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Graduate College Early: A Complete Guide

graduate college early

This is the first back-to-school season where I officially will not be going back-to-school. Honestly, I miss it! I’m the nerd who enjoys classes and essays and reading lists. I was lucky enough to be able to graduate college early! This guide will share how I finished college in three years and how you can graduate college early too!

My College Fast-Track

I knew I wanted to finish college as quickly as possible. Essentially, I couldn’t afford my college to begin with, so the idea of spending FOUR YEARS there acquiring student debt was just not an option.

I took a spontaneous gap year between college and high school, and that actually gave me an edge. By spontaneous, I mean I literally decided to take it the last week of my senior year of high school. For those who don’t know, I studied abroad with Semester at Sea during the Fall of my gap-year, and I worked the second half.

Semester at Sea allowed me to gain college credit by taking gen-ed classes on board. I took really weird stuff like Painting at Sea (?!) and Astronomy at Sea. At the time, I thought I was just taking easy classes (plot twist: I was not), but these actually transferred perfectly once I started school officially in 2014. When I started “real” college in 2014, I wasn’t the average freshman. I was only a handful of credits from sophomore status, meaning I only had a few more classes to make up in order to “catch up” to where I would be had I not taken a gap year. Here’s how I did it!

Pre-College Credits

I transferred into college with a LOAD of credits from high school and my gap-year. While in high school, I took three AP classes and scored high on all of them which allowed me to transfer three classes right there. The rest of my transfer credit came from Semester at Sea. Overall, I made up almost an entire year on pre-college credits! Transfer credit can come from all kinds of things like:

  • AP credit
  • CLEP exams
  • Duel-Enrollment classes
  • International Baccalaureate Programs
  • Gap-Year programs
  • Study Abroad classes
  • Summer classes before your first semester of college

graduate college early

Summer Classes

If you don’t take summer classes, what are you even doing? Summer is the PERFECT time to catch up on your credits. I was able to always balance my summer classes with my fall/spring courses so I never had to overload my schedule with 6+ classes or anything crazy.

My school offers summer classes both online and in-person. Each summer I took two courses which allowed me to catch up on all my missing credits from my year off. Taking classes over the summer is also a great way to save money since you can often take transient classes at a less expensive university or community college.

Don’t Choose a Minor

Okay, okay, this is a little controversial. I know it seems like it’s necessary to declare a minor or to even double major, but trust me it is not. As someone who started college with almost a full year worth of credits, choosing a minor or a second major would have been detrimental to my 3-year graduation plan.

When you have a minor or a second major, you have a very strict course schedule and plan which is hard to carry out in an expedited period of time. By just having one major (English), I was able to evenly distribute my credits and balance my literature classes with “easier” classes like gen-ed’s and electives. This gave me a lot of flexibility when it came to creating my schedule, and it even allowed me to create the perfect Tuesday/Thursday-only schedules for THREE SEMESTERS in a row (hello four day weekend every weekend).

Before declaring a minor or a second major, speak to a counselor and map out your projected course schedule for the rest of your college career to see if it’s plausible. Most of the time, it isn’t worth the extra time, and minors aren’t likely to make or break your post-grad career search.

Transient Study

I went to a bargain private school. My tiny liberal arts college was less than half the price of “regular” private school, and that’s the only reason I’m not drowning in loan debt. However, over the summer, ALL BETS WERE OFF. My school was out here charging, I kid you not, $1200+ for ONE CLASS in the summer. Needless to say, I did not take many college classes at my school over the summer for this reason.

Transient study is when you take a class at another college as a non-degree seeking student. If you aren’t a junior yet, you’ll have a lot of options to take gen-ed’s and other courses at most schools. I highly recommend taking summer courses at your local community college or state schools to save money. I did this several times and it was a big help for getting extra credits.

Once I passed junior status, it became harder to find courses that I could take as a transient student. Finding 300/400 level courses for specific topics is challenging, but not impossible! Last summer I desperately needed to take a summer course (and I wanted to get the dreaded Shakespeare class out of the way) and I actually found an online course at BYU the perfectly matched my needs. I had to go through a short approval process at my college where the English department head and registrar approved the course syllabus to make sure it would count for credit. Though I have no affiliation with BYU, I am so thankful for their online Shakespeare class which only cost me $500!

I had to go through a short approval process at my college where the English department head and registrar approved the course syllabus to make sure it would count for credit. Though I have no affiliation with BYU, I am so thankful for their online Shakespeare class which only cost me $500!

I had to go through a short approval process at my college where the English department head and registrar approved the course syllabus to make sure it would count for credit. Though I have no affiliation with BYU, I am so thankful for their online Shakespeare class which only cost me $500! Cramming a five-month course into four weeks was an experience, but, in the end, it worked out perfectly.

Internship + Study Abroad

Internships and study abroad experiences are a unique way to add a lot of bonus credits fast! In my senior year, I did an internship with my school’s news department which allowed me to get an extra credit towards my degree while gaining legit experience.

Studying abroad is another way to gain credits without a traditional class. A lot of study abroad programs run over school breaks like for a few weeks in the summer or over spring break. These crash-course excursions let you travel to a new place while gaining credit for a class!

Plan It Out

The biggest tip I have to graduate college early is to plan, plan, and plan. From your first semester, make sure you have a plan for finishing on time. Too many people at my school ended up staying an extra semester (or two) when they realized they didn’t have enough credits last minute. Go over your courses with an advisor, and then go over it again by yourself to make sure everything adds up.

Don’t put off taking gen-ed’s or core classes! These can catch you off guard later, so don’t let them trip you up! Realize that not all classes are offered every semester, so be sure to make them a priority when they show up on the course offerings. As long as you have a plan, you should be good to go!

Graduate College Early

Graduating college at 21 is a big relief. I have the rest of my twenties to spend building my career, and I have extra time to consider applying to and attending grad school. Anyone can graduate college early, all you need to do is create a plan and put in the work! Let me know your tips for earning credits in college in the comments!

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  • Pat Waldron

    Loved the article and how you managed to graduate with little debt!!!

  • College Mamma

    So what’s the next step for you, Sam?

    Don’t forget about CLEP tests along with the AP classes & exams. I wrote a post about it yesterday: http://collegemamma.com/2017/08/15/clep-tests/

    Also, as my first comment on your blog, I’d like to say how impressed I am with what you’ve built here. I just started up my own blog as an ex-professor to help college students navigate the college experience, so I’ll definitely check in with your posts often!

    • Thanks for your kind words! I completely forgot about the CLEP exams! I’ll add those to the post! Best of luck on your blogging journey!