The Cadre | UPEI

THE FRESHMAN 15: 15 Mistakes to Avoid in Your First Year at University

By: Kailea Switzer

If you had have told me when I was 8 or even 18 that I would be a Harvard grad, I would have never believed you. I grew up in Charlottetown, PEI, and in school, things always seemed to come more easily to my friends. But I received scholarships and straight A’s throughout three degrees, while balancing part-time jobs, a range of campus clubs and activities, and literally never pulling an all-nighter. My secret weapon? Organization.

At Harvard University, I designed a program to help students in the transition from high school to university. That program became the framework for my student coaching business, and I now help university students across Canada develop time management, planning, and organizational skills. I’ve seen that when students learn a few really simple systems to become more organized, they feel less overwhelmed and more in control – this leads to better grades, feeling happier, and enjoying their college experience more. I’ve also seen the most common mistakes students make that lead to increased stress, anxiety, and results that feel disappointing – so here are 15 student mistakes you can avoid. If you do, your future self will thank you, and you’ll enjoy your university experience so much more.

1. Using One Massive Binder for All Classes
If you use a separate binder for every class, you don’t have to waste time looking for what you need, or sorting and sifting unnecessarily. 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. Lack of a Macro View (Causing Things to Fall Through the Cracks)
Most students don’t spend time considering the semester as whole. They think, “It’s too stressful thinking about what I eventually have to do – I’ll take it as it comes.” But this actually increases your stress, as you are likely to forget a task, or unexpectedly have a lot due at once. To avoid this, get a 4-month dry erase calendar and map out ALL of your due dates the first week of school. You’ll know your priorities and what’s coming up at a glance.

3. Relying on your Brain to “Remember”
When there’s something we need to remember, it often feels like we won’t forget. There are two problems with this: 1) mentally holding reminders drains our “brain battery” leaving us fewer resources available for other tasks, and 2) if we get distracted, we tend to forget. Instead, try off-loading things you want to remember to a planner. Think of it as a safe holding zone, a system you trust to remember. As soon as something comes up, write it down, that way your brain doesn’t have to hold onto it.

 4. Undervaluing Sleep
Some people think of “all-nighters” as a rite of passage in university, but I encourage students to prioritize 8 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 stymies us while awake. In other words, you need to sleep so your brain has time to do its job.

5. No Consistent “Work Baseline” Per Week
Most students work inconsistently, oscillating between “way too much” and “way too little.” Instead, I encourage students to set a weekly baseline. As most jobs require 40 hours a week, think of being a student as being your job. Aim for 40 hours of school work EVERY week (including time spent in class). Figure out what that means per day and hold yourself accountable to it. (*Varies based on individual differences/course load, but 40 hours is a good starting point.)

6. Starting the Semester in Vacation Mode
You won’t have a lot due the first few weeks of school but now is the time to get a head start and create a buffer. Since you’ll have a lighter week, try doubling up on your readings. In Week 1, do the readings for Week 1 AND Week 2 (that way in Week 2, you’ll just need to do the readings for Week 3, and in Week 3, you’ll just need to do the readings for Week 4, etc.). This lead is going to be extremely helpful as things get busier down the road.

7. Not Doing the Readings Before Class
The busier you get, the more “optional” you’ll consider assigned readings, but the most effective learning strategy I know is not only to complete the assigned readings, but to finish them BEFORE class. Why? By first grappling with the information on your own, you are actively laying a neural pathway (it might be frustrating and confusing – but that’s ok!). You are priming your brain, allowing you to more effectively and efficiently process the lecture content. This will dramatically cut down on how much time you’ll spend studying later.

8. Using Massed vs. Spaced Practice
Many students float through the semester without consciously assessing what they don’t understand. Come exam time, they cram to make sense of everything. This is problematic because our brains remember information significantly better when it’s learned over time, vs. all at once, so it’s much better to ensure you are learning the content as you go. Put it this way – if you cram before a midterm, you’ll likely have to spend time relearning the information before the final exam. Instead, if something is confusing, take the time to get help in the moment.

9. Thinking that “Reading Over Notes” is Studying
Students spend hours “studying” for a test and are surprised when they don’t do as well as they expected. This is typically because they only used one mode of studying, and were more passive than active. Instead, you want to to make sure you are actively engaging as many modalities as possible. I would suggest keeping this list on your desk and aim to check them all off:

10. Putting Info ‘In,’ Without Making Sure You Can Take it ‘Out’
When we learn, we encode information (i.e. we put it in our brain). When we are tested, we need to retrieve the 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 info where you can find it. 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.

11. Falling Victim to the “Planning Fallacy”
When we estimate how long a task will take, we are overly optimistic and underestimate how much time we need. We assume the ‘best case scenario’ but forget to account for the unexpected (i.e. “I can finish this paper in 6 hours” but then we get a bad headache). If we assume the unexpected will come up and give ourselves buffer time, it won’t be stressful when it does. Use “time and a half” (if you think it will take an hour, give yourself 90 minutes). Start earlier on assignments than you think you need to (if you finish early, consider it free time!).

 12. Undervaluing Small Steps
With new projects, many students feel overwhelmed by how much they eventually need to do, so they put it off. If getting started is hard, make your first steps TINY. Try doing the smallest task you can (i.e. collect the materials you need), and call it a day. Know that those first steps are worth more, because they are much harder to do. When we can’t see our progress, we underestimate the value of our actions – but know that doing something is so much better than doing nothing.

 13. Relying on Willpower
Many students put themselves in tricky positions where they have to use willpower alone to overcome temptations (i.e. you need to study, but your roommates are ordering pizza and watching the football game). Assuming you can rely on willpower is setting yourself up to fail. Know that highly effective people aren’t super-humans with extraordinary levels of discipline – rather they are highly self-aware, and can anticipate themselves (i.e. if they know they’ll want to watch the game, they get up early to power through the work, or they clear the next day in order to study). Similarly, it’s helpful to use contingent rewards instead of willpower alone (“If I finish x, then I can do y”), and give yourself a reward if, and only if, you follow through.

14. Not Using Available Resources
I encourage you to take ownership of your experience and get help when you need it. Many students are afraid to ask for help because they think they should know, or they fear looking stupid. Know that your professors and TA’s are there to help you. Go to Office Hours and let it be known that you truly want to learn and improve (vs. just caring about grades) – they’ll be happy to support you. P.S. Your tuition pays for student services, so use them!

15. Mindset
The most important thing I can say to you is be in it to learn. When I was a student, there were a lot of people around me who approached university as a burden. From my perspective, all that was being asked of me for 4 years was to choose what to learn. I decided that I was in an enormously privileged position, and that I should make it count. Decide today that learning should be difficult and it should be uncomfortable, and that will make all the difference.


That’s it! I hope you found this helpful. Remember that organization is a secret weapon that anyone can use, and if you do, it will lead to so many positive benefits. Know that organization isn’t an innate ability – it’s a skill you can learn and develop (like learning to play a sport or an instrument). Start small and know that even if you implement a few of the above strategies, you will see results.

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Kailea Switzer has a B.A. in Educational Psychology, a B.Ed. in Teaching, and a M.Ed. in Counseling from Harvard University. Kailea works 1:1 with students across Canada who want to develop better time management, planning, and organizational skills so they can reduce stress, get better results, and enjoy their college experience more. Learn more about working with Kailea and/or access her highly anticipated E-Course: ‘Straight-A’ Secrets from a Non-Genius by visiting

Photo: Kailea Switzer