High school is commonly a four-year endeavor, but some students choose to graduate early.
This isn’t a common practice—fewer than 3% of high school students take this route, according to the National Center for Education Statistics—but it’s one that may be worthwhile.
In this guide, we’ll share everything you need to know about early high school graduation.
Is graduating early for you? And if so, how do you accelerate your high school experience? Read on for answers to these questions, a step-by-step breakdown, and much more.
How early can I graduate?
If you graduate high school early, you’ll finish one semester or one full school year before your peers.
Graduating even earlier than that is unlikely, since it’s nearly impossible to complete all required high school credits in fewer than three years.
What are the benefits of graduating high school early?
Graduating high school early gives you a head start on the next phase of your life, whether that’s an internship, a job, college, or technical school.
- You may be pursuing your PhD and want to start that long journey as soon as possible. Or perhaps you want to work part-time, attend school part-time, and still finish college in your early twenties.
- Another possibility is that there’s an internship or other opportunity you’d like to explore for a semester before starting college. Whatever your situation, an early high school graduation can make any of these ideas a reality.
Often, that also means you’ll begin earning an income sooner. This is especially beneficial for students who need or want to help their families financially.
Additionally, there are some college scholarships specifically for students who graduate high school early. You’ll have a wider range of scholarship options with a smaller pool of potential recipients. (Still, make sure to apply to all sorts of scholarships—not just those for early graduates.)
And of course, for students who aren’t enjoying their high school experience, finishing early is a benefit in itself.
If high school isn’t challenging you or if you’re unhappy there, early graduation may be for you. However, keep in mind that it isn’t a quick and easy process, and college presents its own unique challenges.
What are the drawbacks of graduating high school early?
Graduating high school early takes a lot of planning and hard work. The process can be stressful, and you may have to take on a heavier course load than your classmates, or even take classes during the summer.
- Plus, you could miss out on events like prom, your graduation ceremony, and other classic high school experiences.
- Ask yourself if school dances, sporting events, and spirit days are important to you. You don’t want to regret rushing through high school.
Finally, keep in mind that graduating early doesn’t necessarily enhance your college applications. In fact, having fewer classes in core subjects is frowned upon by some colleges. If impressing colleges is your sole reason for graduating early, you may want to reconsider.
How does graduating high school early affect college admissions?
When you graduate early, you still receive a standard high school diploma.
Your high school transcript also won’t mention that you graduated early. However, colleges will notice that you have fewer semesters than the average student.
As mentioned above, having fewer classes in core subjects can be detrimental to your chances of admission at some colleges.
Top colleges want students to go above and beyond the bare minimum requirements for high school graduation. For instance, they may prefer four years of a foreign language instead of two.
- You’ll also have less time to involve yourself in extracurricular activities, leadership experiences, and other resume-boosting endeavors.
- And if you become too overwhelmed with racing to early graduation, your grades may suffer.
Of course, graduating early for an exciting opportunity (like an internship) can highlight your passions, intelligence, initiative, and dedication. You’ll have to carefully consider the requirements and expectations of your top colleges as you decide whether graduating early is right for you.
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8 Steps to Graduate High School Early
1. Weigh the pros and cons.
The benefits and drawbacks listed above will help you decide whether early graduation is right for you. To recap, benefits include:
- Getting a head start on the next phase of your life
- Earning an income sooner
- Being eligible for college scholarships meant for early graduates
On the other hand, some drawbacks of graduating early are:
- Undergoing a stressful process that involves a heavy course load
- Missing out on classic high school events and experiences
- Not necessarily enhancing your college applications
Think about your goals and plans for the future, what’s important to you, and how graduating high school early will affect you.
Consider how well you’ll manage stress, a heavy course load, and being on a different path from your peers. Talk to trusted adults like your parents or teachers if you need help making your decision.
2. Decide when you want to graduate.
If you decide that leaving high school early is best for you, the next step is to decide when you want to graduate. Unless you are homeschooled, remember that graduating more than a year (two semesters) early is unlikely.
So, would you like to finish high school in three years or in 3.5 years? Think about why you want to finish early.
If there’s an opportunity you’re pursuing before starting college, how much time will you need? Otherwise, it’s easier and less stressful to aim for graduating one semester early.
3. Talk to your guidance counselor.
As always, your guidance counselor is an excellent resource to consult throughout this process. Your counselor can help you with every step along the way, from weighing the pros and cons to creating your own early graduation timeline.
- Plus, you’ll have to inform your guidance counselor that you intend to graduate early (and make sure that early graduation is allowed at your school).
Meet with your counselor and explain that you would like to graduate early. Is this permitted? Are you a qualified candidate for early graduation? How many credits do you have remaining, and which classes do you still need to take?
Your guidance counselor can answer these questions and address any other concerns you may have about early graduation.
4. Determine how many credits you still need.
How many credits do you need to earn to graduate from your high school, and how many have you completed so far?
Subtract the number of credits you’ve completed from the number you need to graduate, and you’ll know how many credits you have left to earn.
You can find this information on your transcript, or you can ask your guidance counselor for help.
