How to plan your graduation

Less than half of VCU students graduate in four years. It is possible to do if you know the steps to take to achieve that goal. Photo by Gessler Santos-Lopez

This story ran as part of a VCU Student Media Center summer special publication, The Compass, which serves as a guidebook for new students.

Georgia Geen, Executive Editor

The road to graduation isn’t as simple as doing the math and taking 15 credits a semester for four years. It might seem simple at the beginning, just a matter of listening to your advisor and not failing your classes, but for many students, college has a way of complicating itself. 

It’s easy for life to get in the way, especially for students who work a part- or full-time job during the semester or have similar obligations. Throw a minor or two, or a double-major, into the mix, and planning soon becomes overwhelming. Advisors are there to help with the process, and they’re valuable resources, but preparation and knowledge on the part of the student makes planning to graduate a much smoother process. Plus, it’s not like advisors have a magic wand that can undo every misstep. 

Note that this story doesn’t offer advice on how to graduate “on-time.” Only about a third of students nationally graduate in four years — at VCU that percentage is larger, but still less than half as of 2017. The reality is that graduating in four years isn’t a necessary goal, and most people don’t achieve it. Students should be equipped with the knowledge and resources to graduate in the amount of time that works for them — whether that be three years, four years, five years, six years or anything in-between. 

Setting a goal for your graduation date, if that’s something you’d like to do, involves addressing a number of factors, like the number of credits required for your major, whether you want to add a minor or a double-major, how much time you have to dedicate to your course load and how long you can afford to pay tuition. Some students who might be able to graduate early decide not to because they want to add other areas of study or don’t think they’ll be ready to face the real world so soon. 

When planning your time at VCU, consider how much time you have to dedicate to classes and how long you can afford tuition. Photo by Gessler Santos-Lopez

Familiarize yourself with the required courses for your major through the course bulletin, available at bulletin.vcu.edu, and through DegreeWorks, a tool through eServices that lets students view their progress in their programs. Knowing what courses are ahead of you can help you pace yourself — it’s generally a good idea to balance general education courses with those from your major every semester, especially the first few semesters, so that you don’t burn yourself out. Once you have a better idea of how much you can handle, you can evaluate whether to speed up the process by taking on more credits each semester or to slow down and take on fewer classes.

But there’s every chance proper pacing can be interrupted by an unexpected scheduling conflict or a full class. Looking at the course schedule for previous semesters, in addition to the current or upcoming one, can give you an idea of when certain classes are offered and if they’re only available during certain semesters. Of course, schedules change, so it’s a good idea to reach out to the professor or department if you realize a few classes you need to take in the upcoming semesters conflict with each other and you’re a year or so out from graduating. 

One of the pluses of advancing through your major is the smaller class sizes, but that also means courses fill up faster. It might sound minimal to not be able to take the exact class you wanted, but small inconveniences can add up, especially if you have multiple majors or minors to coordinate. In order to minimize the risk of being locked out of a class you needed to take, be sure to sign up as soon as registration opens for you. If you do, keep checking over the following months — a lot of people change their schedules, so you could get lucky. 

College isn’t a race, but for those who want to work toward a specific graduation date, empower yourself to know what steps to take to achieve that goal. Planning ahead will always be a more effective strategy than taking 15 credits a semester and hoping for the best.

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