An academic coach tells us what she’s learned

The beginning of an undergraduate degree represents a world of possibilities. First year is a blank slate—it is up to you to forge your own path and to seize the opportunities made available to you at your institution. For those of us considering higher education, we start to feel the pressure to maintain a high GPA and get involved with as many extracurricular activities as we can manage. But that doesn’t mean that you need to lose yourself in the process.

Kailea Switzer holds a B.A., a B.Ed. and M. Ed in Education and currently works as an academic coach. In her Master’s thesis, Switzer designed an intervention for first year post-secondary students that would help to ease their transition from high school. For most high school students, coming to university marks the first time they are living on their own. In order to effectively balance the competing demands, Switzer helps university students learn time management, planning, and organizational strategies. 

University is also a time when many students experience a shift in academic expectations and compare their GPA to their high school average. Rather than shying away from the possibility of failure, Switzer suggests vulnerability as a helpful antidote. We should open ourselves up to the chance that struggle is a necessary component of growth “we go to school in order to learn yet it can be scary to look like we don’t know something – focusing on our growth can help with that” suggests Switzer. In other words, first year is not the end of the story.

For students who are perhaps entering their second or third years, Switzer offers this advice: be in it to learn. Instead of focusing on “just getting through” in order to graduate, shift your mindset to why you are learning. She suggests that first year is meant for experimentation, we stumble into subjects that reveal an interest we didn’t know we had.

Our personal stories are constantly unfolding, and sometimes students fall into spreading themselves too thin. Switzer suggests our extracurricular involvement should reflect depth more than breadth.

University is sometimes fraught with attempts for perfectionism, Switzer states “perfectionism is procrastination, too. It showed up for me as a really intense need to control and to take action on things. For some, it is avoiding working on [the task at hand] because there’s a fear the final product won’t be good enough.”


Switzer encourages students to identify how perfectionism may manifest in their lives. Along with adopting a more failure-friendly attitude: “Focus on enjoying [school]. It’s an incredible time in life to be surrounded by the opportunity to learn, and to have very little else expected out of you. [Although, this is not the case] for all students, as some are balancing a lot of other responsibilities. I think those students maybe even have a better perspective of how much value there is in the experience.”

Switzer proposes these three­­­­ tips for students as we move into the new year:

1) Avoid relying solely on your brain to remember

Mentally holding reminders drains our “brain battery.” This leaves us fewer mental resources available for other tasks. Instead, try using a planner. As soon as something comes up, write it down; that way, your brain doesn’t have to hold onto it. 

2) Practice retrieving stored information

When we learn, we encode information. When we are tested, we need to find that retained information. It’s like looking for a file on your computer—if you’ve saved it with a deliberate filename, you’ll be able to locate it quickly and painlessly (but if you didn’t, it will be hard to find). When studying, make sure you practice retrieval to ensure you’ve stored new information where you can easily find it. Quiz yourself while covering the answers. This will reveal which information is neatly filed away, and what has been stuffed in your brain’s junk drawer.

3) Prioritize sleep

Prioritize eight hours of sleep a night. Why? The process of memory consolidation (moving information from short-term to long-term memory) happens while we are sleeping. This stage is critical and helps us make sense of complex information that escapes us while awake. In other words, you need to sleep so your brain has time to do its job.

Every student learns differently. University is a journey that allows students to develop their academic preferences, and the mistakes we make in the process will only help us grow.