in the trap of simply doing what the previous person in the role did, rather than thinking a year or two years down the line.

Doing so creates a greater sense of accountability for the employee.

Wise said, “Our philosophy is to not have one conversation about goals. It should be an ongoing conversation, not just once a year.” He said that once an initiative or project has come full-circle, he’s immediately back to square one: Debrief, then identify the goals for the upcoming year, cycle, month, or whatever is appropriate for that particular project. Career paths Goal-setting could be even more crucial in admission or school counseling careers compared other fields, which have a more defined career path. 

“I think sometimes it can be difficult to see a very transparent career path in admission. In absence of a clear, transparent track of promotion, there is some intentional study of potential growth as a professional and experiences, skills, and new opportunities,” Kluver said. “They can see they’re moving ahead; they’re a better professional than they were a year ago. I think goal-setting from that context is important.”

Disappointment and success Hess has seen the downside when her counselors don’t meet their goals. “I’ve had counselors who have done all the tricks that they can,” she said. When someone isn’t attaining their goals, she tackles the problem head-on. She calls a strategy meeting. She asks them what they’ve done this year compared to last, particularly if it had been someone else’s territory the year before.

She recalls one specific example in which an admission counselor was frustrated by lack of deposits within her assigned region. Hess worked to retarget efforts for that specific counselor. “That individual had a goal, was not meeting it, approached me, and was willing to do the work. If that numerical goal wasn’t met, I knew the extra work that person did,” she said.

Hess said it’s easy to get caught up in whether individuals are meeting their goals. “Ultimately, it’s not always about meeting the goal, but about growing professionals,” she said. “We could be very disappointed as we’re always looking at numbers. It could also be very crippling.” She firmly believes there should be a balance of quantifiable goals to personal goals.

Hess believes that even when her admission counselors don’t quite meet their goals, they learn from them and become a more valuable professional for the next year. “That’s the best part,” Hess said with a smile. “As much as I want a very productive staff, I also want a balanced staff and a happy staff. I had two people leave this summer, and they both cried when they said they were leaving. That doesn’t happen everywhere.”

Melissa Brock worked for 12 years as an admission counselor and senior associate director at Central College in Pella, Iowa, and is a freelance writer and editor.

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