Orientation preview: How to graduate in 4 years

By Evanne Montoya

Orientation is around the corner and it’s a great opportunity for students — and parents, too — to ask questions. One hot topic: course registration. How does it work? Can choosing the right classes help your student graduate on time?

Some students take five or more years to graduate, but that isn’t an option for everyone. Because my scholarships ended after four years, I needed to finish my degree on time. Thanks to careful planning, a willingness to take extra courses during breaks, and an excellent advisor, I graduated in four years with a double major and two minors.

Course registration takes place during orientation at many universities. Here are some tips for helping your student start strong and stay on track.

1. Find out right away which credits transfer. 

If your student took AP or IB classes/exams or courses for college credit during high school, or if she has community college or other transfer credits, encourage her to sit down with the registrar or her advisor as soon as possible to see if any of these count toward general education requirements or as prerequisites.

Orientation questions: Who should my student talk to about how previous credits will count on her transcript? Will those extra credits allow her to register early?

2. Plan, plan, plan! 

When students plan properly, it’s possible to graduate in four years from most degree programs.

  • Start by getting a list of requirements for the expected major as well as any general education classes.
  • Look for overlap. A course required for a major may also satisfy Gen Ed requirements. If your student is considering a minor or second major, look for electives that satisfy both focuses.
  • Highlight prerequisites required for major classes. Encourage your student to take these as soon as possible so her course choices aren’t limited down the road.
  • Identify classes that aren’t offered every semester. Some classes are taught every other year, so it’s important to catch them the first time around!
  • Balance the course load. Your instinct may be to advise your freshman to ease into college by taking all lower-level classes, but this could lead to an overload of hard classes – and possible burn out – later on.
  • Encourage your student to consider summer or other alternative semester classes. My university offered “Jan Term” classes, with the cost included in fall tuition. Even with a fee, it may be less expensive to fund an additional class or two each summer than to take an extra semester to graduate. Online courses could be another option.
  • Be flexible. Your student’s four-year plan is a starting point. Things happen: majors change, classes conflict or fill up, etc. Don’t panic – adjust.

Orientation question: What resources are available to help my student graduate in four years?

3. Students should consult advisors early and often. 

Most schools require students to meet with academic advisors before registering for classes each semester. These advisors work with multiple students. Encourage your student to make an appointment as soon as course offerings are available rather than waiting until the last minute. Registration isn’t the only time students can meet with advisors. Your student should visit if she’s having trouble in a class, thinking about changing majors, or looking for guidance on almost any issue.

Orientation question: How do we find out the name of my student’s advisor?

4. Get any exceptions or substitutions in writing.

Your student should ask her advisor literally to sign off on anything that isn’t specifically in the course catalog. Is she studying abroad? Courses should be preapproved by her advisor (or the head of the department). Is she doing a computer science internship instead of taking a class? Get that signature or have it cleared by the registrar’s office. This protects your student in case of staffing changes.

Orientation question: Who should my student talk to about making course substitutions?

5. Save the course catalog and graduation requirement list from your student’s freshman year. 

Course requirements may change during your student’s college career. Most schools will be good about ensuring students are able to graduate based on the requirements in place their freshman year, but it doesn’t hurt to preserve this documentation.