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How to Graduate High School Early: 5 Key Steps

Posted by Christine Sarikas | Nov 4, 2018 10:48:00 AM




Are you a high school student who’s thinking about graduating early? Maybe you have an exciting internship offer, want to start college early, or are just interested in finishing high school faster.

The good news is that graduating high school early is often not as challenging as people think. This guide will give you all the tips and information you need to know about how to graduate from high school early in an easy and hassle-free way, and it will help you decide if graduating early is the right decision for you.


What Does It Mean to Graduate High School Early?

In the US, the typical high school education lasts four years. Students who want to graduate early aim to complete their high school in less than four years, typically in three or three and a half years. Unless you are home schooled or attend a non-traditional school, it’s often difficult or impossible to graduate high school if you have completed less than three years. This is because students often can’t complete all their graduation requirements in less than three years.

If you graduate early, you will receive the same diploma as any other graduate from your high school. Your transcript won’t have any special indication that you graduated early, other than the fact that it contains fewer semesters than a typical high school transcript.


Why Would You Want to Graduate Early?

What are the benefits of graduating high school early? Here are three of the most common reasons students plan to complete high school in less time.


You Want to Start Your Next Education Phase Early

One common reason why students choose to graduate high school early is because they want to get a head-start on college or technical school. You may want to do this if you have a lot of school ahead of you (say, if you're planning on attending med school or getting a PhD), and you want to get ahead so you can eventually complete your schooling a bit earlier.

You could also be interested in only attending college part-time but still want to graduate when you're 22, or you may just want to finish school more quickly so you can enter the workforce sooner. Completing high school early can help make each of these situations possible.

Graduating high school early can mean you enroll full-time at a new school, or you might just enroll in a few classes. Students who enroll part-time often have a part-time job as well to help pay for classes.


You Want to Purse an Opportunity Before College

You may also have another opportunity you want to take advantage of that isn’t related to classes. This could be an internship to get career experience, a job to earn money, or a similar opportunity you think is worth finishing high school early for.

Gap years, where students take a year or so off from school to travel, work, or have another experience, are becoming increasingly popular among high school and college-aged students. If you decide to do one, there are lots of options available, depending on your interests. You could work at a theater, help out at an archaeological dig, volunteer, or do one of many other opportunities.

Spending a year away from school can help you get a better idea of how you want to spend the rest of your life, and it can also give you some great experiences.


You Don't Enjoy High School

A third reason you may want to graduate high school early is that you just don’t enjoy it. Some people feel lonely or out-of-place in high school, and others simply don’t feel like they’re learning a lot. This can be a legitimate reason to graduate high school early, but make sure you understand that it will take time and effort on your part to plan it out, and you won’t be able to finish high school immediately.



Disliking high school could be a reason to graduate early.


How to Graduate High School Early

So, how can you graduate high school early? I’ve outlined the steps you need to follow below. There’s a bit a math involved, but nothing you can’t handle; after all, you’ll soon be a high school graduate.


Step 1: Decide When You Want to Graduate

This first step is pretty simple; all you need to do is decide how early you want to graduate high school. Do you want to graduate a semester early? An entire year? How long do you want to spend pursuing whatever it is you’re doing instead of attending high school?

When figuring this out, keep in mind that it’s often easier to graduate just a semester early instead of an entire year. If that doesn’t seem like a long enough time to you, remember that, even if you only graduate a semester early, you’ll finish high school in December or January. If you start college the following September, that still gives you about eight months of time to work, travel, or pursue another opportunity.

If you still need help deciding, talk to your academic adviser. They’re a great resource to have, and they’ll likely be able to help make this process easier (plus you’ll have to let them know if you officially decide to graduate early, so you may as well start talking to them now).


Step 2: Figure Out How Many Credits You Need to Graduate

Now that you know when you want to graduate, it’s time to get into the math. Almost every high school requires its students to complete a certain number of credits before they can graduate. Look in your student handbook or ask your academic adviser to find out how many credits your particular high school requires.

As an example, we’ll use the high school I graduated from, which required its students to complete 21 credits, with each class worth about 0.5 credits per semester.

