How I Planned to Graduate in 3.5 Years with a 4 Year Degree

College. For many of us it represents a path to a better future. Some of us might focus on the potential failure and debt. I saw college and an opportunity to arm myself with a degree and a challenge to become a self-sufficient adult. Here are 5 honest lessons from my experience of  graduating from college in 3.5 years. 

5 Facts About Graduating from College Early 

Graduating from college: it’s a process. My goal was to save money and so I began preparing and planning my sophomore year of high school. Here are 5 honest things to know if you are hoping to graduate early from a four-year university. 

1) You won’t have as much free time

For many, college is a time to enjoy freedom and party hard. While that was never really MY style, it would have also been basically incompatible with my goal of graduating early. 

When you want to save money on tuition, there are two things you’ll want to do. 

  1. Take more classes each semester. You are “full-time student” at 15 credits per semester, but to graduate early I was usually taking on a load of 17-18 credits each semester. The extra classes can mean more time spent on homework and projects, so if you aren’t very efficient you can quickly become overwhelmed. 
  2. Get great grades. If you don’t want to take on extra courses, another way to set yourself up for early graduation is to make sure that you get great grades from the start. Now, there is a saying, “C’s get degrees,” but getting B’s and higher can ensure that you won’t need to waste time repeating any classes. Many programs also require you to maintain a certain GPA average. 

2) You should have a plan beforehand 

As I said before, I made it my goal to graduate early from my university when I was in my second year of high school. Starting early gives you the best possible chance at an early graduation date. With AP (advanced placement) high school classes and mentoring available, you can start university with a better idea of what you want to do. 

To graduate from university early, do these things earlier in your school career.

  1. Take as many AP classes in high school as you are able to do with confidence. There is no point taking the course if you can’t manage the extra work and the intense exam at the end of the year. However, a passing score on the end of year exam will award you college credits. This is probably the best way to actively save money on college before even graduating high school. 
  2. Explore your interests & skills. Don’t waste your high school years. They offer valuable time and resources that can make your university years more effective. Explore extracurriculars and research the job market. Speak with a guidance counselor or educators in your areas of interest. Try to get an idea of what direction you would like to take in college based on what interests you. Changing majors during college is one of the quickest ways to take yourself off track for an early graduation. 

3) Studying abroad might not be the best fit 

I will say this: many of the people I spoke to who had studied abroad during their college years felt that it was well worth the time and any added expense. However, I had a goal to graduate early and studying abroad in my case, was not going to get me where I wanted to be any more quickly.

If you want to save money in college, consider these things before studying abroad.

  1. It might delay your graduation date. Despite being an amazing experience and a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most, studying abroad requires some sacrifice. If your goal is to save both time and money (as mine was) you might want to really weigh the pros and cons of spending a semester elsewhere. As I said, many said it was 100% worth it. 
  2. The courses available might not be an exact fit for your major. The other thing to consider is the course load available to you. Many study abroad programs will require you to take fewer classes than you might have at your university and some programs might not even have classes available that will work towards your intended degree. AGAIN – for many, the experience alone is worth every sacrifice. 

4) Still need to make good financial decisions

Getting good grades and having a plan only works if you are also making sound financial decisions along the journey. For me, this meant a part-time job during the semester, a very affordable cell phone and plan, no car, and eating the on-campus meal plan food for every meal. 

With living on your own for the first time comes the opportunity to shop more, spend more, and generally make larger purchases on credit cards and using loan money. Many of these decisions can negatively impact your ability to focus on your studies and graduating early.

A disciplined financial lifestyle during those college years can save you stress and time that will help you to graduate early, get a job more quickly, and spend fewer years paying off debt. 

5) You’ll be proud to move on with life after all that hard work 

If you succeed at achieving an early graduation date after years of planning and self-discipline, you will have beaten the odds. You will have taken your future into your hands and used your time wisely. 

You might have missed out on a few things, but a career and less debt can help you to get ahead earlier. You might have the opportunity to travel more, spend more time with friends and loved ones. It’s not all sunshine and roses, but in my experience, it’s been 100% worth it. 

Life Events that Impacted My Early Graduation Date

So, as most of us learn early on, life rarely goes according to plan. You’re likely to be thrown a couple curve balls. Here are just a few of my personal curve balls and decisions that could have totally taken me off track to graduate early. 

Read More: Inspiration is Overrated; Why We Need a Mission Statement

1) Changed majors after freshman year

In high school, I participated in DECA competitions. They inspired me to learn more about the career opportunities and skills involved in marketing. I went into my university years with the plan to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Marketing. Sounds pretty solid, right?

Well I arrived at my university, saddled with 17 credits for my first semester. I somehow managed to basically flunk economics and applied calculus. I was overwhelmed by the experience of being in college and I was not prepared for finals week (& got the flu!). None of those things are excuses, but they contributed to me actually changing majors after my freshman year. This, had I waited even one more semester, could have completely thrown my plan to graduate early out the window. 

2) Knee surgery during first semester of sophomore year

During my sophomore year of college, I got an exciting call. I was scheduled to repair my knee (long story) and would be taking a few weeks off from school to have surgery and recover. This could have been a complete disaster, but I was fortunate to have professors who were incredibly flexible. They forwarded me notes from their class lectures and I made sure to keep up on textbook reading. Once I was on crutches and back in school a few weeks later, I was able to take make-up exams and jump right back in. 

My advice, if you were to ever find yourself in a similar situation, is to be forthcoming and open with your professors. Most want to see you succeed and if you are willing to put in the effort, will help you to make it through. 

3) Taking calculus a second time for a better grade

So, I mentioned that I basically flunked Applied Calculus (I got a D, I believe). Instead of letting that sit on my record, I decided that I would need to repeat the course and replace the low grade with at least a B. This wasted 3 credits that I could have used to further my goal of graduating early. If I had been able to succeed the first time I took the course, I could have saved that time and money.

Luckily, I was able to take a few semesters of 18 credits to balance the cost of the repeated class. 

4) Skipped Out on Advisor Appointments

Finally, and pretty hilariously, I think that I was better able to achieve my goal because I skipped out on my scheduled advisory appointments during the early semesters in college. Almost every student I know went to see an advisor who helped them to create their schedule and choose their classes. I took my plan into my own hands.

I researched professors, mapped out hours and schedules, and put myself on waiting lists. This required me to really know and understand my path to graduation. I was not influenced by the “take your time and try lots of things” mentality that can slow things down. I arrived with a game plan and I did the work to make sure things played out. 

By the time I reached my last semester, I met with an advisor for the first time. I wanted to ensure that I had correctly met all the requirements and would be ready to graduate at the 3.5 year mark. My advisor couldn’t believe that I had navigated the process so efficiently. I don’t write this down to pat myself on the back, but to encourage you to trust yourself a little more. 

Do the research and figure out where you want to go. Don’t always wait for someone to come alongside and affirm that you’re making the right choice. Sometimes the risk pays off. 

Intentional Contentment & A College Education

At the end of the day, it was really a series of decisions that led to me achieving my goal. Continually choosing to do as much as I could with what I had was key to staying on track. Despite struggles and roadblocks along the way, I believed in myself. I dedicated my energy and focus on where I wanted to be and did what I needed to do to get there.

If you’re like me and you’re still working towards really using what you’ve got to make life the best it can be, read more on cultivating an intentional mindset

Growth and change for the better starts with our minds and shows up in our ability to follow through. Graduating early was a great experience that taught me a lot about my own dedication. When you find yourself at the start of a long process, ask, “what actions can I take right now to move forward?” Next step: make it happen! 

What advice would you offer a younger version of yourself headed to college?

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