If you are coming straight out of high school or deciding to go to college for the first time, then navigating the basics like college courses can be confusing.
I get it.
There’s definitely a learning curve and most schools just glaze over explaining the fundamental basics of navigating college.
Most college students don’t get a legit crash course in how college courses work (literally) until their first academic advising appointment. By then, sometimes it’s too late to act on that information.
Since you’re here, I’ll save you the hassle.
#1 The Magic Numbers
Getting a degree, regardless of what type (associates, bachelors, masters or PhD) requires you to earn a specific number of credit hours.
If you are pursuing an associate’s degree, you’ll need 60 credit hours. A bachelor’s degree requires 120 credit hours and a masters degree normally requires 36 to 54 credit hours depending on the program. If you are getting your Ph.D. then you’ll need to complete 90 to 120 credit hours depending on the program as well.
#2 Credit Hours
A full-time student takes 12 credit hours per semester. I recommend taking at least 15 credit hours to graduate in 4 years. That way if you take 15 credit hours per semester for 4 years, you should be able to graduate one time with at least one degree.
Personally, I took about 15-18 credit hours per semester until my senior year. My senior year I took about 12 credit hours per semester. I was able to do this because I came to college with a lot of transfer credits. Earning transfer credits and taking about 15-18 hours per semester is essentially how I earned two degrees.
Traditionally, one class is 3 credit hours. Some private colleges will make one course 4 credit hours. You have to look at your specific institution to make sure, but a majority of colleges and universities make one college class 3 credit hours. That means you’ll be spending 3 hours per week in that class.
This can manifest itself in several ways. You can have a Monday-Wednesday or Tuesday-Thursday schedule that’s 1.5 hours long on each day or one day of the week with a 3-hour block or Monday-Wednesday-Friday with one hour in class. Either way, taking one class that’s three credit hours means you’ll be spending three hours in class per week.
If you are a non-traditional student or a graduate student, your 3-hour block may be in the evening or on the weekend. If you are a traditional student then your class is most likely during the day.
If you earn the right number of credits in a specific degree plan then you have earned your degree. Some high school students graduate with a lot of credits because of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or dual credit courses.
Now you have to match up those courses to make sure that those credits fulfill the course requirements.
#3 Core Curriculum
All universities have a core curriculum that you must complete before you can take your upper-level courses (aka courses related to the degree you want to pursue). For example, I graduated from the University of Houston. The core curriculum is:
Communication (6 hours)
Mathematics (3 hours)
Life and Physical Sciences (6 hours)
Language, Philosophy & Culture (3 hours)
Creative Arts (3 hours)
American History (6 hours)
Government/Political Science (6 hours)
Social & Behavioral Sciences (3 hours)
Mathematics/Reasoning (3 hours)
Writing in the Disciplines (3 hours)
Fortunately, I graduated from IB and I took classes over the summer at a community college, so I didn’t have to take those core classes at U of H. I was able to take classes toward my degree plan as soon as I got on campus.
Having a core curriculum is not unique to U of H. All universities have one. What makes the universities different is how many credit hours they require their student to fulfill. For example, at U of H I only needed 3 hours of Creative Arts, but at another university, I might have needed 6. It all depends on the university.
Each university has its own terminology for its core curriculum too. For example, a class that counts towards “Writing in the Disciplines” at U of H may count towards “World Literature” core curriculum at another university. That’s why it’s important to understand your school’s core curriculum.
#4 Transfer Credits
Investigate to see if you can take some of those core classes at a community college. If you are in high school and have the option of taking AP or IB or dual credit to take care of your core credit hours then I encourage you to do so.
If not then I encourage you to go to a community college and take care of your core hours there. U of H has a lot of transfer from Houston Community College, Lone Star and other community colleges in the area and across the state. U of H is pretty generous when it comes to accepting transfer credits, but that’s not true across the board.
Some universities are more strict about the credits they accept as transfers. You need to check what course you can transfer before you enroll at a community college or sign up for an AP or IB course.
For example, you can sign up for AP Chemistry or IB Chemistry but if your school doesn’t recognize the AP or IB test for chemistry you might be better off taking another course. (By the way, don’t freak out. That’s not normal.)
The same thing goes with community college. If the school you want to transfer to does not accept transfer credit for science courses you may be better off waiting until you get to campus to take those courses.
Be careful of the program you are in as well. Some programs require you to take certain courses on campus. For example, if you are getting a degree in STEM, your school might require you to take all courses related to STEM on campus. This is something to keep in mind and investigate beforehand.
Another thing you want to look out for is your associate’s degree. Some people only intend to take the core classes they need in order to transfer which is completely normal. However, some universities won’t recognize your transfer credits unless you have completed your associates. This is rare, but it still happens.
Make sure you check for those details before you start enrolling or planning to transfer credits.
#5 Co-requisites vs Pre-requisites
Pre-requisites are courses you have to take before you take another class. For example, you may need to take English 101 before you take English 201.
Whereas co-requisites allow you to take courses at the same time. For example, if English 101 and English 201 are co-requisites then you can take them at the same time.
The reason why engineers have a hard time finishing their degree in four years is because the degree plan has a lot of prerequisites and sometimes those courses are only offered once a semester or at a specific time.
That means if you don’t finish that class at that specific time then your entire degree plan is stalled by a semester or up to a year. If you fail that class or it fills up before you can register then your timeline is delayed even further.
#5 Cross-listed Courses
Some courses are cross-listed. That means they can count toward multiple degrees and multiple core disciplines. This can save you time and money in your degree plan.
For example, I took a Women in Hispanic Literature course in college. It was cross-listed. That meant it counted towards my Women’s Studies minor and my Spanish for Global Professions minor. One course counted towards two degrees which saved me time and money.
Try to take as many cross-listed courses as possible if you’re planning on graduating with two degrees or you’re trying to graduate early.
If you take a class abroad or at a community college or outside the university in general and you strongly believe it should count towards your degree for a specific reason and you have evidence to justify your reason, then you can petition to get credit for that class.
You need to talk to your academic advisor about the petition process. You’ll need to keep the syllabus, any assignments and maybe even a note from the professor to help make your case. You can petition any class to count toward your degree but that doesn’t guarantee your petition will be granted.
#7 Internship for Credit
You can have your internship count toward class credit. There is a bit a paperwork involved and you have to do it by a certain date, but it can help you graduate on time or ahead of time if you play your cards right. I did two internships for credit when I was at the University of Houston.
The only caveat is that since it is a class, you have to pay for it. It can suck to pay for an internship but if you’re willing to swallow the cost, you can save some time completing your degree. It can also help you justify the cost of taking an unpaid internship. If doing an unpaid internship saves you from taking another course, it could be worth it.
#8 Independent Courses
You can create your own courses. Independent courses are typically reserved for research or special circumstances but it’s possible to credit your own classroom environment.
This is not a free for all though. You need to come up with a lesson plan and specific objectives to justify a university to give you credit for the class you create. You do need to go through an approval process and it does take time. You will be held accountable for the structure and objectives of the class.
#9 Meet with your academic and career advisors regularly
Their job is to help you navigate your college career successfully. You’d be an idiot not to take full advantage of the resources at your disposal to be successful. (Plus, you already paid for those resources so use it!)
Meeting with your advisors on a regular basis helps keep your college coursework in context. They’ll help you build toward a desired career or industry. They can also help you adjust your trajectory if (when) you change your mind along the way.
What are some things you knew about college before you got started? Sometimes people just forget to explain the basics. Leave your experiences in the comments section below!