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The Importance of a Four-Year Plan in College

Cambria Pilger


Crafting a four-year plan is an essential part of your student’s first year of college.

It will not only set the stage for their academic journey through university but help them visualize it in a more tangible way. It’s important for students to create this kind of plan early on because they’ll have a better understanding when it comes time to register for classes.

What exactly is a four-year plan?

A four-year plan is a schedule that outlines every course required to graduate in each semester (or quarter, trimester, etc.) of one’s four years of college. If your student plans to be in school for more or less than four years, the plan can be changed to accommodate that.

A four-year plan is flexible, customizable and understandable. The main goal is for your student to visualize the years to come and understand what courses or other requirements they need in order to get to graduation.

How do you make one?

When your student decides what majors/minors they want to pursue, they’ll receive a list of the required courses for their degree. With that in hand, they can choose a format for their plan.

I made a couple different variations of a four-year plan, some digital and some written, until I decided the digital version was most usable. Some universities have their own four-year plan outlines, so suggest that your student check if that exists before they start from scratch.

You can find an example of a simple four-year plan here. A template like this can be a starting point for your student, but they should change it as needed.

Some schools schedule two or three years in advance which courses will be offered in a given semester. This is ideal for making a plan! However, when I made my first four-year plan, I didn’t have a course calendar, and it worked just as well. Instead of putting my courses in the exact semester they would be offered, I organized them by difficulty. My first two semesters were full of mostly 100- and 200-level courses, and later semesters had more 300- and 400-level ones. I placed interesting classes with less interesting ones so that there would be a balance.

Remember, the point is that your student creates a schedule that reflects their class requirements in an understandable way. It can be as complex, simple, colorful or plain as works for them. Whenever your student reconsiders their major or adds a new class, their four-year plan should reflect it.

With a four-year plan, your student can also easily see where and when they can slot in some fun elective courses in areas outside their major(s).

What if my student is undeclared?

Being undeclared is pretty common during freshman year and into sophomore year, too, so your student is not alone. When I started college, I intended to double major in Spanish and business so I made my original four-year plan for the Spanish, business and general education requirements.

Halfway through first semester that completely changed! The beauty of four year plans is that they can be adjusted as needed. As I changed my Spanish and business majors to minors, I only needed to delete the classes necessary for majors. I could keep the other courses exactly where they were. Then, it was really easy to add in and organize my new journalism major courses with the others. I compiled the options into one “final draft,” but it is ever changing and growing.

I also created multiple four-year plans to visualize different possible majors. This was helpful because I could see how some courses overlapped and how others just wouldn’t work together. As well, as a visual learner, I could better understand the course requirements of the majors because it was laid out in a few simple lists. Consider this option if your student is deciding or changing what they want to study.

Is there anyone who can help?

There are tons of online resources for making four-year plans, but the most valuable guidance will come from your student’s academic advisor.

Not only will the advisor help your student organize their plan, but they can also provide information about when courses will be offered, what the workload of certain courses is and share other resources. If your student is considering a new major, they should talk to a professor or advisor in that department to visualize what switching to that degree would look like.

Four-year plans take away a lot of the stress of starting college and registering for classes. If your student hasn’t made a four-year plan yet, I recommend you set some time aside to help them draft one. It doesn’t hurt to check in each term to see how the plan is going, too!

Cambria Pilger is a junior at Whitworth University, majoring in journalism and minoring in Spanish and business. She is a resident assistant and freelance writer. She is passionate about singing, acting, exploring new places and learning new skills. To her, the guidelines to living a good life are optimism, authenticity and flexibility. She never wants to stop learning or getting to know people!

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