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Hoping to get a master’s degree from a U.S. college or university? For most students, the process will take at least six years: four years of undergraduate study plus an additional two or more years of graduate-level work.


But what if that advanced degree could be earned in just five years — saving both time and money?


That’s the idea behind “Accelerated Master’s Degrees,” also known as “4+1 Degrees” or “Combined Degrees.” A growing number of American schools — including highly regarded institutions such as Duke University, Vanderbilt University and Johns Hopkins University — offer such programs, which enable students to obtain both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in five years.


These programs can be particularly attractive to international students, who may want to spend less time away from their home countries while saving on tuition, travel, housing and other costs. Another perk: In some cases, students entering these programs may not need to take graduate-school entrance exams — such as the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) or GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) — or may have the fees for those tests waived.


For Amanda Botelho, an undergraduate student at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) in North Adams, Massachusetts, the decision to enroll in the school’s 4+1 program for an education degree “seemed like a no-brainer,” she said. Botelho will earn her bachelor’s and master’s degree (plus her teaching license) in just five years — all on the same campus. It’s one of the main reasons the Lowell, Massachusetts, native chose to study at MCLA.


“I loved the campus,” she said. “Then, hearing about this program made me ultimately decide on MCLA. Being able to get a master’s in five years is awesome. It will help me save time and money, and jump into my career sooner.”


In addition to education, some of the more popular fields of study for accelerated master’s degrees are business, computer science, economics, engineering, public health and mathematics. To see if a college or university you’re considering offers such a program in your desired major, search the school’s official website using key words “4+1 degree,” “combined degree” and “accelerated master’s.” Or talk to undergraduate admissions officers about the degree offerings at each school.


Each institution designs its own degree programs, so be sure to find out in advance how the program you’re interested in works, along with any restrictions or qualifications you may need to meet. For example, most universities will not guarantee that a student who is admitted as an undergraduate will be admitted to the accelerated master’s program. Students will need to apply, usually at the end of the second (sophomore) or during the third (junior) year of study, after completing basic course requirements. Some colleges require students to have a minimum GPA (grade point average) to apply. Other requirements may include minimum grades in certain courses (i.e. nothing below a “B” in mathematics courses), minimum GRE or GMAT scores and recommendation letters from professors or employers.


Wondering how students are able to complete 6 years of work in just 5 years? To start, many schools allow AP or IB credits earned in high school (or college classes taken during summer breaks) to meet the requirements of the bachelor’s degree.


Then, in most programs, students take undergraduate and graduate-level courses simultaneously during the third and fourth years of study. Credits for some courses may be counted twice to satisfy requirements of both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. In certain cases, the master’s requirements may be relaxed slightly. For example, a senior-year paper may be allowed to substitute for a master’s thesis.


Yet even with these accommodations, students in accelerated-degree programs will need to have good study habits and time-management skills. The course loads are likely to be larger and the hours longer than they are for students in regular degree programs.


Sarah Bodman, who is a combined degree student in Advertising/Mass Communications at the University of Florida in Gainesville, says the workload has been challenging but not “overbearing.”


“I expected that master’s classes would be intense, but when you are doing what you love, it feels more like fun,” she said. “Also, programs recognize that you are completing your undergrad classes simultaneously. In the end, the workload was like any other course.”


While there are many benefits to pursuing an accelerated degree, it’s not the right option for everyone. Students in such programs probably won’t have time to explore classes and interests outside their majors and may not have a typical college experience. Also, if you change your career plans or decide to attend a different graduate school after starting such a program, it may take longer than six years to earn your master’s degree.


For these reasons, it’s important to explore all your options and consult with an academic counselor before committing to an accelerated program.


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