Students who graduate in four years are the exception rather than the rule. Less than 40% of those who entered a four-year college in 2008 had graduated by 2012, according to 2015 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Some have good reasons for taking longer. For example, some need to take lighter course loads so they can work. Others are in programs that are designed to take five years.
And another year or two of college might sound better than graduating and entering the real world — but it’s an expensive victory lap. Students who started at public four-year colleges in 2008 and took a fifth year to graduate paid an extra $18,598 in out-of-pocket tuition and student loan costs on average, according to a NerdWallet study. Plus, they sacrificed a year of entry-level income — $46,355 on average — and around $82,074 in lifetime compounded retirement savings.
Here’s how to avoid becoming a fifth-year “super senior.”
1. Get credits by passing tests on material you already know.
Start college ahead of the game by getting credit for subjects you’ve already mastered. Many schools accept credits you can earn by taking dual-enrollment classes in high school or passing advanced placement exams. You can also earn credit by passing one or more of the College Board’s College-Level Examination Program tests. You have to pay to take AP and CLEP tests — and study materials cost extra — but those fees are a bargain compared to the price of a college class.
2. Take at least 15 credits each semester.
You only have to take 12 credits per semester to be considered a full-time student on most campuses. But to complete 120 credits — the typical amount needed to earn a bachelor’s degree — in four years, you need to take 15 credits each semester. And some colleges and degree programs require more than 120 credits. Assuming your program isn’t designed to be completed in five years, like some architecture or engineering programs, you might need to take a heavier course load or summer classes to finish in four.
3. Choose a major early.
Many colleges recommend that you choose a major by the end of your sophomore year at the latest. But students should really make the decision by the end of their freshman year, says Bruce Vandal, a senior vice president at Complete College America, a nonprofit focused on increasing college completion. Once you’ve chosen, work with your academic advisor to plan the classes you’ll need to take each semester to graduate in four years.
If you’re undecided as an incoming freshman, try to focus on a general subject area so you can sign up for classes that will eventually count toward your major. “At least be able to identify: ‘I’m interested in the health sciences’ or ‘the social sciences,’” Vandal says.
Not sure where to start? Take this quiz from Chicago’s Loyola University. It can help you discover the best majors based on your skills and interests.
4. If you transfer, make sure your credits transfer, too.
If you transfer schools — whether from a community college to a traditional university, or from one four-year college to another — make sure your credits will transfer with you. Look for a community college that has a transfer agreement with the school you want to attend eventually, or try to stick to schools within a state university system, which also often have transfer agreements.
Save your essays and tests from your first school if you’re planning to transfer, Vandal says. You may be able get credit for a class that wouldn’t normally transfer by showing your coursework to a professor at your new school.
5. Make the grade the first time around.
When you start college, you might have to take math or English placement exams. And if you’re not up to a college level, you might have to take remedial classes. These don’t count toward your degree, but you do have to pay for them — that’s why Vandal suggests avoiding them whenever possible. Instead, ask if you can retake the placement test or otherwise prove that you’re ready for the college-level course, he says.
Additionally, some students retake courses in which they’ve receive a ‘C’ or a ‘D’ to raise their grade point averages, says James Anderson, director of financial aid at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey. But retaking classes could mean lengthening the time you spend in college. Use on-campus resources like tutoring centers to help you get a good grade the first time around.
This article first appeared at NerdWallet.