Monikah Schuschu 7 min read Academic Tips and Info, Academics

Doubt, Discouragement, and Setting Appropriate Goals in High School

The college application process is a subject about which many people have very strong opinions. Here at the CollegeVine blog, we do our best to give our readers a realistic portrait of how the process works and what to expect, but not everyone may agree with us—or with you— about how best to manage that process.

Hearing expressions of doubt and discouragement from the people around you about the goals you’ve set for yourself during high school can be very hard, particularly if it seems to be a commentary on your personal worth. Learning to deal with this type of criticism and to determine its validity is a necessary step in navigating the admissions process successfully.

In this post, we’ll go over how to determine which goals are appropriate for you, how to respond to discouraging or doubtful comments about your goals, and when it’s best to disregard discouraging comments you may receive.

Encountering doubt and discouragement

It’s normal to find that some people in your life have doubts about your ability to meet the goals that you’ve set for yourself. This is particularly true if you set high goals for yourself, such as being admitted to a top-tier college or winning a prestigious national award. If people in your life doubt your ability to achieve your goals, they may discourage you from setting those goals in the first place or from making plans based on them.

Discouragement can come from many different directions. For example, a teacher might advise you not to take a certain class if they don’t think you can handle the workload. A family member might tell you not to apply to a certain college if they think you’re unlikely to be accepted. Guidance counselors and other students can also be sources of discouragement.

As you progress through high school, it’s important that you learn how to accept and make use of constructive criticism from others. It’s also important that you keep your expectations of yourself realistic, even as you seek out new challenges. However, sometimes criticism or discouragement can become excessive, which can have a major negative impact on your motivation.

In order to move forward successfully, you’ll need to figure out how to deal with these doubters and discouragers productively. Sometimes this means figuring out what’s at the root of someone’s critical comments and determining which changes you should make. In other situations, it’s more appropriate to learn how to dismiss unnecessary doubt and move on with your life.

Setting realistic but challenging goals in high school

As you go about setting goals for academic and extracurricular achievement in high school, it’s important to maintain a realistic perspective on your own abilities. You can’t simply pick goals at random; they need to be tied in a significant way to your skills, experience level, available resources, and the other realities of your life.

Some goals require long-term involvement that you may not have started early enough. Others may require a level of talent that you don’t have and are unlikely to develop in the time frame you set for yourself. There’s no shame in not being particularly talented in a certain area, but it’s important to recognize where your strengths and weaknesses lie.

Not every doubtful or discouraging comment is without merit, even if it’s something you disagree with or find upsetting to hear. It’s important to accurately take stock of where you stand now and what is possible for you given the constraints of your individual situation.

As we’ll discuss below, not every goal needs to be something you’re likely to achieve, but you should maintain reasonable expectations for yourself. If your guidance counselor tells you that it’s highly unlikely that you’ll make the Honor Roll this semester given your current grades, for instance, you should take their assessment seriously, and possibly set yourself a less challenging goal to start with.

Often, people who question your goals are trying in some way to help you succeed, not hoping that you’ll fail. They don’t want to see you invest your efforts in a plan that is unlikely to work out, pass up other opportunities in favor of an unreasonable goal, or ultimately be surprised and disappointed when you end up falling short. Their advice can be very important.

At the same time, setting high goals can be an excellent motivating force, which will benefit you regardless of whether you actually meet those specific goals. Having a specific and challenging goal in mind is a necessary part of identifying, planning, and completing the action steps which are involved in any long-term project, and these steps will likely be helpful to you in themselves.  

For instance, it’s very difficult to get accepted to a given top-tier college, and some element of chance is always involved, as we’ve discussed many times on the CollegeVine blog. Many qualified applicants are turned down because there simply isn’t enough room for all of them. Even if you’re highly qualified, gaining acceptance to a particular top-tier school is never a sure bet.

However, even if you aren’t accepted to the college of your choice, the work you put into achieving this goal will have other positive effects for you. If you buckle down on your schoolwork and become a leader in your extracurriculars, it will certainly improve your chances of getting accepted to another great college. If you take on an internship, it will still help you in your future career, and so on.

