As one of the first multi-faceted stages of adulthood, college is a period of self-actualization, a period of introspective discovery and, unfortunately, a period of overwhelming exhaustion and anxiety as you work your way toward that college degree.

You may be asking yourself, “Why in the world would I purposefully graduate early? Why would I enter the ‘real world’ any earlier than I already have to?” While these are both valid questions, the answers will outweigh your doubts. Graduating early has numerous benefits.

Firstly, only three years of your time on earth, as opposed to four, will be burdened by the life-depletion that is college stress. Rip it off like a Band-Aid: quick and (almost) painless.

Secondly, spending less time at the university means spending less money on the university’s tuition. According to Forbes, the current average cost of a four-year college degree at a public university is $36,519. This estimate excludes cost of living, and it is expected to increase by 6.5 percent each academic year. Cutting a year off college will cut at least a semester of tuition, granted that you are paying full-time tuition each year and invest in interim classes, which will be discussed later.

Lastly, if you graduate ahead of your class, you can also begin your career early. It is common knowledge that entry-level jobs normally do not offer incredible salaries or benefits; however, an early start to your career will enable you to gain experience younger, work longer and advance further in your occupation.

Sounds like the ideal academic path, right? Now, you are probably wondering how to accomplish such a feat — here are four essential tips that will aid you in earning your college degree early.

1. Start Earning College Credits As Soon As Possible

If you are reading this as a mere high-school-aged, prospective college student, that is perfect. You can, and should, begin earning college credits even before graduating high school. More often than not, high schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) classes, which are accelerated, university-level courses that can result in three to five college credits.

Take several AP classes, but with caution. Do not overestimate your ability to complete them successfully; quality of work always overrides the speed of completion. If you do not pass the cumulative exam at the end of the year, the credits will not transfer to universities.

Similarly, in addition to AP classes, select high schools also offer dual-enrollment programs. Like AP courses and the College Board, these programs are designed in partnership with local universities to give teenagers a jump-start on their college degree requirements. Again, take more than one of these classes if possible, but remember that exam results matter. Universities will not accept dual-enrollment credits without passing or, in some cases, acing grades.

2. Take Classes Outside the Normal Semester

If you have already graduated high school and have therefore missed the window to enroll in AP and dual-credit courses, don’t worry. You can still make up for lost time.

Take advantage of interim classes available in the winters and springs as well as accelerated classes offered during summer breaks. Interim classes are often included in fall and spring full-time tuition fees, which is spectacular because no extra payments are required.

Usually, students can take up to 18 credits’ worth of classes between the semester and interim. If you exceed this number of credits, additional charges may be added to your tuition, but it will still cost less than another full semester. Although you are filling vacation days with more classes, you must visualize yourself walking commencement early and recognize that it will be worth it!

Furthermore, take advantage of courses that are offered online through your university, especially if you are still not sold on taking interim and summer classes. Online classes are super convenient because they can be done remotely and at any time.

For instance, if a student wishes to take summer classes but must also work full time during the day, they can do online classes after work. Likewise, if a student wishes to travel during winter break, the online classes can be completed from that travel destination.

3. Be Intentional When Signing Up for Classes

Universities are businesses, and, sadly, sometimes this means that the time it takes to finish a college degree is irrelevant to university leadership. So, you need to do your research prior to your class-enrollment dates each semester.

Research your degree’s general-education requirements, your major and minor requirements and the classes that will run the following semester well before you are able to enroll. Some requirements will even overlap; a single class may fulfill multiple degree requirements, so be extremely strategic with which classes you choose to take. You need to rely heavily on yourself for optimal scheduling — take the initiative to reach out to your faculty advisors when you are unsure of which classes you need to graduate.

4. Make School a Priority

A college degree is an investment, so treat it as such. Make your studies a priority over your part-time retail position or waitressing job. Make your studies a priority over binge-watching Netflix or going out with friends on a weeknight. Don’t forget to relax and have fun, as a balanced life is crucial to both mental and physical health, but make sure to listen to that conviction in your gut when you should be studying and are not.

Despite the ambition you now have to graduate early, be sure that your grade-point average will not be sacrificed for your accelerated college degree. Although earning a four-year degree in three years would look mighty impressive on your resume, the majority of employers look more so at stellar GPAs.

Life is not a race, and your college degree certainly isn’t either. Whether college requires three years or seven to complete, the resulting degree will be equally valuable and worthwhile. Take your time, be proud of your endurance, be proud of your accomplishments and be proud of your passions!

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