Two readers emailed me about a story in the Washington Post today about a student who graduated college in only two semesters (plus summer school). The student, David Banh, even got a double major.
The reason people emailed me this story (with some ribbing that I’d been outdone) was that I graduated from college with a double major in three semesters (but no summer school). I previously wrote about this in the article “Do It Now“ as well as ”10 Tips for College Students.”
I noticed several similarities between myself and David as I read the article. We both took abundant advanced placement classes in high school, and those AP classes gave us a significant head start in college. However, David took many more AP exams than I did, giving him a much bigger head start. He started college with 72 AP units, which is more than double what I had. I wish I’d thought of that in high school, since that would have saved me the third semester right there. I feel like such a procrastinator.
David’s parents pushed him a lot in high school but worried about his fast-tracking through college. My parents also encouraged me to do well in high school, but in college they discouraged me from taking so many units, saying, “Oh, you’re nuts!” David played competitive bridge in high school; I also played card games regularly and served as captain of my school’s first Academic Decathlon team. The article reported that David was moderately competitive but not aggressively so; I’d describe myself the same way.
David and I both attended state schools (he went to the University of Virginia while I went to California State University, Northridge). State schools are known to be generous in accepting AP units for full college credit.
David and I each saved a bundle on our college education. My school’s tuition was billed by the semester, not by the unit, so I got a major bargain compared to other students. My greatest expense was housing.
Based on my experience with accelerated education, I can definitely see how David did what he did. He pre-paved his rapid path in high school, which allowed him to be half done with college before he even started. To graduate early David had to squish about two years of classes into two semesters. I had to smoosh a little over three years into three semesters.
The article reports that David took 23 units his first semester and 37 his second semester, averaging 30 units per semester (there’s no mention of how many units he took during summer school). I took 31, 39, and 37 units in my three semesters, averaging 36 units per semester. That translates to about two extra classes per semester compared to David. I wish I’d thought of taking more AP classes in high school, since that would have allowed me to lighten my college schedule considerably and maybe even graduate in two semesters as David did. I just didn’t have the ambition in high school to do what David did. He deserves major credit (OK, bad pun) for his foresight.
It’s interesting that David and I both graduated with double majors. Mine were in computer science and mathematics, and it sounds like his were in physics and mathematics, although the article isn’t explicit about that. In both cases there’s a tremendous overlap between these subjects. Double-majoring in something like psychology and mathematics would be a totally different story. By intelligently selecting my CS electives for credit towards both majors (which was completely permissible), I only needed about five extra classes to secure the math major on top of what I was already taking for my CS major. I imagine David recognized the same opportunity. I almost went for a physics minor, since I could have gotten one with just a few extra classes. What can I say though? I got lazy.
Assuming you take the same classes a typical four-year student would take (i.e. no special treatment other than approval for a heavier than normal schedule), the hard limit on how fast you can graduate is determined by your ability to schedule your required classes. I couldn’t have graduated college in two semesters because it wouldn’t have been possible to schedule that many classes into each week, even if I could have managed the workload. 40-45 units per semester was probably the realistic limit for my particular majors; maybe a more flexible major could manage as many as 50 units. One semester I had 13 different classes, and just scheduling them was like a class in itself. I remember that on one weekday in my second or third semester, I had 10 classes back to back. I was in school from 9am to 10pm. That was a pretty insane semester. I ditched that 7-10pm class a lot more than I should have.
I’m not sure if David used this particular tactic, but I enrolled in two classes as independent study. This enabled me to bypass some potential graduation-delaying snags when I twice encountered required classes I couldn’t schedule. Independent study means that a professor sponsored me to study material outside of normal classes in exchange for course credit. Finding a willing professor wasn’t remotely easy — I had to endure a dozen rejections before getting a yes, but I eventually found one. I’d work through a textbook and do assignments on my own, checking in with the professor once a week. I took one computer science class and one math class this way. If I didn’t take these independent study classes, my graduation would have been delayed a semester. I don’t think the classes I needed were offered in summer school — they were both senior-level courses. Even if I’d gone to summer school, it wouldn’t have been enough to accelerate my graduation, but it would have cost me more money. I spent the summer between my second and third semesters working as a contract game programmer instead.
In retrospect my graduating in three semesters was very fortunate, since I graduated one month before the January 1994 Northridge Earthquake that decimated the campus (photo here). It took the school nearly a decade to return to normal. Getting my required classes would have been much harder if I needed that fourth semester, and I would have been attending classes in temporary tents and bungalows instead of the regular quake-damaged facilities.
I certainly wouldn’t encourage everyone to try racing through college like David and I did. You need some serious self-confidence (borderline snarkiness) to even consider it. But I did enjoy my experience very much, and apparently so did David. I graduated 13 years ago, and it still serves as a powerful reference for me today. Whenever I face a major challenge, I think back to my college days and recall that accomplishment. I set a crystal-clear goal, worked hard, and successfully achieved it. That’s something no one can take away from me. I’m sure David’s achievement will serve him equally well throughout his life.
Nicely done, David. Can’t wait to see what you do next! No pressure, hehehe.