There’s no point in setting a goal that is literally impossible for you to achieve, and doing so will only bring disappointment. Your goals must be grounded in reality. However, setting genuinely challenging goals, and even goals that you’re unlikely to meet, is an important part of helping yourself move forward.

Finally, you should keep in mind that goals can be adjusted over time. It’s helpful to set intermediate goals or to designate checkpoints at which you’ll assess your progress and determine whether achieving your original goal remains possible, or perhaps has proven to be not challenging enough.

Sometimes, comments that sound doubtful or discouraging are nevertheless accurate reflections of the likelihood that you’ll achieve a particular goal, and it’s worthwhile to consider this possibility. This doesn’t mean that you must give up the goal, but it does mean that you need to maintain a realistic idea of your chances of success.

Approaching discouraging comments constructively

Even if you strongly disagree with someone’s doubts about your ambitions, it’s possible that there is some element of value in their criticism that you can use to improve yourself. It’s wise to consider discouraging comments carefully to determine why the comment was made and whether it would be useful to try and change something about your efforts.

Clearly, people make discouraging comments for a wide range of different reasons. Looking closely at these reasons can reveal a lot about how you can productively respond to these comments.

A person in your life may express doubt about your ambitions because they are concerned about you. For instance, your parent might tell you that you wouldn’t be able to handle being class president because they’re worried that the role will stress you out too much, and this will be detrimental to your overall well-being.

If you’re sure that you’ll be able to handle the stress of the position, you can try to assuage your parent’s concern and assure them that you’ll continue prioritizing your mental and physical health even with a new responsibility on your plate. You might mention specific strategies you have in place to combat burnout, or explain that you’re downgrading your involvement with another activity in order to take on this role.

Others may be critical of your goals because they have a significant misunderstanding about you. For example, perhaps one of your classmates thinks your college goals are unreasonable because you don’t belong to a popular study group, but in reality, you just study in places and times that are not visible to them. Misconceptions like this can often be easily corrected with a little communication.  

In some cases, unfortunately, people in your life may doubt you because of incorrect assumptions they have about groups of people. For instance, perhaps a teacher has discouraged you from taking an honors class because they associate your haircut, clothing style, or some other aspect of the way you present yourself with a lack of academic capability.

Obviously, stereotyping like this is unfair to you, and it shouldn’t prevent you from taking on challenging opportunities. However, the urge to prove these assumptions wrong can be a source of motivation and determination for you going forward. You might find that you actively draw strength from upsetting others’ expectations.

Dismissing doubt and discouragement when appropriate

We’ve discussed the necessity of carefully considering discouraging and doubtful comments that may come from an essentially caring place or that can reveal important concerns that you need to address. However, sometimes, there really is nothing of value to be taken from a particular criticism, and it’s best for you to dismiss it and move on.

Sometimes, people are simply wrong. Even parents, teachers, or guidance counselors who know you well may be incorrect in their assumptions about what you can handle and whether your goals are appropriate. Jealousy, bullying, competitiveness, and personal relationships or conflicts can unfortunately come into the picture as well, especially when dealing with your peers.

It’s also very possible that a person who is criticizing your goals is misinformed or doesn’t know you well enough to make that call. If a neighbor you barely know scoffs at your ambition to become a doctor someday, you likely don’t need to pay that comment much attention. Prioritize the opinions of those who know and understand you best.

If you’re unsure whether it’s worth it to listen to a particular person’s advice, ask other trusted and well-informed people who know you for their opinions. If these people tell you to ignore that person’s discouragement, feel free to do so. Not every person’s perspective will be valuable to your goal-setting process.

Moving forward with your goals may mean that you have to respectfully but firmly disregard the advice of someone close to you or someone you respect. This can be a tense dynamic for you to manage, but it’s not possible to please everyone, and ultimately, you need to do what is best for yourself and for your future.  

There’s nothing wrong with setting challenging goals, as long as you don’t expect yourself to literally do the impossible. In fact, setting high goals is a necessary part of working toward success and self-improvement. As long as you keep an open mind to ways that you can continue to improve, you shouldn’t let doubters and discouragers dissuade you from making your best effort to achieve great things.

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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.