How a P.E.I. student got into Harvard and says you can, too

As Grade 12 students across P.E.I. consider next steps in education, some advice from a "systems junkie" who says anything's possible.

Secrets from self-professed 'non-genius' Kailea Switzer

Approach school like a job, allocating at least 40 hours a week to class and study time, says Kailea Switzer. (Submitted by Kailea Switzer)

Kailea Switzer had a panic attack and froze during her first mid-term exam at Mount Allison University — she says she felt like "a fraud," that she wasn't smart enough to be there, and she was about to let down her whole family. 

Now 30, the former Colonel Gray High School student has not only a degree in psychology and music from Mount A plus plus a bachelor's degree in education, she also has a master's in education from Harvard, graduating in 2014.

"I really felt like I was going to get kicked out at any moment," Switzer recalls from her home in California, where she's lived with her husband Greg Alsop for the last few years. Especially in her first few years of university, she said "I was convinced everybody around me was smarter." 

As Grade 12 students across P.E.I. are busy applying to universities and buckling down for the final push toward the end of the school year, it's likely few of them have considered they could ever one day attend Harvard, a private Ivy-league university in Cambridge, Mass.

For me, Harvard represented going as far as I could think of ... it became my version of the Olympics.— Kailea Switzer

"I think a lot of times people don't think they should even try to apply," Switzer said. "You don't feel like you're the kind of person that would be possible for — I relate to that, I felt like that for so long."  

Switzer, who's from a large, close-knit P.E.I. family (yes, her dad is Ron Switzer from platinum-selling P.E.I. band Haywire), said Harvard wasn't on her radar, either. In fact, she had planned for years to attend UPEI, like all her cousins, and hadn't thought much beyond that. 

But then she won a Loran scholarship, requiring her to enrol in an off-Island university. Sight unseen, she chose Mount Allison because it was close to P.E.I. 

Tips for success

Switzer had always been ambitious and a straight-A student, winning full scholarships to Mount A, but says she had to work hard for good grades. She became a "systems junkie," developing what she considered workarounds to compensate for not being the smartest.

'It became my version of the Olympics. It's just this dream I had to see if I could do it,' says Switzer of graduating from Harvard. (Submitted by Kailea Switzer)

After working as a teacher in California for a few years, Switzer recently started a business coaching students

In a recent blog post, she shared her tools and strategies for academic success — ones she has used herself and is now teaching others. 

1. Separate binders

While some students swear by using one big binder for everything, Switzer advises separate binders for each class. It cuts down on sorting and sifting to find what you need.

2. 4-month wall calendar

Invest in a large, dry-erase four-month calendar that shows all your assignments, exams and deadlines for the entire semester, she said. 

This forces students to consider their semester as a whole. 

"At a glance, you'll know your priorities," she said.

3. Work it like a job

Set a weekly work baseline, Switzer said. 

"Think of being a student as your job and aim for 40 hours of 'work' every week, including time spent in class," she said. 

Aim for eight hours per weekday then if you prefer to do less, use the weekend to catch up.

Approaching her time this way allowed Switzer to work 15-20 hours a week during university and participate in school clubs and activities, she said.

4. Don't start the year in vacation mode

This is Switzer's most important tip, she said — get a head start on school work the first few weeks of the year, before a lot of assignments are due. 

It might be hard to get a jump start on school work when everyone else is partying the first few weeks, but Switzer says you'll be glad you did. (UPEI)

"Once you get behind, it's really hard to catch up," she said. 

Double up on your readings the first week, doing the readings for week one and week two. Then in week two, you can do the readings for week three. 

This way, you'll get familiar with content before class and "prime your brain" for it, she said. And if you get sick or go through an emotional breakup, you'll have a buffer of time.

"Do this consistently and you'll be shocked at how little you need to study," she said. 

5. Quiz yourself along the way

When studying, practise retrieving information you've "saved" in your brain.

Switzer snapped this shot of a wintry day on the Harvard campus in Cambridge, Mass. (Submitted by Kailea Switzer)

"It's like looking for a file on your computer — if you've saved it with a deliberate file name, you'll be able to locate it," Switzer said. 

Quiz yourself with the answers covered — "this will reveal what info is neatly filed away and what has been stuffed in your brain's junk drawer," she said.  

6. Use available resources

"Take ownership of your experience and get help when you need it," Switzer said. 

This includes going to talk to professors during their open office hours — something she initially found intimidating. 

"That was one of the things that helped me the most — getting to know my professors," Switzer said. See them as allies — they want to help students learn. 

She'd even complete papers and assignments early and go over them with professors before they were due to improve her work and marks. 

Use free campus writing services, counsellors, tutors and librarians, she advises — "your tuition is paying for student services, so use them!" 

7. 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," advises Switzer. Progress is what is important — not perfection. Embrace learning for its own sake. 

Switzer, 30, is a teacher, blogger and organization coach. (Submitted by Kailea Switzer)

Don't approach school as a burden or an obstacle, she said — this will reduce your motivation. Instead, realize how privileged you are to be able to get a university education.

"If you can shift to having that perspective of gratitude for the experience," Switzer said, you will be more successful. 

After implementing and tweaking these systems, Switzer found her master's from Harvard easier than her first degree, she said. 

"For me, Harvard represented going as far as I could think of ... it became my version of the Olympics. It's just this dream I had to see if I could do it," she said.

Tuition was about $40,000 for the one year Switzer spent at Harvard. The school and her parents did provide some financial assistance to help her with living expenses, and Switzer spent money she had been saving for school since she was 14 to independently cover her tuition. She even deferred acceptance for a year to save more money and avoid a student loan. 

And that first panic-stricken mid-term exam at Mount Allison? Switzer remembers she received a grade of D-minus, "which was I think generous, in retrospect," she laughs.

Switzer and her husband have purchased a home in Charlottetown and plan to move to the Island in a few months. 

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About the Author

Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email sara.fraser@cbc.ca