- Typically, each class is worth 0.5 credits per semester. So, when you pass two semesters of a class, you earn one credit.
The total number of credits you’ll need varies by school and state. In Florida, for example, students need 24 credits to graduate.
5. Look into additional graduation requirements.
Simply racking up the required number of credits does not make you eligible for graduation.
Your school will also have requirements about which classes you need to earn credits in. Many high schools, for instance, require the following:
- 4 English credits
- 3 math credits
- 2 science credits
- 2 social studies credits
- 1-2 foreign language credits
Additional requirements may include earning credits in gym/physical education, driver’s education, art, and other courses specific to your school or district. Along with your guidance counselor, determine how many credits you need and which courses you still need in order to graduate.
Next, ask your guidance counselor if there are any other requirements for graduation.
Florida students, for example, must pass certain state exams in order to graduate. Make sure that you’ve completed all extra requirements or have a plan to complete them.
6. Research the classes required by your top choice colleges.
If you haven’t already done so, now is the time to see which high school classes are required or recommended for admission to your top choice colleges.
Remember, most highly competitive colleges look for applicants who go beyond the basic course requirements for high school graduation.
Add these courses to your early graduation to-do list. As you do so, think about your college plans. If you want to major in engineering, for example, it will enhance your application to complete extra science and math courses.
7. Decide what classes you need to take and set up your own early graduation timeline.
Using the information gathered in Steps 5-6, create a complete list of the classes you want to take before you graduate.
Based on your response to Step 2, how many semesters of high school do you have remaining? And at your school, how many classes do you take per semester?
- Now, make a chart or spreadsheet to help you organize this information.
The easiest way to do this is to have one column for each of your remaining semesters. In each column, there should be blank spaces representing the number of classes you can take per semester. So, if you take seven classes per semester, each column will have seven blank spaces.
- Next, begin filling in the blank spaces with your top priority classes.
These are the classes you must take in order to graduate. If you have space remaining, you can add other courses (such as extra math and science classes for a future engineering major).
- When your schedule is full, count the number of credits you’ll earn with this schedule. Will you have enough credits to graduate?
Then, look over the list of classes you wanted to take. Are there any classes that didn’t make it onto your schedule? If these are classes you must take or would really like to take, consider online classes, summer school, or community college courses to fit them in.
Once your plan is complete, have your guidance counselor review it to ensure it’s doable and that you’ll meet all necessary requirements.
8. Follow your plan to an early high school graduation.
Now that you have your plan, all that’s left to do is follow it. Of course, that can be easier said than done. If you find your new schedule overwhelming, seek support.
Talk to your teachers or parents about tips for time management and balance. Get a planner or organizer to help you stay on track, and make time for exercise, sleep, and nutritious meals.
- Find hobbies that help you relax, like painting, reading, yoga, or taking walks. Prioritizing physical health keeps your mind clear and makes it easier to manage your many obligations.
If you feel yourself falling behind, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Get a tutor, talk to your teacher after class, or form a study group with motivated peers. It won’t be easy, but if you stick to your plan, you’ll graduate early and take the next step toward your future.
What can parents do to help their child who wants to graduate early?
If you’re the parent of a child who wants to graduate early, talk with your child about the benefits and drawbacks of early graduation.
Will they feel regret if they miss out on experiences like prom, graduation ceremonies, and senior events? Will being on a different path than their classmates and friends feel isolating?
- Do they think they can manage a heavier course load without too much stress? These questions are important for any student who is considering early graduation.
If your child decides to pursue early graduation, provide encouragement and support. Make a copy of the schedule your child creates with his or her guidance counselor, so you’re informed about the process and requirements involved.
- Check in regularly to make sure your child is managing extra stress in a healthy manner.
If your child is struggling, help them come up with a plan to better manage their time or get extra help with difficult classes.
As your child takes major steps toward their goal, celebrate! It can be as simple as cooking their favorite dinner or watching a much-loved movie together, but knowing that you’re proud and supportive means a lot (even if your child doesn’t say so).
Alternatives to graduating early from high school
Depending on your reasons for graduating high school early, there may be other alternatives to consider.
For instance, if your goal is to finish college faster, other options include:
These options allow you to earn college credit while still in high school. You’ll graduate alongside your peers, but you’ll still have a head start on completing your college degree. Some students manage to finish college a year early using these alternatives.
If you want extra time between high school and college to complete an internship, explore an exciting opportunity, or even travel, consider taking a gap year.
With a gap year, you’ll graduate high school in the usual four years, then take a year off before enrolling in college. You can even apply to colleges as a high school senior and defer your acceptance for a year, saving your spot for when you’re done exploring.
Final Thoughts: How to Graduate High School Early
Graduating high school early can put you on the fast track to your future, but it’s not an easy road. You’ll need to weigh the pros and cons, talk with your guidance counselor, and make a plan that ensures you can meet all graduation requirements in a shorter time frame.
If your schedule looks daunting, remember that there are other ways to complete college faster or to take time off between high school and college.
Whatever you decide to do, early planning is key! If you think early high school graduation is right for you, schedule a meeting with your guidance counselor and get started.