7 Tips to Graduate College Within Four Years

Most students take longer than four years to earn a bachelor's degree. These tips will save you time and money on your college degree.

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published on February 22, 2022 · Updated on March 1, 2022

Edited by Hannah Muniz
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7 Tips to Graduate College Within Four Years


We've all heard that earning a bachelor's degree takes four years — except a majority of undergraduates do not graduate on time.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 45% of students who started college in 2013 graduated four years later. That means most undergrads took longer than four years to earn their degree. And only 62% of first-time, first-year students graduated within six years.

Why should you aim to finish college within four years? Adding time to your bachelor's degree means higher tuition bills, more accumulated interest, and higher student loan payments.

Plus, on-time graduates can get on to the next step of their life sooner, whether that's launching a career or heading off to grad school.

With some strategic thinking and planning ahead, students can walk across their graduation stage four years after starting college — or even graduate early. Here are the best strategies to graduate college within four years.

1. Plan Ahead

Most college students earn 30 credits per year, and a bachelor's degree requires a minimum of 120 credits. The math looks straightforward: By taking a normal course load, students can finish in four years.

But graduating on time — and without a bunch of random elective credits — requires planning ahead.

Before registering for classes your first term, think strategically about how to set yourself up to graduate on time. Whatever you plan to study, you can almost certainly knock out some general education requirements your first year.

By planning ahead, you'll increase your chances of graduating within four years, even if you end up changing majors.

2. Earn Credits Before College

What if you don't have to earn all 120 credits in four years? Colleges award credit for classes taken at other schools, examinations, and even life experience.

Students who earn passing scores on AP exams or CLEP exams can receive college credits. And many schools award credit for these tests, with 2,900 schools granting credit for CLEP scores.

Similarly, if you've taken classes at a local community college or earned college credit another way, you can submit transcripts to your current school to try to receive transfer credits. Earning credits before starting your college career can even mean graduating early.

3. Double Up on Gen Ed Requirements

Learn more about the general education requirements at your college as soon as possible. At some schools, you can double up on those required courses by taking one class that fulfills multiple requirements.

For example, at the University of Louisville, students can sign up for a humanities class to meet both their writing requirement and the humanities requirement. Meeting the gen ed requirements faster means students won't be stuck taking courses required for graduation in their fourth year or beyond.

4. Up Your Course Load

Students on the semester system typically take 15 credits a term, while a full load on a quarter system is often 9-12 credits. By taking more classes, students can earn credits faster — and often without an increase in their tuition bill. That's because many universities charge a flat rate for a full course load.

That said, taking more classes can put strain on students, especially those balancing school with work. It can also contribute to burnout. So carefully consider whether it's worth it to up your course load.

5. Take Summer Classes

The typical four-year graduation plan only includes courses offered during the academic year. But most colleges also offer classes over the summer. By earning credits over the summer, students can complete a bachelor's degree within four years, even if they end up changing their major.

Summer classes come with another benefit — at certain schools, they cost less. Some public colleges, for example, charge in-state tuition rates for summer classes, regardless of the student's state residency.

6. Skip the Minor

Do you need to earn a minor to graduate? You might be surprised to learn that most colleges do not require a minor. And skipping the minor can mean graduating sooner. That's because completing a minor generally requires 20-25 credits, which can add time to your degree.

A minor can complement a major or allow students to explore other interests. But a minor will likely not affect job prospects or post-graduation plans — and certainly not as much as your major, GPA, internships, and recommendation letters.

Many colleges even leave minors off their diplomas entirely. So instead of extending college to earn a minor, consider graduating without one.

7. Talk to Advisors

Academic advisors can help you create a personalized four-year graduation plan. They can also give updates about your progress or create a new graduation plan if you decide to change majors.

Too many seniors have to skip graduation because they did not meet a general education or major requirement — and that can often mean adding a semester or more to their degree.

Make time to meet with an academic advisor when starting your degree and as you move closer to graduation. If you're making good progress on your degree, you might even graduate in less than four years.


Feature Image: PeopleImages / E+ / Getty Images

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BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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