ou may know of someone who graduated college a semester, or even a whole year early. We’ve all scrolled through our socials and noticed that people who were once sitting in the same seat as us are now onto new and exciting chapters in their lives, as we stay chained to our desks studying for the next due date, slowly spiraling into a mid-college crisis. After a long time of working towards a degree, and no immediate benefit or exciting announcement for friends and family, you may be ruminating on this one thought: Am I doing this right?
Or perhaps, your college experience isn’t living up to your expectations due to the pandemic. In the past few years, we have all borne the strain of staring at a screen in isolation for hours on end. One of the many outcomes of this learning/working style has been an increase in student burnout from 40% to 71% between 2020 and 2021. College is hard enough on its own without a global health crisis stripping us of the parts of college that make it worthwhile.
Pictures and captions may spark life-envy especially in such unprecedented times, but in reality graduating early from college is not all it’s cracked up to be. It takes deep consideration, planning, self-sacrifice, and at the end of the day it is not for everyone. So, before you go and pull the trigger because “so-and-so did it and looks happy” or an extreme case of Zoom fatigue, you may want to give it some thought. If you want to explore early college graduation as a prospective option, consider this article your personal tour guide. Along the way we will explore the following topics:
- Pros of early graduation
- Cons of early graduation
- Step-by-step guide on early graduation
Feel free at any point in our journey, to skip ahead to the best starting point for you.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Graduating Early from College
Whatever your reason is for considering ending your undergraduate career early, there is a lot to mull over. And, if you’ve never thought about graduating early, you may wonder why people do. Here, we will raise some of the most remarkable effects of graduating early - both good and bad - but it is for you to decide what is in your best interest. Do your best to put Mom and Dad’s opinions aside, or whoever else helps guide you in your future plans, and really focus on you and only you. Ask yourself – what is most important to you? What are you willing to give up? What do you want?
Pros of Graduating Early
This is the most obvious one. Graduating in three years instead of four saves you $50,000 according to reports from the College Board. This may seem enticing if your family is supporting multiple college students, if money is tight at home, or if you're funding your education on your own. Whatever the situation may be, saving money is always the way to go. In fact, even if you are privileged enough to not have to worry about college finances, one less year of tuition could fund future endeavors – relocations, down-payments, mortgages, or any large expense.
You would not only be spending/borrowing less-- but beginning to make money earlier. This is especially important today, as 2021 saw student loan debt at the highest it has ever been. The average 2021 college graduate owes $36,900 in student debt. Graduating early from college is one way to relieve the heavy pressure of debt that weighs on college grads soon after graduation.
Get a head start at graduate school.
You’ve known for a while now exactly what you want to do with your life. You are bored with general education classes, and would rather be focusing on a specific area of study. You like to reach goals as quickly as possible. If this sounds like you, graduating early from college could be the perfect fit. Graduate school programs - Medical school, Law school, a PhD program - can take up most of your 20s, if not longer.
After completing an undergraduate degree, medical school is an extra four years followed by a residency program which takes three to seven years, depending on the speciality. If you want to be a brain surgeon, we are talking eleven years of education, after undergraduate studies. If you’re anxious to start making an impact as soon as possible - whether it’s teaching, researching, treating, representing - then it is in your best interest to take any shortcut possible to condense your studies.
The prime time to do this is undergraduate school when it is a viable option, and better yet, when your studies are broad and not specific to your intended field. There are accelerated graduate programs, but those are only for masters programs and prove to be more exhausting in comparison to accelerating general education requirements. In that same manner, graduate studies, unlike undergraduate, are not for a grade, but for direct application to a field setting and so speeding through your classes may not be in your best interest. However, it is preferable to not spend a whole decade in school.
By graduating undergraduate school early, you get a head start and can potentially graduate your program at a younger age, allowing you to still live out your 20s like a 20 year old - fearless yet afraid, reckless, and cautious, self-assured, and yet unsure of everything. Also, it is common to take a gap year prior to graduate school to get extra experience, fine-tune your resume, take required entry exams, acquire letters of recommendation, or whatever other last minute preparations are required. Maybe you’re excited to start a family, but you’re worried that by the time your career starts to take off, you may be infertile. The expectation that you will have a career, a spouse or committed partner, a house, and a dog, kids, or both in your 20s can seem like a fantasy.
Graduating even just a semester earlier than you had planned lends you some much-needed extra preparation time. Just remember to go at your own pace because it is not a race. But, if that pace is 100mph, we fully support you.
Take a much needed break.
If you feel like a zombie of yourself - uninspired, perpetually exhausted, and just “going through the motions” - an early break from your studies may be just what you need. You can travel, see what jobs are out there, try your luck at various applications, volunteer in your community, and really eat-pray-love your way through life. The world is your oyster! This early break can bring much needed clarity or remind you of why you pursued a degree in the first place.
Cons of Graduating Early
The college experience is shortened.
People often reminisce on their college days, because they are a unique period of one's life. College is where studies and social-life converge. Never again will you play a balancing act with school, clubs, sports, friends, relationships, work, internships, research, etc. Sure, you may be stuck in a campus bubble and have a lot on your plate, but there is so much that is unique to this experience.
