SMART Goals For Job Seekers

Woman looks for a job

There are two perspectives on SMART goals for job seekers, one from the viewpoint of the activities you perform as part of your job search, the other focused on understanding the expectations of a position you're considering.

SMART goals, originally attributed to Peter Drucker, has been interpreted with various modifications and additions, but generally refers to goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable (Achievable, Actionable), Realistic (Relevant), and Time-Bound (Time-Based, Timely). There's strong agreement on the “Specific" and “Measurable," with several variations of the “__ART" elements. Specific, Measurable, and Time-Bound are generally agreed upon as core elements.

For The Job Search

Man writes down his goals while looking for a job


For job seekers, SMART goals can be a powerful tool to guide the process. While many individuals are familiar with the idea from its common work application, it's a new—and much-needed—process for many job seekers. And for those unfamiliar with the idea, it can be further complicated by the claim of goals being set for them in their work experience—goals that are absolutely not SMART. So, a job seeker might just set an extremely broad goal, like “finding a new job," or might set some seemingly more specific goals like:

  • Revise my resume
  • Contact my references
  • Search online for job opportunities
  • Send thank you emails

While setting some goals, any goals, particularly if they're written down, is better than not having any goals, these are definitely not SMART goals. More importantly, goals like these deprive a job seeker of the power of having SMART goals.

Research on goal setting clearly demonstrates the power—and the dangers—of goal setting. Goals that are not SMART fail to motivate top performance and/or lead to inaction. Goals that are set too high (not Realistic) frequently prompt a person's decision to “give up." Understanding the dynamics of goal setting can be a powerful tool for a job seeker's success.

Let's turn the examples above into SMART goals:

  • Revise my resume - Create a customized resume for each job opening I want to apply for by next Sunday.
  • Contact my references - Identify at least one reference from my previous employers and contact them within the next month with my resume and information on the jobs I'm seeking.
  • Search online for job opportunities - Check online for job opportunities at least twice a week.
  • Send thank you emails - Send thank you emails within 24 hours of an interview to each person involved.

For The Interview

Woman asks a question about goals during an interview


Understanding SMART goals can also be a powerful tool for a candidate to use during an interview. Job postings, ads, and even job descriptions can be filled with generalities and duties that, at best, describe average performance.

A job seeker is frequently asked, “Do you have any questions?" Seize this opportunity whenever given. Unless the following has been made clear to you, ask: “If I were offered and accepted this position, and you considered me extremely successful in my first year, what did I accomplish?" Then probe! And probe whenever you can during an interview when you don't have clear, specific (SMART) expectations from the interviewer:

  • Specifically, what do you expect the person in this job to accomplish in the first 90 days?
    • In the first six months?
    • In the first year?
  • The job description says the job includes “making sales calls." How many are considered acceptable in a day? In a month?
    • How many of the company's sales staff regularly achieve acceptable performance?
    • How many sales calls are considered “outstanding performance"?
  • The job description says that the job includes “leading the team." How many people are on the team?
    • How many members are new? Long-time members?
    • Is the team facing specific challenges? Problems?
    • What resources are available for developing the team? Training? Assessments?
    • What's the time frame for improving the team's performance?
  • You mentioned “the usual customer service" responsibilities, could you tell me…
    • What does “outstanding" customer service mean for this business?
    • What kind of training is provided for customer service?
    • What are the customer service expectations in terms of working with colleagues?
    • (Somewhat advanced but a good question) Is compensation tied to the quality of service provided by a person in this job?

These probing questions need to be customized for each individual position. But just like the importance of thoroughly preparing your responses to questions about your experience, this is where you thoroughly prepare by 1) researching the company and 2) preparing questions that probe for:

  • Specific: Are you given answers with clear “action" verbs?
  • Measurable: Is there a clear measurement (a number) that indicates a performance level?
  • Attainable: Are the expectations achievable, too low (usually not specific), or unrealistically high?
  • Realistic: Are the results of the actions specified indicated?
  • Time-Bound: Are the expectations framed in terms of "when"?

SMART goals can be a very powerful part of a successful job search—and a powerful tool for a job seeker to use during the interview process—if a job seeker learns and practices the process.

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This article was originally published at an earlier date.