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Complete Guide to How to Graduate College Early

Everyone wants something different out of college. Some want the “traditional” four-year experience, while others would rather graduate college early and save their money. If you belong to the latter group, you’ve come to the right place! Not only will graduating early save you money, but it gives you time to take a break and relax a little after graduation!

Keep on reading to find out the best ways to graduate college early. We cover how you can prepare in high school all the way through your final year of college.

Also see: Scholarships360’s free scholarship search tool

Earning college credit early: AP, IB, and dual enrollment 

One of the best ways to put yourself on track for an early college graduation is by earning credits before you even get to campus! Chances are you’ll step onto campus with credits equivalent to that of a second-semester freshman, or even a college sophomore. 

So, how do you earn college credits early? Let’s see. 

Advanced Placement (AP)

The first, and perhaps most common way to gather college credits in high school is by taking AP, or Advanced Placement classes. If you take an AP course, you’ll have a chance to take an AP Exam near the end of the school. If you pass these exams with a score of either 3, 4, or 5 (on a scale from 1-5), you may earn college credit. However, it is important to note that while some universities will accept a score of 3 for credit, others will only accept 4s. Some will only accept 5s. So, it’s in your best interest to study for these exams and do your best!

We should also mention that not all students who take AP Exams take the corresponding classes. You can choose to self-study for AP’s, meaning you take the test without the class. This can be a bit challenging and requires a lot of discipline, but is a great way to earn college credit for many students. Sometimes, you might already know everything you need for a class. Many proficient writers can easily pass the AP Language and Composition class, for example, without much studying.

If you want more information on AP courses and what makes them differ from honors courses, we recommend checking out Honors vs. AP Courses: What Are the Differences?.

Also see: What are the easiest exams for AP self-study?

International Baccalaureate (IB)

International Baccalaureate is another way to receive college credit. IB works in a similar way to the AP system (exam scores in exchange for credit). However, not all universities within the U.S. accept IB diplomas or exam scores for college credit. Some only accept one or the other (or only offer credit for a specific type of IB exam). 

If you’re not sure whether your prospective college offers credit in exchange for IB exam scores, the International Baccalaureate website goes over how many different colleges approach IB exams and credit. If you cannot find your potential school on this page, we highly recommend checking out their website. You can also contact an academic advisor at your prospective university and get their input on whether the university accepts IB exams.

Dual enrollment

Dual enrollment works somewhat differently than AP and IB. Under this program, students take college classes while still in high school. These are most often taken at local community colleges, but can also be taken at student’s high schools (if offered) or online. Typically, the courses offered through dual enrollment are introductory college classes.  Students would most likely have to take these classes within their first few years of college anyway. So as long as you perform well in these dual enrollment courses, many universities will waive the requirement for the corresponding college course.

Testing out of courses

So, you now know the different ways you can earn college credit before ever stepping foot on campus. However, did you know that you could test out of courses as well?

College Level Examination Program (CLEP)

The first way that you can test out of certain classes at your university is known as CLEP, or College Level Examination Programs. With a wide variety of topics available, CLEP allows future college students to test out of a whopping 34 intro-level college classes (if they pass!). For each CLEP exam you pass, you can earn up to three college credits. While most colleges will accept a score of 50 (on a scale from 20-80) as passing, this number varies by school.

Before you sign up for a CLEP exam, we highly recommend that you check whether your prospective college accepts CLEP scores for college credit!

Related: Top colleges that accept CLEP

University placement exams

At many four-year universities and community colleges alike, incoming students are required to take placement exams. These are typically taken for foreign languages or the core subjects (math and English), but the specific exams you may be required to take will likely depend on your major. If you do well enough on these exams, you may be able to test out of a few required courses in the topic that you would otherwise have to take. Better yet, you may even perform so well that you test out of all your requirements in that subject and no longer have to take classes in it.

Whatever happens, we highly encourage you to study for these exams. Performing well on them is the quickest way to test out of requirements and further your path to an early graduation.

Max out your credits each semester

This one may be a little more obvious, but taking the max amount of credits allowed at your college each semester is a great way to speed up your graduation. However, we only recommend doing this if you think you can handle it. Keeping your grades high should take priority over graduating early, so make sure not to overwhelm yourself with work. And, if you can, try to spread out your classes a little as well, so that you don’t feel overwhelmed.

While colleges generally allow students to take a maximum of 15, 18, or 20 units per semester, the exact number will depend on the school you’re looking at. Keep in mind that if you go over the limit, though, colleges may charge you extra fees per unit.

Take summer courses

If you would rather not stress yourself too much during the semester by taking a full course load, taking summer courses is always an option. Taking a regular course load during the semester in addition to a class or two each summer should put you on the pathway to an early graduation. If you take these summer classes at a community college, you’re saving money too! 

Don’t miss: How to rock the summer before your senior year

Stay on track

So, how do you make sure you’re staying on track for an early graduation? Our biggest tip of advice would be to get a good advisor! They should be able to keep track of your progress toward your degree and let you know if any issues arise. Further, they should know what classes you need to take to graduate, when these classes are offered, and have an idea of how many credits you need to take per semester. 

If you cannot find an advisor to help you through this process, however, you should try your best to be on top of everything yourself. We recommend creating an excel sheet or document to start. List each semester’s classes, how many credits you’re taking, and what requirements each course fulfills. This way, you’ll be able to compare this sheet/document to your degree requirements (which should be provided by your university). That way you will be sure that you aren’t missing anything and don’t fall behind.

Graduating early: the pros and cons

Graduating early sounds great – it’s hard to think of someone who wouldn’t want to save themselves from tons of student debt. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s for everyone.

Many people desire the traditional four-year college experience. These students enjoy the opportunity to meet new people, explore new fields, and learn more about themselves. A student trying to graduate within three (or three-and-a-half) years, on the other hand, may feel too rushed to take advantage of all these opportunities.

So, how do you know if graduating early is the right decision for you? Are you more passionate about your career than college, or just want to save money? Alternatively, do you think having a full college experience is worth taking on more debt?

These are definitely some questions that you should consider before deciding whether to graduate early or not. And, to help you out further, we’ve compiled even more pros and cons of graduating early.

Pros and cons of graduating early

Pros of Graduating Early Cons of Graduating Early
  • Saving money
  • May miss out on a full college experience
  • It shows employers that you have a strong work ethic
  • Some colleges charge extra fees if you take extra units
  • You can enter your desired career path more quickly
  • Taking on too many courses at once may harm your GPA
  • You’ll start making college-grad wages earlier
  • You may miss out on summer job opportunities or internships
  • You’ll maximize your projected lifetime earnings by being eligible for promotions sooner
  • Less time to explore different fields or callings
  • You can take time off after graduation to travel, relax, or take a break
  • May not have the time to study abroad or take on other opportunities
  • Can start preparing for grad school earlier
  • Smaller network of connections and mentorships
  • Will have to start paying off loans earlier

We hope that this guide has helped you figure out how to graduate college early and decide whether you think it’s the right path for you or not. Whatever you decide, we wish you good luck in college and in your post-graduation plans!

P.S.: If your main motivation for graduating early is to save money, we recommend checking out Scholarships360! We have a great selection of scholarships, organized by major, by background, by state, and more!