How to Handle the Pressures of Graduating Early, from Someone Who Actually Did It

For the average college student, stress about graduation doesn’t come around until you hit your fall semester of senior year. However, for those of us who choose to graduate early, that stress hits way before.

As of January 2019, I am a college graduate, and most of my classmates are completing their degrees in May. I don’t quite have the diploma in my hand yet, but I'm technically finished with school.

And no matter what the pressure is or how impossible it seems, I promise you can make it through if you break everything down. 

Fitting in the degree requirements

You don’t get the expensive piece of paper that says you’re qualified for a job until you’ve met all your university’s requirements. As early grads, we face new challenges. How are you going to fit your 56-credit major and 20-something gen-ed requirements into six (or seven) semesters instead of eight?

For some early grads, it’s still an easy process. If you planned to graduate early from the get-go (like before you got to campus), you’re probably already set.

“I took 11 AP classes in high school,” Rachel Pomeroy, a current first year at Elon Law School who graduated a year early from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, says. “They really set me up for success in college.” Not only did Rachel finish a year early, but she did so with a double major and a minor. She found that keeping an excel document with her degree requirements was super helpful in making it through the process.

Knowing what you need and planning it out doesn’t help everyone, though. Olivia Larson is currently finishing her degree in history and struggled to get what she needed. “I had to get my department chair to let me take our capstone class alongside two other 300 level classes,” she says. “The registrar was very resistant to letting me take the credits I needed, despite the fact that I got the appropriate forms signed.”

The best advice someone can give you is: Communicate with your advisors. If you’re afraid you can’t get the credits in time, make a better plan with people who can actually help you.

Making a college bucket list

One of my bucket list college items was to study abroad. In an ideal world, I would’ve been able to spend a semester in a country of my choice. Things didn’t work out that way, but I was able to work out two different trips in my last year of college.

If you do want to study abroad, then it’s important for you to communicate with your advisors and university so they can make that happen for you. Some universities offer short-term study abroad programs where you can spend a little under two weeks abroad during a school break. At UNC-Chapel Hill, Rachel was able to study abroad for a semester and still graduate early.

Olivia is also studying abroad, but for a short-term trip similar to mine after commencement in May. However, she’s finding it difficult because she’s having to fight to be able to walk with her class. Every senior wants to be able to walk with their class at graduation, and it’s essential to communicate with the various departments to make things happen.

While studying abroad isn’t a stress factor for everyone, if you haven’t thought about it, you should. Look into it before it’s too late. Studying abroad can give you many valuable skills you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. And, as you can expect, graduating early does make it more difficult.

Determining a post-college plan

There are a lot of assumptions that come with graduating early. Most people assume that you have your life together and that you know what you want to do. They’re going to ask about it a lot. However, you probably don’t have any clue what you’re doing, and that’s fine!

“The biggest thing was that [graduating early] moved up the timeline to either find a job or get into grad school,” Olivia says. She was expected to have an exact plan for her future.

The job hunt may be the most dreaded part of any student’s life. For most, the stress of it doesn’t hit until the beginning of your senior year (unless you’re lucky and have a job lined up already). Keep in mind that your first job out of college doesn’t have to be the glamorous, full-time gig you expected. You just need to have money coming in and you need to budget. You’ve got bills to pay.

Even if you’re going straight to grad school, you need to know how you’re paying for it. Are you living at home to save money? Are you paying rent for an apartment?  

It’s all super stressful, but if you’re proactive and talk it out with people who care about you then you’ll figure it out. The best successes can come from working together, rather than separately.

Planning for student debt

Like many other college graduates in America, I have an unbearable amount of money to pay back the government for my education. Though we would all like to push the mere thought of debt aside, waiting until the last minute to plan would be a mistake. Graduating early means making a plan for your debt as soon as possible.

The federal government gives you six months after you graduate to begin paying off your student loans. You could also defer them, but keep in mind how much interest that’s going to cause. And, if you have a parent who took out a loan for you that you’re paying back, keep in mind you’re probably going to be making two payments a month.

You don’t have to get your fancy, full-time job to plan (though it would be nice), but you do need to think about getting a part-time job to save up some money. I know that celebrating your graduating and having a good time sounds way more fun, but you have to start planning.

Despite whatever your current situation may be, the most important thing is that you enjoy your college experience. You won’t get another chance like this again. No matter how hard you have to work or how much money you can pay right away (deferring your loan payments isn’t the end of the world), you don’t want to regret anything.

No matter how well you plan during your college career for your early graduation and your time after, stuff happens. Things will go wrong and you’ll have to work through it. If you’re graduating early and you’re stressed about it, sit back and take a deep breath. You’ve got this.

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