Graduating College Early | The Guide to Fast Tracking College

Graduating college early can be a smart move in everyones career. Not only do you save money, but you also get a jump start on your career or advanced degree.

How do you graduate college early? Graduating college early requires successful completion of 120 credit hours, for an undergraduate degree, in a time period of less than 4 years. This can be done by taking 17 or more credit hours per standard semester, taking summer and winter classes, or transferring credit hours from high school.

If you’re looking to fast track your college career, check out our comprehensive guide below. We’ll tell you what it takes, some important tips, and the overall pros and cons of doing so.

How Do you Graduate College Early?

The average American University requires 120 credit hours in order to graduate with an undergraduate degree. If you’re not sure what credit hours are, you can check out our article on credit hours by clicking here. The recommended time period for someone to go to college is 4 years, meaning an average student will take 15 credit hours per period. In order to graduate college early, you have to successfully complete, with passing grades, the 120 credit hours in a time period of less than 4 years.

The question is, how do you do it? Well, there are several options for every student that we’ll cover.

1. Take More Credit Hours per Semester

The first option is to take more credit hours per semester. Considering the average student will take 15 credit hours over 8 semesters, the amount of credit hours taken per semester will need to be increased. Assuming you don’t come to college with any college credit, or don’t take any summer classes, here’s what to expect:

(In Years)
(In Semesters)
Credit Hours
Required Per Semester
1.0 Years2 Semesters60 Credit Hrs/SemesterNot Possible
1.5 Years3 Semesters40 Credit Hrs/SemesterNot Possible
2.0 Years4 Semesters30 Credit Hrs/SemesterNot Possible
2.5 Years5 Semesters24 Credit Hrs/SemesterOutrageous
3.0 Years6 Semesters20 Credit Hrs/SemesterVery Hard
3.5 Years7 Semesters17 Credit Hrs/SemesterHard
4.0 Years8 Semesters15 Credit Hrs/SemesterStandard

The above table outlines how many credit hours that you will need to take per semester, if you want to graduate in less than 4 years, or 8 standard semesters. It is worth noting, many colleges have a maximum amount of credit hours that are allowed to be taken per semester, typically 20, without requiring administrative approval. While taking 24 or 20 credit hours per semester could be possible, it is not sustainable to do over 5 or 6 semesters, and will definitely cause burnout.

2. Take Summer or Winter Courses

Introducing summer courses into a standard, or aggressive, amount of credit hours will significantly shorten the amount of time needed to be in college. A normal student can take 6 credit hours per semester, meaning that you can significantly cut down the graduation timeline.

It’s important to note that you don’t need to be on-campus in order to take these courses. If you’re back home over the summer or winter breaks, do a check to see whether a community college near your home offers an accelerated class during these breaks, and whether or not those will transfer to your primary college or University. I will repeat, be sure to check that they will transfer. Nothing is worse than taking a class, and figuring out that you wasted time, and money, because the credit hours won’t transfer.

Here’s a couple examples on how taking summer or winter classes can accelerate your graduation timeline:

Example #1: Graduation in 3.5 Years (Standard Schedule)

As seen below, keeping constant with 15 hours per standard semester and 6 credit hours in the summer will allow a student to graduate in 3.5 years, with only 12 credit hours needed during the last semester.

YearFallSpringSummerTotal per Year
Year 115 Credit Hrs15 Credit Hrs6 Credit Hrs36 Credit Hrs
Year 215 Credit Hrs15 Credit Hrs6 Credit Hrs36 Credit Hrs
Year 315 Credit Hrs15 Credit Hrs6 Credit Hrs36 Credit Hrs
Year 412 Credit HrsGraduatedGraduated12 Credit Hrs
Standard Schedule with Summer Classes

Example #2: Graduation in 3.0 Years (Aggressive Schedule)

In the second example, we’ll bump the semester hours up to 18 credit hours while maintaining 6 credit hours over both the first and second year. While this is very difficult, it is attainable for a student who is driven to succeed.

YearFallSpringSummerTotal per Year
Year 118 Credit Hrs18 Credit Hrs6 Credit Hrs42 Credit Hrs
Year 218 Credit Hrs18 Credit Hrs6 Credit Hrs42 Credit Hrs
Year 318 Credit Hrs18 Credit HrsGraduated36 Credit Hrs
Aggressive Schedule with Summer Classes

3. Enter College with Credit Hours Earned in High School

Students that elect to take AP/IB classes/exams in high school have the possibility of entering college with credit hours that count towards the 120 hour goal. While it’s difficult to find statistics on the average number of credit hours high schoolers usually graduate with, it’s not uncommon to hear anywhere from 3 to even 20 hours. Remember, for every credit hour earned in high school, it’s one less required during college, AND a ton of money saved.

