Guide to College Graduation Timeline: How to Graduate Earlier

Last Updated on August 13, 2022 by David Shaw

Guide to College Graduation: What’s the Average Graduating Time?

Whether you’re a future college student or planning your graduations ahead of time can definitely be helpful to keep you motivated and on track for move exciting things coming ahead. When most people ask about how long it takes to graduate, they usually refer to to the undergraduate timeline.

In the US and Canada, the average time it takes to get a Bachelor’s degree for most program is around 4 years, although some other majors require a longer time to complete. Is it common to see people completing their undergraduate degree anywhere from 3 to 5 years.

Although the most commonly pursued academic degree is the Bachelor’s degree, there is also an Associate’s degree that can be completed in under 2 years. In this article, we’re going to look at the timeline of the academic programs offered in most colleges*.

*In this context, college refers to any 4-year academic institution that offers an undergraduate degree program.

Understanding the Requirements of Undergraduate Degrees

Universities usually use either the credit or unit hour (never interchanges between the two) as a metric to determine a student’s degree completion progress. Depending on which metric they use, the total minimum required unit or credit might vary across universities.

So for most universities, expect the average minimum required units to obtain a 4-year Bachelor’s degree to be in the range of 120 to 180 total units or credits depending on your major and university.

Another thing to note is the difference between two semester and quarter systems. Given that quarter systems have 3 academic terms, which is 1 term more than semester systems, the calculation of these metrics for universities with different systems can be slightly different.

In the following contents in this article, we will use stick to using credits and semester systems for the sake of clarity.

– The First Two Years (Freshmen and Sophomore)

The first 2 years of my college, at least for me, was very much dissapointing. I was admitted into my college declared with a Computer Science major, and thought I was able to dive straight right into interesting programming classes, but that not not entirely the case.

In reality, the first two years is all about taking a handful of required general elective classes related to mostly liberal art subjects like humanities, history, social sciences, public speaking, language, along with introductory major elective classes.

Read: 6 Helpful Tips for College Freshmen to Adapt Quickly

This applies to all kinds of undergraduate programs, regardless if you’re attending a mid-tier university or top-tier university like the Ivy Leagues for example.

Only if you’re declared as a STEM major, your college department might cut you some slack by taking a few less liberal arts classes. However, that just means you probably have to deal with more difficult classes related to the study of Biology, Chemistry, or Physics, or just more rigorous low-tier prerequisite classes related to your major.

To my dismay, being obliged to spend the first two years taking classes out of my interests were especially dissapointing, because it was mostly just going through a handful of materials that I did in high school. Though that’s almost what all universities make freshmen and sophomore go through in college, it is just something we will have to deal with inevitably.

– Third Year (Junior Year)

The third year is mostly dealing with mid to upper-division classes that are exclusively specific to your major of study. This is usually the year students either get very busy or very laidback depending on how many classes are they fitting into their schedule. If they handle most of the mid-tier classes well, they should be fine while also having a good time.

At this stage in their academic career, they should already have one internship experience related to their field of study or will get pretty confident or well-equipped with the skills they need to get an internship the next Summer.

– Fourth Year and beyond (Senior)

In this potentially one’s final year, your schedules should be pretty predictable and fixed with just a few more classes required since you’re basically cleared most classes that are prerequisites of the classes left to take.

Classes you’ll be taking in the fourth year will be heavily based on group work and bigger projects that might span over more than one semester. That includes working closely with your class instructors as you plan a final year project, work on it, formulate a thesis and present it probably in your last 2 semesters.

Through the final year projects alone, you will get a taste of what a graduate study program is about and what is has to offer, as the work they do basically goes through the same process of what you did for your final year project.

On more info about all the academic degrees offered in 4-year universities, check out our article on Is 4-Year University Similar to Other Universities? Guide and Explanations where we explain all about 4-year universities and the duration of all kinds of academic degrees.

Majors That Generally Take More Than 4 Years to Complete

As we said, most majors you know in US and Canadian universities require 4 years to complete, but there are also other few popular majors that are a little longer than 4 years, or typically take students more than 4 years to complete.

Oftentimes, people graduate later than the expected timeline because the duration suggested by universities doesn’t account for situations when you fail or drop a class, and have to retake the class again in the next semester.

  • Architecture major

Architecture majors in most universities are generally 5 years long, and that does not account for situations if you fail or drop classes, which certainly lengthens delays and lengthens the time till your graduation.

  • Engineering Major

The duration of Engineering programs is actually also around 4 years. However, many people typically graduate with an engineering major in typically around 5 years due to the difficulty of the course curriculums.

Things You Can Do to Graduate Earlier

The application solution to graduating early is rather simple, but it’s actually harder than it sounds. But really, graduating earlier than the normal timeframe only requires you to take more classes per semester or quarter. Despite that, there are a few ways you can easily leverage to graduate faster.

1. Enrolling in a Quarter (Trimester) System University

This might not be a viable option if you’re already enrolled or accepted into a semester system university. However, it can still be useful to know since you can take classes at a quarter system university over the Summer.

Read: 9 Helpful Benefits Students Get From Summer Classes

Universities following the quarter systems essentially let you take more classes per academic year compared to semester systems since they have an additional term compared to semester systems school.

