Figuring out how to graduate college on time will not only keep you on track toward your academic goals, but it could also save you thousands of dollars.
If you have to stay for extra semesters, you’ll need to pay for tuition, room, board, books and fees. All of these expenses could cause you to rack up even more student loan debt.
But if you can earn your degree within four years, you can prevent your cost of attendance from ballooning. Here are nine of the most common mistakes that can derail your education as a college student, and how to stay on track:
1. Relying solely on your advisor
2. Not checking course availability
3. Accepting a “class full” as final
4. Signing up for a class that’s way too advanced
5. Taking a less-than-full course load
6. Prioritizing work over your studies
7. Not taking advantage of AP test credit
8. Transferring schools and losing credits
9. Not taking advantage of your college’s support resources
As an incoming freshman, your college will likely assign you an academic advisor to help you choose your courses.
Typically, this advisor is experienced in helping new students transition to college life. However, they may not necessarily know the ins and outs of your specific major.
If you rely solely on your advisor’s guidance, you could end up missing out on major requirements you need for graduation because he or she did not know about them.
For example, in college, I had a lovely professor as my advisor. But I was a communications and English double major, and he taught political science.
While I was focused on graduating as quickly as possible to minimize debt, he believed in learning for the sake of learning. So he encouraged me to take classes that filled neither my core nor major requirements.
If I had followed his advice — as many of my classmates did — I would have ended up behind in my graduation requirements. In fact, I would have needed extra semesters to make up the necessary classes.
Instead, I worked closely with my department chair, the registrar’s office, and studied the student handbook to manage my own credit requirements. I kept myself on track to graduate, especially since my advisor wasn’t in the know.
Remember, in order to graduate in four years or less, you need to be your own advocate on campus. Find out which classes you need to take to graduate, make a plan and stick with it.
One of the biggest mistakes people make is not planning ahead when it comes to course selection.
Many students assume that when they’re ready to take a required course, it will be available. But that’s not always the case. Some schools only offer certain classes during select quarters or semesters.
At my college, the school required you to take a particular class before graduation. However, they only offered it every other year. So if you missed it, you had to wait a full two semesters before the school offered it again.
Once you know what classes you need to take to graduate, including classes for your major, minor and core academic requirements, check with each department to find out when they’re offered.
Classes are scheduled well in advance, so they can generally tell you at the start of the academic year when classes will be offered. If not sooner.
By my second semester of my freshman year, I had the next three years of classes fully planned out. And that helped prevent any surprises when it came to course availability.
Of course, no matter how well you plan, sometimes there are hiccups.
At some schools, classes can fill up quickly. And due to their lottery or wait-list systems, you may not get to choose the classes you wanted when it’s time to select your courses.
But accepting “course full” and just giving up is a huge mistake that can delay your graduation.
For example, despite all of my diligent planning, I had two courses that were full before I could add them. Yet, the second I got that notification, I ran down in person to the department’s building and stood outside the department head’s office.
Once I explained to them how missing the class would derail my plans for graduating on time, the department chair ended up overruling the class maximum and allowing me to enroll.
However, if that option isn’t available for you, ask if they can add you to a course waiting list. That way if students drop out of the class at the start of the semester, you can take their spot. And stay on track.
Most schools have some sort of core academic curriculum with classes in math, science, foreign languages and English. They’re tailored to provide a foundation and taste for each subject.
Unfortunately, many students overestimate their abilities and sign up for a class that’s too difficult.
Whether they take an advanced Spanish class because they took a year of it in high school or sign up for geology because it sounds interesting, their course load is way more than they bargained for.
Many students end up failing a class and have to retake it. Or, they take a new class to fulfill the core requirement.
That happened to me, actually. I took neuroscience because it was fascinating to me, and I thought it would be a basic course for all majors.
However, it was a preliminary course geared towards biology students, so I struggled a lot. Despite my best efforts, I barely managed to pass the class with a “C.”
But if I’d failed or had to re-take it, this could have easily been the class that derailed my carefully crafted graduation plan.
The number of credits you’re required to take each semester may be less than the number of credits you need to graduate.
For example, Suffolk University states that students need to take at least 12 credits per semester to be considered a full-time student. However, most Suffolk programs require between 124 and 126 credits to graduate. If you only took 12 credits each semester, you’d be 28 to 30 credits short after four years.
Don’t assume that the minimum number of credits will keep you on track. Instead, figure out the total number you need to graduate and divide it by eight semesters. That way, you can see exactly how many classes you need to take each term to graduate within four years.
You might also consider taking an extra course to graduate early or be able to take fewer courses when senior year rolls around. But be careful not to over-commit, as you don’t want your grades to suffer.
Plus, you want enough time in your schedule to take part in extracurriculars and enjoy your college experience.
Working a part-time or work-study job can be a great way to earn extra spending money while you’re in college. But if you work too much, you might fall behind on your schoolwork.
Many colleges place a limit of 20 hours per week on work-study jobs. If you’re working a part-time job, it’s up to you to strike a balance between your job and your studies.
Although making money as a student could leave you with less student debt after graduation, you don’t want it to prevent you from graduating college on time. Otherwise, your attempts to make money could end up costing you in the long run.
Some colleges offer course credit if you achieved a certain score on AP tests in high school. For instance, doing well on an English or math test in high school could mean you can skip certain introductory class requirements when you get to college.
If you scored highly on AP tests, it’s worth checking with your college to see what kind of credit it offers. You might prefer a college that will waive course requirements as opposed to one that doesn’t.
Making sure you get credit for your efforts in high school could make it easier to graduate college on time.
You also want to make sure you get credit for the courses you’ve taken if you transfer colleges. Colleges don’t necessarily count credits in the same way, so you’ll need to speak with your advisors about your situation.
If you’re considering whether or not to transfer, think about how doing so could impact your progress toward graduation. If it means you’ll need to spend an extra year or two studying for your degree, transferring schools might not be worth the financial cost.
Finally, doing well in your classes is key to graduating college on time. Dropping out or receiving a failing grade could mean you fall behind on credits.
If you’re in danger of failing, do everything you can to get back on track. Speak with your professor, reach out to your advisor and take advantage of campus support resources, such as tutoring.
Don’t wait until it’s too late; seek out extra help and guidance as soon as your grades start slipping.
Graduating college on time can save you money
College is expensive enough already without you adding years to your time there.
By carefully planning and staying in close communication with your department head and advisors, you can help deflect any issue that may arise.
For more information about how to save money while still in school, check out this article on how you can save thousands by skipping the college meal plan.
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