Now, figure out how many credits you’ve already completed. You can usually find this information on your report card or transcript, or you can ask your adviser. Next, subtract the number of credits you’ve completed from the number of total credits you need to graduate. The answer you get is the number of credits you’ll need to take before you can graduate.

The good news for you is that the number of graduating credits for most high schools often doesn’t require you to complete four full-time years of school. Again, for my high school, you needed to complete 21 credits to graduate, but a student attending high school full-time would complete about 7 credits each year, meaning most students at the end of their junior year would already have enough credits to graduate.

The number of credits you need to take isn’t all you need to worry about though, so let’s move on to the next step.


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Step 3: Figure Out Which Classes You Need to Graduate

Now you need to figure out the specific classes you need to take to graduate.

Look at your student handbook or talk to your adviser to learn which classes students at your high school must take in order to graduate. This will usually require a certain number of semesters of math, English, science, and social studies, as well as some possible other requirements such as gym or a fine arts class.

Make a list of all the required classes you haven’t taken yet. Sometimes the requirements are general, such as taking six semesters of math, while other times they’re more specific, like all students must take algebra and geometry. Pay attention to this when making your list. Be aware the most high schools require four years of English but often fewer years of other core subjects.

To again use my former high school as an example, all students had to complete:

  • 4 years of English
  • 3 years of math
  • 2 to 3 years of science
  • 2 years of social studies
  • 1 year of foreign language
  • 4 years of gym
  • a fine arts class, a typing class, a driver's education class, and a consumer education class



Which classes does your high school require you to take?


Step 4: Figure Out Which Classes the Colleges You're Interested in Require

Now we move on from classes that you must take in order to graduate and focus instead on classes it would be a good idea for you to take, but aren't required.

Many times, the bare minimum high school graduation requirements aren't enough to get you into top colleges. For example, your high school may only require you to take two years of social studies, but the colleges you’re interested in may want three to four years.

Look at the admission requirements for several colleges you’re interested in, and add any additional requirements they have to the list of classes you need to take.

Keep in mind that you’ll want to take more classes in the subject(s) you plan to study in college. So if you’re planning on majoring in biology, you may be fine taking just three years of social studies, but you’ll probably want to take four years each of math and science if you’re looking to get into more competitive schools.


Step 5: Set Up a Schedule for When to Take the Rest of Your Classes

Now that you know how many credits you need to take and which classes you need to complete, it’s time to start figuring out how you’ll graduate high school early. Make blank schedules for each semester you have left of high school. So, say I just finished my sophomore year, I take eight classes a day, and I want to graduate a semester early. I’d make three columns, each with eight blank spaces, representing all the room I have left to take classes (see example below).

Next, begin filling in the blanks, starting with the classes that are required to graduate. For each class, put its number of credits next to it in parentheses. For some spots, you may not know exactly what class you’ll be taking next, but you can put its general subject down for now, such as “English class (3 credits).”

After you’ve filled in required classes, and if you have extra space, start adding other classes you’d like to take or would be helpful for you to get into college.

Once all the spaces on your schedule have been filled in, add up all the credits you’ll have completed. Have you met the minimum requirement for your school? If not, how many classes will you need to take to meet it? Next, look at what classes are left over on your list. Are there any required classes you weren’t able to fit? Any classes you don’t have to take but would like to?

If you need to take either additional credits or classes, start thinking of ways you can fit them in outside of the normal school day. Some options include summer classes, taking classes at a nearby community college or university, or taking online classes. For each of these options, make sure you discuss it with your adviser before you enroll to make sure you’ll get the required credit you need.

Once you’ve figured out how you’ll take each of these extra classes, add the information to your schedule. Look at the junior and senior year schedule below for an example:

Fall 2016

Spring 2017

Summer 2017

Fall 2017

Pre-calculus (0.5 credits)

Pre-calculus (0.5 credits)

Calculus I (0.5 credits)

Math elective (0.5 credits)

Physics (0.5 credits)

Physics (0.5 credits)

Calculus II (0.5 credits)

Science elective (0.5 credits)

US History (0.5 credits)

US History (0.5 credits)


English elective (0.5 credits)

American Literature (0.5 credits)

American Literature (0.5 credits)


English elective (0.5 credits)

French III (0.5 credits)

French III (0.5 credits)


Consumer Ed class (0.5 credits)

AP Biology (0.5 credits)

AP Biology (0.5 credits)


Fine arts class (.5 credits)





Gym (.25 credits)

Gym (.25 credits)


Gym (.25 credits)


In this example, the student would be able to graduate a semester early while having a course load that would be considered strong at many colleges. This student is planning on majoring in biology, so she wanted to maximize her math and science classes. During her junior year, her schedule was pretty normal with the exception of taking two science classes (physics and AP Biology) at the same time. Taking two classes in one subject is something that you'll likely have to do if you want to graduate early.