However, the drawback is that classes in a quarter system are also shorter, usually around 3-5 weeks shorter than in semester schools.

2. Take Asynchronous Classes at Community College

If you’re really in the interest of graduating as quickly as possible, then you can take advantage of the transfer credits option granted by your university by taking asynchronous classes at a community college.

By taking asynchronous classes at another community college, it doesn’t conflict with your class schedules, and the cost of tuition is also cheaper if you take classes at a community college. However, note that this method is most applicable for Freshmen or Sophomores since the classes you can get at community colleges are only limited to general elective classes or introductory level classes related to your major.

Before deciding to take classes at a community college, check with your university on the transfer limit they can accept from other university or college.

Pros of Graduating Earlier

One of the advantages of graduating earlier is that you can save money from the tuition dollars. Tuition dollars are rising yearly due to inflation, and the numbers might scare you! According to Education Data Initiative, college tuition fees are rising by about 6.8 percent yearly!

Additionally, graduating earlier means you’re clearing off any student loans probably a year or two earlier, which can be a heavy burden lifted off your back!

Cons of Graduating Earlier

You’ll enter the workforce earlier on your own without peers, and they might be employed by companies located far from you. That might be daunting for some, as some people don’t prefer to transition into the working society, leaving their peers behind.

Although I think from a financial perspective, the pros of graduating earlier far outweigh the cons.

If you think of the cons from another perspective, it could mean clearing your student loans quicker, leaving less burden off your back. You could also meet more new peers, and rediscover your hidden potential in the new environment since you’re no longer surrounded by your university peers or in your usual comfort zone.

Is Graduating Later or Earlier Than the Expected Timeline Normal?

In universities, people graduate later than the expected timeline more often than you think. This can be due to several reasons like mental burnout, stress, or just poor self-discipline.

According to National Center for Education Statistics, only about 56 percent of first-time full-time college students earn a bachelor’s degree within 5 years. That’s about the average of around 5 in every 10 undergraduate students graduating later than the normal timeline!

On the flip side, you will find the opposite to be less common, as it requires a great deal and discipline of dedication to graduate earlier than expected.

Graduating late doesn’t mean you’re a failure

Most people going into their 5th or 6th Senior year in a university doesn’t mean they’re doing badly. Some people might just be pursuing more classes, or enjoy their time in university with their classes, peers, mentors, or faculties.

So if you come across some 5th or 6th-year seniors in your college, know that they’re trying their best and encourage them. Besides, they usually give advice on which instructor and classes to take if you’re looking for some recommendations for classes. Speaking of easy classes, check out our article on the Best Easy-A Classes to Boost Your GPA in College

College Preparedness to Graduate Within the Timeline

group of students sitting in circle on field

Graduating within the expected timeline is also mentally healthier for many people. Many students just don’t enjoy attending classes, and only do it for the sake of earning that Bachelor’s degree as a ticket to a better-paying career.

It is common to see college students burning the midnight oil, and crashing in bed after surviving a heavy exam, only having to repeat the process for 4 years. To some extent, this will definitely cause a negative toll on students. To get things straight, a universities learning environment really just isn’t meant for everyone’s success.

To better guarantee your chances of a positive experience in college, and graduating within the expected timeline, here are some proper resources you can look for.

Find a tutor or study session groups

Universities usually hire students that are qualified to be tutors to help their junior peers for free. In some universities, they might also call these academic resources ‘study groups’ where you can be paired with a tutor and a few other mentees to form small study groups to help you with classes.

Not only will this help you with classes, but you can also easily make friends with your peers or tutors who are your seniors. With these connections, you can also ask for tips, suggestions, and guides on taking classes, or just how to navigate college if you’re having a specific problem.

Form study groups with classmates

Forming a group study is super beneficial to a student’s success in a class. It’s easy to set up study groups through free platforms like Discord, Slack, or any other messaging apps, where you can easily communicate to discuss homework or meet up for studies. With the Internet and technologies being so easily accessible, it is only a lame excuse to not do them if you’re falling behind in classes.

And you can guarantee that if you find a class difficult, there will surely be someone else feeling the same. And in this situation, no one would say no to forming a group study so they can do well in the class.

Join a club related to your major or interest

A huge benefit of joining a club truly related to your interest or major is crucial to push you to be motivated and focused. By simply joining a club, you can surround yourselves with like-minded peers which can act as a support system to push you to always improve.

Other than that, getting involved in club activities immerses you in the niche and sets you with the proper mindset. With that, you can easily block out distractions and focus on doing more productive things.

With these simple 3 steps alone, it will not only guarantee you a positive experience in navigating through college but also your performance in classes. As a result, the good habits and self-discipline you’ve passively learned and built will definitely help you graduate within the expected timeline.

More Resources

Best Easy-A Classes to Boost Your GPA in College

9 Helpful Benefits Students Get From Summer Classes

6 Helpful Tips for College Freshmen to Adapt Quickly

David Shaw

I enjoy blogging about the college experience, teaching people how to navigate and hack their way through college. I also enjoy promoting financial literacy among young individuals.

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