How I Got Into Harvard University: 8 Simple Systems

If you had told me when I was growing up that I would someday graduate from Harvard, I never would have believed you.

Being from Prince Edward Island, the journey from Island girl to Harvard grad was an unexpected one. I wasn’t a “natural genius” or superstar student by any stretch. In fact, things always seemed to come more easily to my friends. But I was somewhat of a systems-junkie, always trying to figure out what I could do to get the results I wanted.

Initially, I viewed my systems as workarounds. As ways to compensate for not being the smartest in my class, or able to effortlessly sail through my studies. In each new academic setting, from my undergraduate degree to Harvard, I expected my systems to fall short… but they never did. In fact, they led to unusually reliable results – full scholarships and straight A’s throughout three degrees, without ever needing to pull an all-nighter.

I now have a student coaching business, teaching these same systems that take the guesswork out of university success. The tips I’ll share below are some of the simplest yet most effective techniques I know. They are so simple, in fact, that most people don’t even bother with them, but they lead to real and consistent results. The best part? They can be implemented by anyone.

8 Simple Systems:

  1. Use Separate Binders for Each Class – This way, you don’t have to waste time looking for what you need, or sorting and sifting unnecessarily through cluttered pages. Typically, one binder = one big mess. Save yourself the headache, keep things separated and, come exam time, you’ll be so happy you did.
  2. Get a 4-Month Wall Calendar – Most students don’t consider the semester as a whole. They think, “It’s too stressful thinking about what I eventually have to do – I’ll take it as it comes.” But this approach actually increases your stress, as you are more likely to forget a task, or suddenly realize that you have a lot due at once. Instead, get a 4-month dry erase calendar and map out all of your due dates the first week of school. At a glance, you’ll know your priorities.
  3. Stick to a Consistent “Work Baseline” Per Week – Most students work inconsistently, oscillating between too much and too little time spent working. To manage this, set a weekly “work baseline.” Think of being a student as your job and aim for 40 hours of “work” every week (including time spent in class). Aim for 8 hours per weekday and if you prefer to do less than that, use the weekend to catch up. The ideal baseline number will depend on the individual, but 40 hours a week (split up as however you see fit) is a good starting point.
  4. Don’t Start the Semester in Vacation-Mode – You won’t have a lot due in the first few weeks of school, which makes it the perfect time to get a head start. Since you’ll have a lighter load, you can double up on your readings. In Week 1, do the readings for Week 1 and Week 2 (that way in Week 2, you’ll only need to do the readings for Week 3, and in Week 3, you’ll only need to do the readings for Week 4, etc.). This gives you a buffer for when things inevitably get busier and assignments become due. *This is the most effective, but least used tip!
  5. Get Familiar with the Content BEFORE You Go to Class – My best learning strategy is to finish class readings before the lecture, and take notes as you read. By grappling with the information on your own, you are priming your brain before class. Taking selective notes while you read also ensures you are actively engaged and making sense of the information as you go. This means that once you are in class, you won’t be overwhelmed with new information. Instead, you’ll be deepening your understanding and improving your notes. Do this consistently and you’ll be shocked at how little you actually need to “study.”
  6. When you Put Info ‘In,’ Make Sure You Can Take it ‘Out’ – When we learn, we encode information, meaning, we put it in our brain. When we are tested, we need to be able to retrieve that information. It’s like looking for a file on your computer – if you’ve saved it with a deliberate filename, you’ll more easily be able to locate it. When studying, make sure you practice retrieval to check that you’ve stored new info where you can find it. For example, quiz yourself with the answers covered. This will reveal what info is neatly filed away, and what has just been stuffed in your brain’s junk drawer.
  7. Use the Available Resources – Take ownership of your experience and get help when you need it. Many students are afraid to ask for help because they feel that they should already know the material, or they fear looking stupid. Recognize that your professors are there to help you. Go to Office Hours and let it be known that you want to learn and improve as a student (vs. just caring about grades) – they’ll be happy to support you. Get help from all available services when you need it – the Campus Writing Services, counselors, tutors, librarians, etc. (P.S. Your tuition is paying for these student services, so use them!)
  8. Adopt a Growth Mindset – Be in it to learn. Decide that growth should be difficult, and it should be uncomfortable, and don’t be afraid to “look” like you are trying. Constantly ask yourself, “Am I growing, learning, and improving?” Because progress is the point, not perfection. At the end of your university experience, if you challenged yourself to learn and grow as much as possible, your success is inevitable.IMG_7508

This is a small sample of Kailea’s powerful tips and resources. Access her complete, full-length e-course and find out more about 1:1 coaching by clicking here.

Complete E-Course: 10 Things I Learned at Harvard: ‘Straight-A’ Secrets from a Non-Genius

About the Author:

Kailea Switzer helps university students feel less overwhelmed, more in control of their time, and get the results they want. The goal? Get the work done, and enjoy college life. Her powerful coaching and development program teaches organization, time management, and planning skills that serve students well beyond their university experience.

Kailea has a B.A. in Educational Psychology from Mount Allison University, a B.Ed. in Teaching from St. Thomas University, and an M.Ed. in Counseling from Harvard University. She is also a Mount Allison Bell Scholar (2005) and a Canadian Loran Scholar (2005). 

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