3 Steps to Save Money and Graduate Early

As we all know, college is hella expensive: we’re talking buying a house expensive. In-state public colleges average out around $25k a year while private colleges end up costing nearly double, around $50k a year. That’s a lot of money to have invested in your education, especially if, like me, you intend to go on to graduate school.

Now there are a lot of articles out there for new students about how to apply for scholarships or increase your financial aid package, but this article is intended to help those who are already in school. I’ll talk about how you can graduate from college early, saving time and money. I’ve broken this process down into easy to follow steps to set yourself on the path to (early) graduation.


Step 1: Know your goals

Start by making a list of your goals for your time in college. This step may sound silly at first but knowing what you hope to accomplish while you are in college is an essential part in preparing to graduate early. While you are making this list make sure you consider not only your academic goals (major, minor, concentrations, etc.) but also your personal (making the dean’s list, studying abroad) and professional goals (completing an internship, getting a professional certification) as well. Once you have the list you should look into what each of those goals entails. For example: here is the list I made freshman year.


  • Study abroad in London or Italy
  • Participate in a field school
  • Major in Sociology/Anthropology
  • Get a minor in special education
  • Volunteer regularly
  • Graduate with honors (3.65 GPA and above)

Over the years that list has gotten revised a bit, for example, the special education minor became a minor in Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies, but overall my goals have remained the same. Knowing what I want to accomplish during my time here has enabled me to create a 4-year plan incorporating these goals. Which leads us to our next step…

Step 2: Plan your future

This is probably the most important step in figuring out how to graduate early. By making a four-year plan detailing when you plan to accomplish each graduation requirement, it makes your whole college experience smoother. My school offers a worksheet that helped me a lot in this process, but I didn’t find out about this amazing resource until I went to a meeting at study abroad. For those of you who don’t have anything similar at your college or university, I have recreated the form for you to download below. One version is for people studying at a university where you take 3-credit courses and the other is for people studying at an institution where you take 4-credit courses.

Four-Year College Planning Sheet (4-credit version)

Four-Year College Planning Sheet (3-credit version)

If you need more help on the specifics of how to map out your college plans, see my post here.

Step 3: Now what?

If you have mapped out all four years of college correctly, you have probably noticed that if you take the recommended amount of credits per semester (usually 15-16) you will need all four years to finish your graduation requirements. That is generally true. Which leads us to the real crux of the matter, how exactly do you maximize each semester so that you can graduate a semester or two early? Simple – get more credits.  

The key to graduating early is credits. Colleges typically require 120 credits to graduate with a bachelor’s degree and if you do 15 credits a semester you will finish exactly as planned. However, if you want to graduate early, you’ll need to rethink this approach. There are a few ways students can get credits in college and depending on your particular school’s policies, some of these ways may not apply.

Existing Credits:

There are several different ways to gain extra credits while you are in college. At most institutions, students can enter with a certain number of credits. This number varies by school (I recommend checking the student handbook or course catalog for details) but the number usually caps out just under the amount you can earn in a semester. I came in with 9 credits. To graduate a semester early, I needed fifteen credits. Because I had 9 credits already, I only had to make up 6 additional credits to reach the 120 required to graduate. Moral of the story: keep in mind the credits you have starting out.

Transfer Credits:

Transfer credits are a great resource in trying to graduate early. Most universities allow matriculated (full-time enrollment) students to bring in outside credits. At my university matriculated students are allowed to bring in up to 3 classes or 9 credits. This is a great resource because it allows you to take advantage of your breaks (usually winter or summer) and check off a requirement. Transfer credits are also nice because (at least at my school) they don’t impact your school GPA. Keep in mind, these grades will show up on your school’s transcript, they don’t disappear completely. They will still show up on your transcript from the school you took them at and you may need to provide this down the line while applying to graduate school or a job. However, if you have a scholarship or activity with a GPA requirement, you won’t be at risk of losing it.

Transfer credits will cost money, but even if you end up transferring in all 9 credits the overall cost will likely be less than the cost of that final semester, especially if you take them at a community college.

Testing Out Pt. 1 – AP and IB Scores:

Another option students have it to look at getting credit is to get credit for taking a test. If you took AP classes or IB (international baccalaureate) classes in high school, your scores could qualify you for college credit. Most institutions have a list of the scores they accept and what they will equate to on their website. If your institution doesn’t, try emailing your Registrar and ask if a list is available. Even if your test isn’t listed, contact your Registrar’s office anyway– you might be able to get credit for something else, but you won’t know if you don’t ask!

Testing Out Pt. 2 – The CLEP Exam:

CLEP stands for College Level Examination Program, a set of exams offered by the College Board. Each exam only costs $85! The average price of a single college credit is $594, meaning that if that $85 test equates to 3 credits, you’ve just saved $1,697!!! That’s right, over sixteen hundred dollars saved by taking a single test. Not all schools accept the CLEP exam or they may only accept certain tests, so always check with your school first.

Overload or Overboard?

The final way to graduate early is not my favorite option. Not only is it on the pricier side, but it also comes with the danger of overwhelming yourself. Overloading on credits means taking above the credits covered under tuition. At my school, that means taking 18 or more credits. This isn’t the worst option but it does require a lot of discipline. Especially if you are trying to get a B+ or above in your classes. Tip: don’t overload if you also have a job or other regular commitments (clubs, volunteering, etc.).

The Takeaway:

Hopefully reading this article has given you a better understanding of how to set yourself up so you can graduate early from how to plan to what to do. Graduating early is possible, it just requires a little know-how and a good plan.



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