These 6 Clever Strategies Will Help You Avoid a Fifth Year of College

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Your senior year of college should be pain-free.

By then, you’re often counting down until spring commencement. Hopefully, you’re not worrying about whether you’ll actually be able to walk across that stage.

While financial hardship often prevents students from graduating college in four years, it isn’t the only obstacle that can cause delays.

What if you managed to scrape up enough money to make it through four years — yet you’re  still facing a fifth year? You’re almost there, but what if one last class or requirement still stands in your way?

That means you’re looking at the possibility of having to pay for that fifth year, which you no doubt want to avoid.

I would know, because it happened to me.

When I went to register for my senior year classes, the English and writing department was in a transition phase — and the course offerings showed it.

There wasn’t a single class available that I needed to graduate on time. And because it was supposed to be my last year, I started to panic.

But because I got creative, I’ll graduate on time and avoid incurring more student loan debt.

If you’re experiencing difficulty completing your final credits, there are multiple ways you can avoid a fifth year of college. Here are a few.  

1. Get Academic Credit for an Internship

My university gave me credit for my internship at The Penny Hoarder. I had to complete at least 400 hours to get full credit for one class. At some universities, you can also get credit for prior learning from professional experience or military service. (Be sure to check with your university about its requirements.)

A potential downside to getting credit for an internship, though, is you’re still paying tuition for a class, even though you’re technically not in one.

But if you consider the value of an internship — professional experience, networking, building your career opportunities — it’s worth it, in my opinion.

My internship at The Penny Hoarder turned into a full-time job. You never know what could happen!

2. Take a CLEP Exam for Credit

The College Board offers standardized tests known as College Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams, which can provide students a quick way to test out of a core requirement and save money.

A CLEP test costs $80 plus a nonrefundable test administration center fee. Compared to the price of taking a course at a university, which charges by the credit hour, it’s a fraction of the cost. Plus, because you complete the test in one sitting, CLEP exams help you save time, as well as money.

Just be sure to check with your school to see if it will give you credit for a CLEP test.

3. Increase Your Course Load

If you fell short on completing credits during a semester, you still may have time to make up the credits.

“If for any reason a student earns less than 15 credits in one semester, I suggest they consider taking 18 in another semester to make it up,” said Joseph Croskey, director of advising services at Clarion University of Pennsylvania.

If you’re seeking to take extra credit hours during a semester, you may need approval from your adviser. Be sure to check with him or her on this one.

4. Transfer Credit From a Community College Course

This is a great option if you’re experiencing scheduling conflicts — but it usually has to be early in the game. Most universities require your last 30 hours or so to be on campus, but in some cases you can petition your school and receive a waiver. That said, use this option early on if you’re already having difficulty finding classes that fit into your schedule.

Also, community college classes are generally cheaper. Double win!

5. Seek Alternatives, Such as an Independent Study

I approached one of my professors and asked her if she would work with me on an independent study.

At my university, an independent study is a semester-long project that a student works on during their own time under the supervision of a professor. In return, students get a grade and class credit.

It may sound easy, but it wasn’t. I had to meet with my professor every week for an hour or more to track my progress.

This option is usually best for extremely self-motivated and organized students. If you can’t keep up with a class without someone holding you accountable, I would proceed with caution when considering an independent study (or something similar).

6. Ask for Permission to be Added to a Full Class or Substitute an Alternative

You already know it’s possible to get student discounts just by asking — but have you ever thought about asking your school to bend the rules a little when scheduling conflicts arise?

Croskey is aware that some students struggle to find classes that fit into their schedules, and he says sometimes it’s just a matter of bad luck.

“This might be due to [a] limited number of seats in the class and how quickly it fills,” he said. “A student can ask permission to be added to the course in that case. Sometimes, an alternative course can be substituted or taken from a different institution.”

If you do encounter hurdles, huddle up with your academic adviser. Their job is to help you and do anything in their power to keep you on track. Make sure you keep them in the loop when you hit roadblocks; they can do more than you think.

What to Do if You Can’t Avoid a Fifth Year

For some, a fifth year is unavoidable.

If you tried the above options and the cards just weren’t in your favor, you might be stuck with a victory lap anyways.

So, what do you do when it’s literally out of your hands?

Croskey recommends students take advantage of their fifth year by using it to participate in internships, co-ops, take courses in areas they are curious about, or even prepare for post-college life or graduate school.

I hope [students] make the best of their fifth year by participating in all the university has to offer,” Croskey said. “This fifth year can also focus on preparing for graduate school and the exams that most programs require.”

Your Turn: Have you ever been faced with an extra year of college? What did you do? Let us know in the comments!

Kelly Smith is a junior writer and engagement specialist at The Penny Hoarder and a senior at The University of Tampa. She’s glad she figured out how to graduate on time — and hopes you do, too.