While this may sound great for those still in high school, there are several considerations to take:

  • Every college or university treats the transfer of credit hours differently
  • Typically you will find more prestigious schools will have stricter restrictions on the transfer of credit hours, while state schools will have less restrictions
  • Some schools have requirements on the score of an AP exam (or equivalent) in order for college credit to be granted

Important Tips for Graduating College Early

Graduating early comes with both advantages and disadvantages, but in order to make it worth while, be sure to pay attention to a couple tips:

  1. Start planning early. Graduating early doesn’t just start when you’re already in college. Having a game plan in your junior or senior year of high school will help keep you organized and on track. A big part of graduating early is dual enrolling in high school/college classes, while in high school. This allows you to get college credit, and usually keeps everything significantly cheaper.
  2. Understand the requirements for your college or university: Some colleges may limit, even with approval, the maximum amount of credit hours you can take per semester. In addition, there may be tenure requirements on getting into specific schools (e.g. engineering, business, etc.), so it’s important to understand those.
  3. Does it make sense to graduate early with your major? Some majors may be extremely difficult to graduate early like engineering or specific science majors. This leads us to tip #4.
  4. Consult your college advisor: Nearly every college has an advisor assigned to their specific school, whether it’s the school of liberal arts, engineering, etc. These folks are meant to help you on your path to success, so be sure to run by them your objectives. They will be able to tell you what schedules have worked for students in the past, and help with your collegiate objectives.
  5. Be conciouncicus of the difficulty of classes you’re taking: If you’re choosing to take more than the average amount of credit hours, it’s important to understand how difficult the classes are. As an example, a freshmen going through a rigorous pre-med or biology degree may be forced to take a lot of ‘weed-out’ classes their freshmen year, which are intended to be difficult. Taking more than the necessary course load, just for the intention of early graduation, may cause grades to be worse than they would if you took a standard schedule.
  6. Limit switching majors: While you should strive to choose the career path you want, making a bunch of major switches during college will set your timeline back. If you go through the curriculum under an engineering degree, but decide to switch to business, you’ll likely have to make up a lot of other credits within business.
  7. Go for online: Online courses, especially if taken through community colleges and transferred, can be huge money savers. Also, and debatably, you may find that online courses are a little easier to manage than in-person.
  8. Stay Organized: After getting your schedule together, and your game plan, be sure to stay organized and execute. As I’ve mentioned, and will keep mentioning, graduating early requires organization, perseverance, and dedication. I want to keep you positive, but there will be times that you will wonder whether or not it’s worth it. Stick with it and you will reap all of the rewards.

What are the Benefits of Graduating College Early?

  • Graduating early will save a tremendous amount of money. For those that pay semester costs, regardless of credit hours, you will save MASSIVELY. If you operate on a pay per credit hour schedule, you may not end up saving on actual classes, but you will save a lot on living costs. Whether it be a dorm, apartment, or house, you will save on a semester or full year of those costs.
  • You will save a ton of time. Whether your aspirations are furthering your education, or a career, you won’t be stuck in your undergraduate classes. If a career is your next move, you will be making money while your former classmates are in class. Just think how awesome the feeling is to be having money go into your bank account, instead of out of your bank account.

What are the Disadvantages of Graduating College Early?

  • You will lose out on the social aspects. College is debatably the best years of everyones life. Full of new responsibilities, new friends, and new adventures; leaving early will create FOMO (fear of missing out) when you see all of your old friends out having fun on a weeknight while you’re having to go to bed for work the next day.
  • You may not have work experience that others have. When graduating early, you will also be competing for jobs with those that are also graduating around a similar time. Considering the majority of students graduating with you will be graduating after 4 years, they may have those internship experiences and other work experiences that you may not. However, graduating in less than 4 years should be impressive to an employer.
  • You likely won’t have time to work during college. If you are wanting to work a part time job during college, it will be difficult to have a heavy schedule, and have work experiences at the same time. This does not apply to those going to college with a lot of credit hours from high school, as those students can work a normal schedule and still graduate early.

Is It Worth Graduating College Early?

Ultimately, this will be a decision that you will have to make. You will save money, start your career or post-graduate education sooner. However, you will miss out on another year of college experiences, your time during college will likely be harder than your peers, and you will spend more time than the average student doing homework, studying, and other activities. If saving and making money is important, then you should aim for graduating early. If you want to go to college to get an education, but also have a social experience, it’s probably worth it to keep with 4 years and let the memories make it worth it.

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