She realized she wouldn't be able to fit in calculus normally, so she chose to take it over the summer. For her final semester, she took two English classes at the same time, a math elective and science elective to get more experience in those subjects, and she completed the rest of her required classes. Assuming she had a regular schedule her previous semesters, she would have completed 4.5 years of science, 4.5 years of math, 4 years of English, 3 years of social studies, 3 years of foreign language, and her other required classes.

Completing those classes would be good enough for most colleges although some highly competitive schools would require 4 years of social studies and foreign language. Notice that she had a lot of different options when creating her schedule; she could have dropped her foreign language and taken a different course, chosen to take two math electives her senior year instead of calculus over the summer, and a variety of other options. Also, be aware that her junior year would probably be pretty challenging with her full course load that includes two science classes. Keep all these things in mind when creating your schedule.

Once you've completed your schedule, double-check your work to make sure all the requirements are met. Congratulations, you now have a plan for graduating high school early! If you haven’t before now, share your plan with your adviser and ask if there are any additional steps you need to take.


Drawbacks to Graduating High School Early

You now know how to graduate high school early, but just because you can doesn’t automatically mean that you should. Read on to learn three potential drawbacks you may face if you choose to graduate early.


Can Be Stressful

As you saw above, graduating high school early takes a lot of planning and may mean you have to take extra classes during the school year and summer. Balancing this heavier course load can be stressful and tiring, and that’s something you should consider before you decide to graduate early.


May Miss Out on Important Events

Another potential drawback to graduating high school early is that you may miss out on special high school events.

For many students, senior year is their favorite year of high school because of activities like homecoming and prom. If you graduate early, you may not be able to participate in these events. Additionally, you also may not attend a graduation ceremony, which is an important experience for many people.

Before you decide to graduate early, think about how you’ll feel if you see all your friends participating in events like sports games, school dances, and senior days while you don’t. For some people, this isn’t important, but for others they’d regret missing out on these experiences.


Won't Necessarily Impress Colleges

You also shouldn’t try to graduate high school early to impress colleges. Just by itself, finishing high school in a shorter amount of time won’t give your college applications a boost. In fact, if graduating high school early means you have fewer classes in core subjects, it could even hurt your chances of admissions.

Unless you have plans to spend your time at a great internship or another exciting opportunity that will really show colleges who you are and what your skills are, colleges won’t see graduating high school early as a sign of increased intelligence or motivation.



Don't expect colleges to be automatically impressed that you graduated early.


Should You Graduate High School Early?

Now that you know how you can plan to graduate from high school early, should you do it?

The main way to decide is to think about what you’ll do during the time you’d normally be in high school. If you have a great opportunity you’d like to take advantage of like an internship, travel experience, college classes, or something similar, graduating high school may be a good idea. However, if you plan to spend the time mostly watching TV or maybe working a few hours a week, it’s probably in your best interest to graduate when you normally would.

Next, go through the steps above. Is it possible for you to graduate early while also taking all the classes you need to and would like to, without stretching yourself too thin? If you’ve found answers to both of the above considerations, graduating high school early may be something for you to start planning.


What's Next?

Thinking about summer school as a way to complete some of your graduation requirements? Check out our complete guide to summer school and learn if it's a good option for you.

Do you think you go to a bad high school? Learn what your options are if you aren't happy with your current school.

Taking an independent study can be a great way to fulfill some of your graduation requirements. Learn how to take an independent study class.

What's the benefit to graduating high school early vs. dropping out? Find out with our article on whether or not you need a high school diploma.


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Christine Sarikas
About the Author

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.

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