We use cookies to personalize and improve your browsing experience. 

To learn more about how we store and use this data, visit our privacy policy here.

Everyone wants to graduate from their four-year college in four years, but the reality is there are plenty of ways students fall off track. According to the New York Times, only 41 percent of students complete their bachelor’s degree in four years. An extra semester at college can cost thousands of dollars and wasted time, not to mention the fact that many students drop out after four years.

This article serves to help you understand what those hurdles are so you can be prepared and on top of your degree path. With help from a college academic adviser and advice from a student who made it, you’ll know what to do and when to do it so you can graduate on time.

1. Decide on a major–or at least have an idea

While you may not know exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life at 18, which is perfectly reasonable, knowing what general field you’d like to go into will help you start on track. For example, you may know you want to work in business, which is general, but a good place to start. You’ll start by taking university required general education classes as well as core business school classes, which will help you figure out what specific area of business you may want to go into.

“Having somewhat of an idea of what you want to do aids to a quicker graduation rate,” said Kent Conway, an academic adviser within the Daniel’s College of Business at the University of Denver.

Even if you do decide to switch your major, already knowing what department you want to be under will make the process a lot smoother and will help you to still be on track to graduate.

Sophie Butler, a recent graduate from the University of California, Los Angeles, began her freshman year as a biochemistry major, but decided to switch to environmental science at the start of her sophomore year.

“They’re both physical science majors so all of the prep courses were almost exactly the same. All of the courses that I took my freshman year for biochem actually still counted for all of my prep courses for environmental science. I was really lucky in that I didn’t have any classes that didn’t count for anything,” said Butler.

While you may not come into college with a clear idea of what interests you career wise, utilizing your school’s career center can help you get there. Talking with a career adviser can help you understand what interests you have that can be relevant to the workforce. It’s important to do this early, even before classes begin if possible, so you can dial in a department.

“To students, maybe the most important variable would be being able to solidify their major early on. The earlier they can declare and figure out what exact major they want to pursue, then it becomes easier to organize the plan and complete it on time,” said Conway.

Conway explained that most late graduations he sees occur because of a late change of major in the junior year, where the student has to try to catch up.

Career advising can also help to find you an internship. Internships or other work experience taken early on can help you figure out what major and career you really want.

“Quite often after a student’s first internship I ask how it went and they maybe disclose that it wasn’t the greatest experience. A lot of times that’s even more helpful because then you know what you don’t want to do for the rest of your life and you can put that to one side and say ‘I didn’t love that internship but it taught me a lot’ and then you can refocus your goals from there,” said Conway.

2. Take a full course load

Consistently taking a full course load each quarter or semester will make it much more likely that you won’t fall behind, as long as you’re passing your classes.

“Every once in awhile, maybe in the very first quarter, a student might want to take a little bit lighter course load, maybe one fewer class to get their feet under them. And that certainly makes sense, but I usually emphasize that we don’t want that to be a habit because that’s how you get behind,” said Conway.

Find out what constitutes a full course load at your school that will ensure on-time graduation. This may depend on credits per class or unit, and whether your college is on a semester or quarter system. It takes 120 credits to graduate. On average, universities on a semester system require about 15 credits per semester to graduate in four years, taking about five classes per semester. Meanwhile, quarter systems require about 10 credits per quarter, so taking about three classes per quarter will put you just ahead of the game at 12 credits per quarter. Note that both of these approximations do not include summer courses.

3. Understand your university’s requirements

While it takes 120 credits to earn a bachelor’s, these credits must be comprised of classes required for your major(s), minor(s), and university core curriculum.

“It’s really important to make sure you have a strong understanding of what all of the different requirements are for your university because some of them are confusing and there tend to be so many different requirements that need to be satisfied,” said Butler.

She explained that much of this confusion comes from differentiating rules within and across universities on when certain classes satisfy multiple requirements. For example, a class may satisfy a major requirement as well as a university core requirement in some cases and not others. You can overlap classes for multiple reasons or requirements and this is a common occurrence, but there are limits and varying rules regarding this.

“It’s important to be aware of all of those different rules because if you can’t have overlapping in certain requirements you can end up really screwing yourself over when you realize you needed more classes later on when you previously thought one class could count for many,” said Butler.

Butler credits her successful, on-time graduation at a school of over 44,000 students to her experience as an orientation counselor. After going through training on scheduling at her school and helping new students set up their schedules, she was able to set herself up for success with confidence.

