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If you’re trying to secure long-term professional employment, it’s no secret that having a college degree is just as essential as having a high school diploma. It’s also no secret that the more time you spend in college, the less likely you are to eventually get that degree. Getting a bachelor’s degree is a good investment, but taking out thousands of dollars in loans over several years isn’t the best way to get one.

The best way to make sure you graduate with minimal debt is to do so as quickly as possible. Trying to earn a four-year degree in three years is a great way to save money. It also gives you the best chance of graduating. This guide shows you what strategies you should use to graduate early from college.

Pre-College Preparation

Create an Initial Plan

Do not wait until the day of orientation to start thinking about what kind of classes you would like to take. The most important thing you can do before you step foot on any campus or log on to any online school is to figure out what kind of degree you want to pursue. If you are trying to decide between a few, list out their education requirements to see if they have any courses that are required for all of them. Take the similar courses first so you have a few classes to help you determine which major you want to pursue.

Graphic Stats: Since 2010, Colleges have reported around 1500 academic programs to the Department of Education. 80% of college-bound students have yet to choose a major. According to Dr. Fritz Grupe, founder of MyMajors.com, in an interview with MSNBC.

It’s okay if you can’t decide exactly what major you’re going to choose, but if you at least have a sense of what type of program—business, engineering, liberal arts, etc. — then you can tailor your pre-college preparations to suit your needs.

Economics, for example, usually requires a calculus course — a class many people who major in English and Communications try to avoid. Since graduating early is all about efficiency, you can’t afford to waste time in an AP calculus class to find out you didn’t need the credit. Choosing a major early on and sticking with it is key if you want to graduate college in three years.

AP Classes

Though they are more rigorous than the average high school class, for the serious future college student’s intent on finishing college quickly, AP classes are a must.  Ninety percent of colleges and universities in the country grant college credit, advanced placement or credit along with placement for qualifying scores on AP exams. Not only will you enter your secondary education with potentially a year’s worth of college courses before ever meeting with a professor, but you’ll also save a lot of money doing so, as well.

AP Classes can give you a headstart on finishing college early

AP courses can save you thousands, not just in tuition, but also in things like textbook costs and fees. AP tests can cost as much as $87 a piece, but if you’re a low income student, you can get the majority of that fee waived.

Even if you do end up having to pay the full $87, it probably will be one of the better investments of your life. Depending on the cost of tuition at your college, getting a score of five on an AP exam can earn ten credits: roughly the equivalent of a $5,000 scholarship.

In addition to saving you money, AP courses may also go a long way in helping with your application. Taking AP classes lets college admissions officials know that you are up to the intellectual task of university level classes. It also shows that you have a willingness to challenge yourself. While some people choose to take a cooking class their senior year, you’ll be an applicant who chose to prove how serious you were about attending college by taking a college level course in high school.

Plus, because AP exams are standardized, it lets those in the admissions office be sure that you have received a quality education. Not every high school is created equal and depending on where you went to school, some GPAs carry more weight than others. If you get a good score on an AP test, that lets colleges know you haven’t been a beneficiary of grade inflation.

Of course, while it’s generally a good idea to take AP classes, you have to be sure that the specific classes you take are going to count for what you want to do. If you’ve created a good initial plan, you should have a sense of what your degree requirements will be, so only take AP courses that will help you out. Check here to see if your college or university offers credit, placement or both for your AP scores.

CLEP

CLEP, which stands for College Level Examination Program, is another great way to save time and money by getting college credits without taking a semester long class. CLEP exams allow you to prove that you have enough knowledge in a specific area to bypass introductory level courses. About 2,900 colleges and universities give class credit for the successful completion of CLEP exams. Though they currently cost $80, like the AP exams, CLEP exams are worth the price of admission because of how much money they can save you in the long run. Sometimes, the German, French and Spanish exams can be used to earn as many as 12 credits—that’s nearly an entire semester’s worth of classes all by itself.

Though they sound great, once again, you have to be sure that your school will accept the CLEP credits you earn. It’s also important to be on top of your CLEP exams and take them before you take similar classes in the same subject. You might not get as many credits as possible if you’ve already taken a class that taught the same material as the test. Before you schedule any classes, take a good look at this list of all the CLEP exams. If you think you know enough about a given subject, whether through independent study of a subject or frequent contact with a language, then it is definitely worth taking a CLEP exam.

Not only does CLEPs and AP classes give you a head start on your degree but they also won’t hurt your GPA. When credits are transferred from a passed CLEP or AP exam they don’t affect your GPA.

Finishing College in Three Years

How to Finish College in 3 Years

Creating Your Schedule

Okay, so you’ve loaded up on AP courses and taken a few CLEP exams, and now you’re ready to actually start mapping out your three years in school. To look at the best way to set up your schedule, let’s first look at what you need to know about college schedules and then run through a hypothetical scenario to see how it’s possible to graduate in three years.

The Basics

Most four-year degrees require somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 credits to graduate. In order to graduate in three years, you’ll have to take 40 credits a year—20 a semester. To give you a sense of how many that is, an average course is three credits. This means you’ll have to take more than six classes (18 credits) every semester to stay on track. Keep in mind this might be lower if you earned credits through AP and CLEP exams.

How many credits to take per semester at college to finish early

To put that in perspective, the minimum number of credits per semester to be considered a full-time student at most schools is 12 credits. Most students take 15 a semester. In some schools, you have to get permission from your academic advisor to take 18 or more a semester.

