My diploma arrived in the mail this week. I tore open the thick cardboard envelope, pulled out the piece of paper inside, and looked at my accomplishment. I was now a college graduate. CoVID-19 made the event rather anticlimactic, but I was still excited since I was able to finish my degree in less than a year.
Last year, I decided to enroll at Western Governors University. WGU is a non-profit online-only school with many bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. I chose computer science. One of the best features of WGU is that students are not beholden to a traditional pace. You sign up for a standard semester’s worth of classes, and once you finish those, you can move on to the next class. Pass that one and you can add another. Repeat until you have finished your degree. Best of all, students pay a flat fee per semester regardless of whether you take four classes or fourteen.
I transferred into WGU with 30 credit hours, so I still had to take 90 credit hours which I finished in less than 9 months. At that pace, finishing a full 120 credit hour program would have been doable in less than a year. Several students have finished their degrees in a single six-month term. My path to success was simple:
1. Study every day. I made sure to allocate time every weekday to my studies. Even on terrible days at work I would keep up the routine. In fact, those tough days at work resulted in some of my most productive evenings because it motivated me to finish my degree in order to help get a better job. Most of the weekends were spent studying too. Never take a day off.
2. Find extra time. For most people, it is easy to find an hour each day to study. Yet in order to get done quickly, I needed to find even more time. I cut back on free time and social commitments. My lunches at work were spent studying. I did whatever I could to find a few additional minutes of study time whenever and wherever I could. Part of the reason I was so excited to finish my degree was so I could get my social life back.
3. Change up your courses to avoid burnout. Other than for a few classes (e.g. Software I must be taken before Software II), students can take courses in whatever order they want. Some classes are easy. Some classes are hard. (The third course you take on databases where you have to pass the Oracle Database SQL Certified Associate exam is notoriously challenging.) Some classes are very technical. Some classes are more about soft skills. I made sure my next class was always very different than the previous one. After taking Discrete Math I, I took Technical Writing, not Discrete Math II. By varying my coursework as much as possible, I was able to avoid burnout. You do not want to have to take either 3 math classes or 4 business classes in a row.
4. Play for time, not grades. All classes at WGU are pass/fail. In addition, each class only requires you to complete one or two projects or tests. If you already know the content, you can immediately take the test, pass, and never even look at the material. Students should care about learning the information for both subsequent classes and for your future career. However, there is no need to stress about the difference between A and A- levels of preparation. GPA is not even tracked. You should only study until you feel like you are comfortable with the subject and are confident of passing the exam. Instead of grades, time is the most important metric.
With these tips, you too can finish your degree in less than a year!
All that advice is also total bullshit. Those tips are true and would be helpful to any potential or current WGU students. However, saying I finished my degree in less than a year is disingenuous. Here are some more advanced tips:
1. Start programming as a kid. In elementary school, I started learning HTML. In middle school, I tried teaching myself C++. Since I already had basic coding skills, the introductory programming classes were a cakewalk.
2. Keep programming as a hobby. For years, my hobbies have included web development and game development. I am not good at either one of those, but pursuing those projects has made me at least a mediocre amateur programmer. Even the more advanced programming classes at WGU were fairly easy for me.
3. Go to another university beforehand. When I left high school, I attended the University of Texas at Austin. I screwed up and dropped out after five unsuccessful years. Over the next few years, I took some classes at community college. Despite having tons of credit hours completed at other schools, WGU only gave me 30 transfer credits. Most of my coursework did not line up exactly with WGU’s computer science curriculum, so my transfer credits were limited. However, many of those classes I had already completed were useful. For example, Discrete Math I and several other computer science classes include a large component on Boolean algebra which was quite easy for me since I had already taken a philosophy class on logic.
So I never really completed an entire bachelor’s degree program in less than a year. I started college at UT in the fall of 2008. A more accurate title for this post would have been “How to Get a Computer Science Degree in 12 Years”. If you include the time since I first started programming, you could entitle this post “How to Get a Computer Science Degree in More Than Two Decades”.
Plenty of people want to break into software development, and the best way to do so is to get a CS degree. If you are currently in a job you do not like, you probably want to finish your degree and get out as soon as possible. Maybe you are already considering WGU as an option and are excited to hear the stories about students graduating in one or two terms. But those stories are not common nor realistic for students new to CS and programming.
When you look at the bigger picture, starting and finishing at WGU in less than a year is not much of an accomplishment for me given how much work I had done beforehand. The truth is it took me 12 years from first starting my degree at UT to finishing it at WGU. For prospective CS students, do not expect to finish your degree so quickly. For current WGU students, do not get discouraged by the stories of crazy class acceleration. Getting a CS degree in 4 years is a much greater accomplishment than what I did.
But maybe you can get it done in 3 years.