Top 5 Ways to Get an Early Start on College

I started college when I was 16.

I wasn’t skipped ahead and I wasn’t particularly advanced. I’d just had enough of high school and wanted to get started in college. So halfway through my junior year, I took my state’s high school proficiency exam and started taking classes at the local community college.

Sure, at first it was strange being younger than my classmates, and no, I didn’t have a real high school graduation. But for me, the benefits of getting an early start on college far outweighed the drawbacks.

While I made a more drastic jump and skipped a year and a half entirely, there are plenty of other options that will let you get an early start in college while still in high school.

Some benefits to getting an early start in college are:

  • Saving money. College is expensive and tuition is only getting higher. By earning college credit early, you can avoid paying for required general education courses when you get to college.
  • Saving time. By getting an early start on college in high school, you’re saving yourself time. You can place out or get credit for lower-division courses and save yourself a semester or two. Saving time also means you may have more time to explore the subjects you’re interested inNot sure what major to choose? If you’ve started early, you have more time to take classes and electives in subjects that interest you before deciding, without worrying about not graduating on time.
  • Setting yourself apart from other college applicants. When the time comes to apply for a four-year university, the credit you’ve already earned will show admissions officers that you work hard and can succeed in a college environment.
  • Knowing what to expect in college. The transition to college can be a huge shock to many students. The amount of work, the rigor of the work, and the increased responsibility for your schedule leaves many students struggling. By beginning college early, you’re able to test the waters and get an idea of what to expect when you get to college while building the skills you’ll need before you get there.

Now let’s take a look at some of the options for getting a head-start in college.

AP courses and standardized tests

AP courses are like college in a high school setting. You’ll be doing college-level work, so these classes are more rigorous. But for students who are motivated and willing to work hard, AP courses are a great choice. It’s important to also take the AP test, not just the course, as your scores are what colleges will be looking at. Each college has its own credit policy, but most colleges and universities will grant credit and placement for AP scores and factor them into their admissions consideration. K12 also offers a number of online AP courses for high school students.

CLEP exams (College-Level Examination Program) are tests students can take in a number of subjects usually covered in the first two years of college. While you do have to study on your own and cover the same material as a college course would, passing a CLEP exam can earn you 3 to 12 college credits at a fraction of the cost.

SAT subject tests are sometimes required or recommended by colleges and universities for admission or placement. Even if they’re not required, your scores on a subject test may be taken into consideration with your application. Some colleges also use test scores to grant credit or place students out of introductory courses, help determine appropriate courses for students, or satisfy basic major requirements. Unlike CLEP and AP courses, students are tested on high school coursework, not college-level, so they may not require as much advanced study as other tests.

Dual enrollment at a college or university

With dual enrollment, students are simultaneously enrolled at both a college and a high school and earn both high school and college credit for the same courses. Some students are even able to complete an Associate’s Degree before they have graduated from high school!

Eligibility requirements for dual enrollment vary depending on your area. Some schools allow only juniors and seniors to enroll; others may allow any high school student.  The college may also have a GPA requirement, require SAT results, and may require signatures from parents and the high school or school district.

The cost may depend on your state or school. In some states, the cost of the class is covered, in others, some fees may be waived, but tuition is still required.

Community college courses

Anyone can enroll at a community college, including high school students and students even younger. I once had a college class with a twelve-year-old! Students will likely need to have a parent and the school fill out some paperwork and provide recommendations and transcripts. This option is not the same as dual enrollment, as students are only earning college credit, not concurrent high school credits. Most schools offer distance learning programs so students can learn from home, too, without stepping foot on a college campus.

College summer programs

Many universities offer residential summer programs for high school students. These programs can be highly specializedfocusing on specific majors or subject areas like science or math. Students get the opportunity to live on a college campus, explore a field in-depth, and earn college credit, too. This option can be more expensive than the others, especially at more private or prestigious universities.

Early college entrance programs

For highly-gifted and accelerated students, there are early college entrance programs. Like the dual-enrollment option, students earn simultaneous high school and college credit. Early entrance is different, however, in that students are enrolled at the university full-time, and may even live on campus. These programs may also be more selective and competitive, especially at more prestigious schools.

Finally, whether students attend a brick and mortar school, an online school, or are homeschooled, all of these options are equally available. And although some options have more stringent GPA or test score requirements then others, students don’t need to be extremely gifted to get an early start on college. For most of these options, all that is required is motivation and a willingness to work hard.

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