College is the one time in your life you get to be “on your own” without being on your own. Not only do you get to move out of your family home without having to pay rent, you get to live with friends in what feels like a small town of like-minded individuals. Leaving undergrad is much like coming out of a safety bubble, and this can be a hard adjustment. Loans kick in, paying rent becomes reality, meal plans disappear, your friends and peers begin relocating for jobs and graduate studies – pop! Welcome to the end of an era.
You get to visit football games for a steal, go to museums for free, make friends that will last a lifetime (or not), study abroad, attend funded formal events, and be able to bounce back from a night out to attend your lecture. Arguably, the most special thing about college is the sense of “we-ness” it instills through campus culture and spirit. It makes sense why our elders advise us to soak it in - it’s unlike anything else. However, the demands of graduating early can interfere with quintessential college experiences. This leads me into the next con of early graduation…
You have less time.
This is rather obvious. At first glance, this seems like it should be listed under “pros,” but upon further inspection it’s apparent that shortcuts come at a cost. In most cases, graduating early involves taking on a larger course load per term than the average student graduating in 4 years.
The typical student takes 12-15 credits, but if you’re planning on graduating early you could be taking 20 credits. You may need to sacrifice your home-cooked meals that you love making almost as much as you enjoy eating or your daily workouts which give you an outlet for your pent up energy and anxiety and fuel your work. Ask yourself – is this the price you are willing to pay in order to shorten your time in college?
On top of this, many schools require you to pay a fee if you plan on exceeding a specific amount of credits. Depending on your college’s regulations and the credits you need, the cost of condensing classes may be comparable to the cost of shortening your time at college. The other negative side effect of increasing your course load is it limits your ability to get to know your professors. When dividing up your limited time into so many directions, you’ll find it can be difficult to devote your focus in any specific area. The implications for this is that it may be harder to get a letter of recommendation, should you need one in the future.
Additionally, if you are someone who needs more time to invest in material and additional learning resources, you may find your grades dropping. The other option which some people opt for is to take summer classes rather than increase their credits in the fall and spring. This option is more conducive to avoiding burnout, but it means saying goodbye to your summer study abroad dream, limiting your ability to do an internship, re-scheduling any summer vacation, and saying “adios” to the one time of the year you get to kick back and relax.
Life moves pretty fast.
Ferris Bueller said it best, and we think you should hear him out. Arguably, life has something unique and exciting to offer at each stage of your life. As babies we get to see the world with fresh eyes, as children we get to live in a world where there’s a tooth-fairy and a Santa Claus, as teenagers we get our first glimpse of independence, as college students in our 20s we get a trial period of being adults. We get all of the luxuries and none of the repercussions. We’re old enough to land a job we want and buy our own things and feel pretty damn good about it, yet young enough to still be expected to make mistakes and come home if need be.
Your 20s, where you walk the line between dependent and independent, is not a bad place to be. Once you step fully into adulthood, there is no returning, the point being: cherish it. In terms of working, you have nothing but time. If you rush into a career, you may one day regret not savoring your college experience.
If you find yourself perpetually exhausted, staring at a screen, sitting at a desk, stressed out, and dodging your loved one’s calls all in the name of an early graduation – it is time to re-evaluate. Your long term goals are important, but you need to live for the present and a life with only work is no life at all.
The bottom line is: you have to do what is best for you! That may not look like what everyone else is doing, and that is okay. If you’re still interested in graduating early and want to know how, read on.
How to Graduate Early from College
Step 1: Start preparing in high school
Starting in high school, there are things you can do to make graduating in less than four years easier on yourself.
- Take as many Advanced-Placement (AP) classes as you can. A large portion of public universities accept AP credit as long as you receive a certain score on the AP test. There are actually laws in some states requiring universities to grant students credit for their AP scores. You can confirm which classes are accepted by which colleges here.
- Look into taking classes at your local community college. Another way to get college credit before college is by taking a dual enrollment class through a community college.
- Take the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP). This test allows students to test out of subjects that they already know. Around 3,000 colleges accept CLEP exams for college credit.
Step 2: Explore College Programs
Many college’s offer specific tracts that are structured to allow you to graduate in three years. These are often called “degree in three” or “three-year bachelor’s.” You can find a list of eligible schools from the Progressive Policy Institute.
Step 3: Consult Your Advisor
The process of actually planning out what classes you will need, when, and how that ties into the rules at the university can be complicated and stressful. Factors like how early you want to graduate and what your major is come into play to determine how loaded your class schedule will need to be. There may also be rules and regulations to consider that are specific to the college you are attending.
In order to make planning less stressful, less confusing, and assure that you are on track, you should make use of your academic advisor. They are the experts and they may even prompt you to think through whether your reasons for graduating early exceed the challenges you will face. In essence, they can tailor the steps we have given you, to you specifically.
Deciding whether you will graduate early or not is a decision that only you can make. There are a lot of variables at play including considerations of what you value most out of your academic experience, what your goals are, and what your institution has to offer. Take the time you need, consult your inner circle, trust your gut, and good luck!