The hands of a North Central College student as she writes out her schedule.

How to Build Your College Schedule

Laura Pohl

Sep 28, 2020

What does a college schedule look like?

One of the biggest transitions from high school to college life is the difference in daily class schedules. Gone are the days when you’re in class from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. with a break for lunch and a study period.

What does a freshman college schedule look like?

First of all, you will most likely have the ability to create your own class schedule. Do you prefer to start your day early or do you need to build in room for athletic practices at a certain time of day? Do you have a job that you need to fit into our schedule?

Also, will you be a full-time student? And will you commute to campus or live in a residence hall? How far away will you be living from the academic buildings where your courses are located? Will you be taking classes online? All those questions can impact your class schedule.  

You will have certain courses that you are required to take over your college years so you’ll need a plan for fitting those into your schedule. And then you’ll have courses to take that satisfy requirements for your major if you have one declared.
Once your online college application is officially submitted, approved, and accepted, you are now ready to start tailoring your class schedule. Before registration and enrollment, you’ll want to begin by consulting a college catalog with a searchable schedule, which will list the courses you can choose from and descriptions about the content. Then you’ll need an online PDF schedule to obtain a listing about when and where the sections meet.

There are many classes to choose from, so you’ll need guidance from an academic advisor about choosing classes that are part of the general education sequence and others to satisfy your major. You will most likely be required to take at least one writing class, which may include instruction on writing research papers and orientation to campus resources. Try to fit this into your fall classes, if you can.

As you plan your schedule, try to build in blocks of time for studying. You will rarely if ever have time to work in class.  

What’s a credit hour?

The term “credit hour” is something you’ll hear often. What does "credits" mean in college?

North Central College in Naperville, IL provides a definition that’s typical of many colleges: “A credit hour is the amount of work that approximates one hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and two hours of out-of-class work per week for a semester (or an equivalent amount of work for a shorter time period.)"

As you consider taking three or four courses in a semester, you can anticipate each credit-hour will result in three hours of class time and outside work. A four-hour class means you’re in class four hours per week and you can expect an additional eight hours of work outside class—a total of 12 hours. This is a rough approximation of how much time you’ll be expected to devote to each course on a weekly basis.

A few things to remember:

You’ll have to earn a certain number of credits to progress from your freshman to sophomore year. And you’ll need a certain number of credit hour requirements to complete your major. If you don’t have a major yet, take general education courses in your areas of interest that are required for your degree. You may discover an academic area that interests you!

Don’t forget that you can take a summer course as needed but this will cost an additional fee.

If you’re starting at a junior college, make sure you’re taking courses that will successfully transfer to a four-year institution. If you need accommodations for a disability, there are typically student services to assist you with things like test-taking and other needs.

Sometimes, there will be options for non-credit courses but you’ll want to be careful not to overload your schedule.

These sample schedules answer the question “how long are college classes?” First, here’s a sample fall 2020 schedule for a freshman business major (management, marketing, entrepreneurship, accounting, finance, economics, human resources management).

  • SBEN 100 (Globalization and Society) MWF 8-9:10am
  • ACCT 201 (Financial Accounting) MWF 9:25-10:35am
  • PHIL 110 (Ethics) MWF 12:15-1:25
  • CARD 102 (First-year Speech, required) TuTh 9:55-11:35am

Here’s a sample schedule for a psychology major:

  • PSYC 100 (Intro to Psychology) MWF 10:50-12
  • MATH 130 (Finite Math) MWF 1:40-2:50
  • CARD 101 (First-year Writing) Tu-Th 1:55-3:35
  • ART 120 (Painting) TuTh 3:50-5:30

Here’s a sample schedule for a biology major:

  • MATH 140 (Pre-calculus): TuTh 9:50-11:25am
  • CHEM 121 (General Chemistry 1): MWF 12:00-1:05
  • CHEM 121 Lab W 1:30-4:30pm
  • BIOL 195 (Investigating Biology) MWF 9:20-10:35am
  • CARD 101 (First-year Writing) TuTh 1:45-3:20pm


Find out more about North Central College

What does a sophomore, junior, and senior course schedule look like?

The schedules above are good examples of upper-level courses, as well. For some majors, you’ll earn credits for practicums and internships that you will register for as a class.

Whenever you’re building a course schedule–starting with your first day in college through all four years–you’ll want to always keep in mind these factors, as shown on Campus Explorer:

  • Course load: How many courses should I take in a semester? First, are you going to attend as a full-time student? How much will you be working? Some students attend full time AND work full time but that’s a very demanding schedule to manage. Try to estimate the number of hours you’ll need to devote to class and homework and then consider your work schedule. You can start out with a lighter load while you adjust to college and then add more credits in your future semesters. Just be aware that institutions have definitions of what a full-time student must carry in credits. Dropping below a certain level–like 12 credits in a semester– can affect your eligibility for financial aid and/or athletics. But you always have the option of going to your registrar’s office right after the semester begins to add, drop, or adjust a class schedule.
  • Body clock: While most college students are not early risers, classes that start at 8 a.m. are fairly common and will help instill a sense of discipline into your time management. Typically you’ll only have 8 a.m. classes on two or three days so you’ll have a break on the off days. But if you’re in danger of sleeping through your courses and skipping them, then opt for a schedule that fits your sleep habits.
  • Campus size: How big is your campus and where are your courses located? Even small campuses can be challenging for back-to-back courses if you only have 10 to 15 minutes or so between them. Think about your need to stay after class to talk with an instructor or to refresh yourself with snacks and a bathroom break. You can also consider a bicycle for getting around if necessary. On the other hand, a back-to-back schedule can be very efficient to open up large blocks of time for sports, a job, or an internship.
  • Activities: If you’re planning to participate in a sport, in theatre, a music group like a marching band, or other time-intensive activities, you’ll want to find out the schedule that will be required of you. Being on an athletic team could require as much as 15 to 20 hours per week, and you may have to travel, as well.  

Here’s a day-in-the-life of a typical college student, based on information from Campus Explorer.

An example of a college schedule:

  • 7 a.m.: Shower and dress, eat breakfast, and prep for classes. Make sure you have everything ready for class.
  • 8 a.m.: First class
  • 9:25 a.m.: Second class
  • 10:35 a.m.: Class over, catch up on studying, or meet with a professor. Grab lunch and prepare for classes later in the day.
  • Noon: Third class
  • 1:05 p.m.: Class over, head to the residence hall, or library for research.
  • 3-5 p.m.: Team practice, work, or internship.
  • 6 p.m.: Dinner, socialize
  • 8 p.m.: Hit the books or attend a campus event

Every student’s college experience is unique so create the schedule and lifestyle that’s right for you!

Laura Zahn Pohl is an editorial director in higher education with more than 17 years of experience as a content writer, publications editor and speechwriter. An honors graduate of the University of Iowa School of Journalism, her experience includes corporate communications and freelance reporting for the Chicago Tribune, Daily Herald and Kalamazoo Gazette.