“I had a huge excel document that I created for myself at the beginning of my sophomore year with all of my general education requirements, all my language requirements, all my writing requirements, and all of the requirements for my major and for my minor. It was color coded and I checked things off as I went along. That really helped me stay on track,” said Butler.

She added that she also kept a list of all the potential courses that would fulfill each requirement. Butler’s combination of having extensive knowledge of her university’s graduation requirements was a major plus, but her ability to stay organized was the key many students can utilize. While not everyone will have such extensive knowledge, most colleges provide online documents detailing the requirements for each major and minor, as well as university core requirements. Start by creating an outline like Butler’s yourself, then get it checked. If you don’t know where to start, ask for help from a counselor or adviser in your department or one assigned to you.

4. Check with a counselor or adviser

Colleges know that scheduling for students is confusing, especially in the first year, when planning out four years, and when trying to understand if the classes you’re taking are satisfactory to earn your degree. There are many on-campus resources to help you get a handle on things. Many colleges will assign a general academic adviser to you your first year, and departments usually have their own advisers specific to the department’s majors and minors.

See also: Making the College Transition

Conway explained that at DU, freshmen are required to take a freshman seminar, and the instructor of this course serves as the student’s adviser. While connecting to your major adviser that first year isn’t required, it’s a good idea to get a better look into your specific major. Conway said that as an adviser to business students he reaches out to freshmen to build an initial introduction and asks students to meet with him.

“During those meetings I like to use an excel document that just shows quarter by quarter every class and at least build that out for two years if they’re not sure which major they want, just to show those core classes that will be taken in the first couple of years,” said Conway. “If they do know exactly what major, maybe even map out a four year plan. Of course it won’t end up being exactly the same the way they actually take it but it definitely helps everyone visualize the time frame that we’re looking at.”

Deciphering which classes count for which requirement is no easy task, and not everything shows up in the school’s system the way you think it ought to. This is definitely a case where you’ll want to reach out to an adviser.

Butler recounted her senior year when she was unable to take a certain course she planned to take and sought out help from her major adviser.

“I went into him and he actually just helped rearrange what credits were applying for which requirement and was able to fix my problem without me having to take any more classes because I had taken enough, it just wasn’t registering correctly on their systems,” said Butler.

Another important component is differing departments. For example, if you’re majoring in a science but minoring in liberal arts, your major adviser may not be as knowledgeable on classes required for your minor. So, if you’re majoring or minoring in multiple disciplines, it’s also a good idea to meet with an adviser in each of these departments and check in periodically to make sure you’re fulfilling all requirements. This may mean you meet with your general or major adviser every quarter or semester before registering for your next classes, but double check your schedule with those other departments.

5. Fill in the gaps as needed

Of course, if you go to a large state school like Butler, it isn’t always a matter of you not wanting to take a full course load or certain classes so much as it’s an issue of not being able to get into the classes you need. She recalled that her biggest concerns going into UCLA were getting the intro classes she would need.

“All of the intro classes like chemistry and life science and math classes are so impacted by so many different majors that it was worrying that I wouldn’t be able to get into the ones that I needed to,” said Butler.

This is the case for many students, and taking additional courses over the summer is unfortunately something many must do in order to graduate in four years.

“A lot of students had to take classes the summer after our senior year and I would say the reason a lot of students at UCLA are able to graduate on time is almost everybody that I know took summer classes at least one summer that they’re there if not more,” said Butler.

Butler said that some students did this preemptively as they knew it would be difficult to complete their coursework in time. Butler said she fulfilled her language requirement abroad one summer partially to free up more time during the school year. Of course, this adds financial burden as summer courses are not usually included in tuition. However, this can also be used as a tactic to graduate a quarter or semester early, as not all classes are offered every quarter/semester, but the class you need may be offered over the summer. Talk to your adviser to see if this option works with your schedule.

Another option for students is to earn AP, CLEP, or DSST credit by passing these tests and effectively transferring credits to the university they choose beforehand. See if you can take any AP courses in high school and which courses are right for you. You can also take a CLEP or DSST test before or during your enrollment at the university if you have pre-existing knowledge on a particular subject.

Completing a four year degree in four years sounds simple, but various components of scheduling cause many students to get off track. Poor understanding of requirements, too light of course loads, failed classes, and unavailable required courses can all cause setbacks in a student’s degree path. While these setbacks do happen, there are ways to be proactive and set yourself up for success. Understanding the common issues and resources available to solve these problems will help you stay on top of your academic plan, meet your requirements, and successfully graduate from college within four years.