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Advice / Career Paths / Training & Development

Your Guide to Graduating Early—and Staying Sane, Too

As a college student trying to juggle school with internships and jobs, decide on a major, and pay for your education, it’s hard to imagine obtaining your bachelor’s degree in less than four years. In fact—many people don’t. The average completion time for a four-year degree is currently 4.7 years for full-time students, and 5.6 years for part-time students.

But not only is it possible to stick to the four-year track, it’s completely doable to graduate in even less time. Yes, it takes a little sacrifice and some hard work, but graduating early can help you save money and get a head start on the job hunt. Keep reading for some simple tricks to get on the fast track.

1. Befriend Your Advisor

When it comes time to schedule your classes each year, your school may recommend or require a meeting with your academic advisor. These requirements might seem annoying, but regular meetings with your advisor are a great way to help you develop the best plan for graduation. State your intentions up front—if graduating early is your priority, let your advisor know. If you form a good relationship and prove that you’re willing to work, she can help you get exceptions to rules like credit hour limits.

2. Take More Hours

Typically, schools have credit minimums and maximums. As the maximums have shifted lower in the last few years, the average years to graduate has been on the rise—but the rules (usually) aren’t set in stone. (Here’s where having a good relationship with your advisor is helpful!)

Test and figure out how many credits you can handle per semester—personally, I found I could easily take more than the maximum credit hours per semester, while still maintaining a part-time job and internship. Adding an extra class or two to your load can mean the difference of years of school, and thousands of dollars in tuition.

3. Search for Double-Duty Classes

This is where you have to start doing your research. Have your school’s catalog (and your advisor’s phone number) handy, and see if you can find general education classes that also qualify for your major or minor credits. Often, you can kill two (or more) class requirements with one stone! Also try to find class subjects that relate to each other. For example, I was required to take English, Philosophy, and Theater classes for general education. I found one of each on the topic of Greek mythology and took them the same semester. They covered the same books (saving me money) and topics (saving me study time).

4. Take Summer Classes

If you’re able, take as many summer or winter series classes as possible—they’ll dramatically decrease the time it takes you to knock out all those requirements. I was able to graduate in less than four years with only two summer classes to interrupt my social life.

However, if you want to maintain your summer freedom, you can allocate just one or two difficult classes to the summer. Taking them when the class size is much smaller will give you more individualized attention from the professor and more time to study, increasing your chances of passing with a stellar grade.

That said, the downside is that you likely won’t be able to do a full-time summer internship if you’re taking summer classes. So put some extra effort into making sure you can get a part-time internship or other work experience—during the summer or school year—before you graduate.

5. Be Involved

All of the steps above can be a whole lot easier if you can register early—particularly if it’s tough to get all the classes you want at your university. One way to get a priority registration date is to be involved—often internships, school organizations, and volunteering can get you a prime spot. They can also earn you credit hours or extra credit in classes, qualify for final projects, or get you some special attention from your professor. Also consider working on-campus. Getting a job at the university bookstore let me move in before everyone else, register early, and even get a discount on books!

Above all, the best thing you can do for your college education is to be knowledgeable. Know exactly what’s required for graduation and keep a running map of your progress—it could save you an extra few months of school. (Imagine it’s your final semester and realizing you’re missing one credit hour for graduation. Been there, done that. If it weren’t for my progress map, I wouldn’t have known until it was too late!)

Photo courtesy of Tulane Public Relations.