Just as important as the number of credits you take, are the actual classes you’re in to earn these credits. These are divided into three categories: general education requirements — commonly called GenEds — requirements for the major and electives.

GenEds are just what they sound like — broad, introductory level courses in a variety of classes. No matter what you major in, you will be required to take GenEds. These courses include composition, natural sciences, quantitative reasoning (math), humanities, social sciences, history courses and world relations. Different majors may have some slightly different GenEd requirements, but you will be expected to take some. These will take up about 60 of your credits or 20 classes. If you passed enough CLEP and AP exams then you might be able to finish all your GenEds in less time.

There are lower-level and upper-level courses in your major. In many instances, the lower level courses need to be taken prior to — or in some cases they can be taken at the same time with approval — as upper-level courses.

You need to pay special attention to these lower level requirements when planning your courses so you don’t get stuck your last semester without a prerequisite for a course you need to graduate. Some lower and upper-level classes are offered only one semester each year. Plan your course load accordingly. You’ll also have to continue to check when these classes are available throughout your three years as the semester they are offered may change.

Also, be on the lookout for courses that can double count. These are courses that can count both towards your major and also towards your GenEd or elective requirements. You’ll need around 45 credits of these courses.

The last type of courses is electives. These are the courses that aren’t GenEds or in your major, but you need to meet the number of credits required for graduation. If you’re especially ambitious, you can use these courses to count towards a minor. You’ll need about fifteen of these credits.

Key Tips

Those are the basic facts of what makes up a schedule, but it’s definitely possible to know all of that and still create a bad schedule. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when you’re planning out your academic career:

Pay Attention to Time Slots

Scheduling a course for 8 a.m. might not seem like a big deal if you’re used to waking up even early for high school, but chances are it’ll be a lot tougher to wake up early when almost everyone else you know is sleeping in. More importantly, if you don’t trust yourself to be able to get to class this early then don’t put yourself in this situation. A bad grade from poor attendance could result in you having to take a class over again and that could sabotage your early graduation plans and your GPA.

how to finish college asap by planning your classes

Also, pay attention to the time between your classes and do your best to schedule all of your courses in one block rather than having them at hour intervals throughout the day. If you only have to worry about leaving your room one time, then there’s less opportunity to skip class.

While the above two are nice things to keep in mind, be ready to disregard them if you need to schedule a course you absolutely must have. If you’re truly determined to graduate early, it’s very possible there will come a time when you won’t have the luxury of waiting until next semester to schedule a course that’s only offered at 8 a.m. this semester. You might have to eat lunch at 2:00 every day or get used to waking up early to accommodate the classes you need. Having your classes in a block is ideal, but scheduling the classes you need should take precedent. If you think this will be a problem for you, fast online degrees are a great way to get a lot of classes in a more flexible timeframe.

Know Your Advisor

College scheduling can get very stressful and hectic, so it’s nice to have someone double-checking your work. Advisors can be invaluable resources when it comes to being able to finish college quickly.

They’ll know off the top of their heads important information, like which courses will double count and which ones will be offered in the summer. If a course requires an advisor’s signature, it pays to be familiar with them to make sure the process goes smoothly. Always check your schedule with your advisor before the drop/add period ends to make sure you aren’t forgetting something that could cost you another year’s worth of tuition and time.

Take GenEds First

Though we’ve already been over how critical it is to decide on a major as quickly as possible, it is still prudent to prepare yourself for the possibility of changing your mind. To this end, the smart thing to do is to schedule your GenEd courses first. If you start with a bunch of classes for your major and change your mind, you’ll be left with a lot of useless credits. But, if you start with GenEds and decide on going in a different direction, most of those courses will probably still count for your major and you’ll still be on track.

Plan to finish college quickly

A Hypothetical College Plan

So what does a three year schedule look like? Let’s say you decide you want to major in biology in a college that requires 120 credits in order to earn a biology degree. You did your due diligence in pre-college planning, and took a few AP courses and even a CLEP exam before you got on campus. You got a four on an AP calculus exam, a five on the stat exam and another five on the US government test.

Plus, you lived in Mexico for a summer and learned how to speak Spanish with a skill level approaching fluency. You ace the Spanish CLEP exam. That’s three credits for each AP exam and six for the Spanish, since you were able to test out of two levels of Spanish. These fifteen credits will count towards your GenEd courses. You only need 105 more credits to graduate.

Your freshman year, you make a prudent choice: you decide to only schedule GenEds just in case you decide to change your major.  Since GenEds are usually less rigorous than courses in your major, you load up on them and take 18 credits each semester, for a total of 36 credits your first year. You have 69 credits remaining.

You talk to your advisor the beginning of your sophomore year to find out what lower level biology courses are required before upper-level ones. You take all of these you can this year, 15 credits one semester and 18 the next. You have 36 credits left for your third year.

Since you know organic chemistry is a requirement for biology — and a very difficult one at that — you decide to take it between the summer of your second and third year so you won’t have as many distractions. You take a gym class for a GenEd this summer, as well so you can concentrate on organic chemistry while still earning credits. You have 30 credits left for your third and final year.

For your last two semesters you do a mix of electives and upper-level courses with 15 credits each semester for a grand total of 120 credits.

So as you can see, it is possible to graduate in three years. If you don’t have as many AP or CLEP credits, take a few online courses in the summer. Remember to do your best to enjoy your time in college, especially because it will be shorter.

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