How many classes to take each semester of your college career
Going from high school to college is a big adjustment. One minute your entire day is planned for you, from early morning to mid-afternoon. Bells tell you when one class ends and another begins. You have some choices between music, art, cooking, shop and other classes. For the most part, though, there’s not much to think about when it comes to your daily schedule.
College is a whole different story. The good news is that what you take is almost all up to you once you’ve submitted your online college application, received the offer, and accepted. The bad news is, you’re going to be left asking, “How many classes should I take a semester?” There’s no simple answer to that question, especially because there is a difference between “How many classes do you take in college?”, “How many classes can you take in college?”, and “How many classes does the average college student take per semester?” With all of that to think about you may feel like you’ve been thrown into the deep end of the pool. We are here to help.
For help with other questions like this one, check out our articles on the average class times of college courses, how college credits work according to your schedule, and help with answering, “What does a college schedule look like?”
But right now, get out your phone and open your favorite calendar app. It’s time to make a plan.
What is the Minimum/Maximum Amount of College Courses You Can Take
To start out, there are a couple of things we should get straight - what does "credits" mean in college? College classes are measured in credit hours, which is a number that helps to classify how much of your time each course should take. Every school has different requirements for how many credit hours—also called credits—are necessary to graduate, how many you need each term, and how many you are allowed each term.
Most colleges are on a semester-based calendar, which means each academic year is split in half and you have a set number of credits in each of the two semesters. Other schools may have more than two terms, which means you may take fewer credit hours each term than you would at a school on semesters.
The best place to find out that information is to contact your college directly. Always start with the office of admission, as their job is to help you find out everything you need to know to make your college decision.
According to Liz Skogerboe, a former orientation leader for the University of Iowa, “At a typical college or university in America, it takes 120 credits to receive a bachelor’s degree.” It’s important to know the total number even before you begin your freshman year.
College is a time of discovery and experimentation. Your plans may change several times during your undergrad years, but you should always be looking to graduation and what you need to do to get there.
Since most schools have two semesters per year and degrees are designed to take four years to get, that comes out to 15 credit hours a semester. Breaking it down further, most college courses at schools with semesters are worth three credit hours. So on average, you would expect to take five classes a semester. That’s above the usual minimum, which is 12 hours, and below the maximum, which is normally 18. If you are wondering “how long are college classes?”, the answer is that each course varies, but typically one credit equals one hour per week.
If you want to take more than the maximum, that’s called an overload. Most schools have rules about taking an overload. You have to request to take them, and in many cases, your GPA will have to be at a certain level to qualify. This is because taking an overload is a risk—if you find it’s too much to handle your grades may drop, and the school wants to be sure you are strong enough academically to keep that from happening or bounce back if it does. We’ll talk more about this later.
You can also request to be enrolled less than full time, or fewer than the required number of credit hours. Most schools also have a policy requiring you to request to do this, as well. Typically you’ll need to talk to the dean of your college or head of your department, and there will be a deadline each term by which you have to do so.
Enrolling less than full time can have consequences. It can affect your tuition, any scholarships, loans, or financial aid you are getting, and of course, make you take longer than four years to graduate. So think carefully before you make this kind of request and make sure you have a logical reason to do so.
Great! We’re done now, right? Not so fast. There are a lot more factors to consider when it comes to how many classes you should take a semester, and they can be different from year to year. Most important is that what works for you likely won’t work for everyone.
Let’s dig into those a little deeper.
How Many Classes You Should Take as a Freshman
Freshman year is your introduction to college. That means every part, not just classes: living away from home (possibly with roommates), feeding and clothing yourself, having more free time and more social freedom, balancing classes with jobs, activities, athletics, and so on. Colleges are aware of this, and the expectations for freshman year are a little different.
At most schools, you won’t be expected to choose a major right away. It can depend on the school, but many won’t require it until your second year. That means you’ll probably spend most of your classroom time as a freshman working on your general education requirements or gen eds.
Gen eds are set courses that colleges decide are so important that everyone must take them before they can graduate. College students often feel gen eds are a chore to get through because they have no choice in taking them. But thankfully, more and more campuses are redesigning their general education programs to give you more options and make even your required courses valuable to your interests. For example, check out North Central College’s Cardinal Directions program, which lets you organize your gen eds under one larger topic that you follow throughout your undergrad.
With gen eds to cover and plenty to adjust to, most would argue you should take somewhere between the minimum and maximum required number of credits during both your first semester and spring semester of your freshman year. Again, at most colleges that means 15 credits or five classes, but it will depend on your school. It will keep you on track to graduate on time without overwhelming you too fast.
How Many Classes You Should Take as a Sophomore
Once your first year is out of the way and you have a better idea of what college is like, it’s time to get down to planning a bit more.
During your sophomore year, you can look at the requirements for your major and start to figure out how much time you will need to get them done. Another thing to think about is whether you want to add minor or even multiple minors to your major. Minors are designed to fit in the four years (or so) of study it takes to graduate, so you should be able to balance your course load with classes you need for both your major and minor. It all depends, however, on which fields you choose.
If you plan ahead and find you may not be able to fit all your courses by taking the average number, sophomore year is a good time to consider either overloading or taking a summer course.
The sophomore year can be a favorable time to overload because by then, you’ll have a good sense of what you can handle, but there’s likely to be a little less to juggle than in future years. That said, you should really only consider it if you have a specific goal to graduate by a certain time with a particular set of majors and minors. It’s not something everybody does.
In fact, WayUp.com did an article where college students gave reasons why overloading isn’t a good idea. They said it can lead to heavy stress, make it too difficult to manage your time, and actually hurt your performance in each class you’re taking. The author sums it up like this: “The most common advice someone with more than the recommended credit hours hears is, ‘Don’t burn yourself out.’ Stress from the classes and the lack of time will slowly eat away at you if you don’t know how to manage it. If stress is something that drives you, go forth, but don’t take those extra classes when they will make going to them more of a chore.”
Summer classes are less of a risk. You can just take a couple and summer session tends to be a slightly more relaxed time to be in class. They cost extra tuition, and they take up time that can be spent working and making money, so you have to think about your financial situation carefully before committing to them.
In any case, your most important task in balancing your schedule is meeting with and getting to know your academic advisor. They will help you figure out what courses you are eligible for and how they can fit into your weekly schedule. They’ve also met with hundreds to thousands of other students, so they will have important advice on the advantages and disadvantages of overloads, summer courses, and everything else about your course load.
How Many Classes You Should Take as a Junior
During your junior year, your focus should start to shift to what you’re doing after college. At this point you’re probably thinking you’ll only be halfway done, how can you think about the end already?
During your junior year, should be meeting with the careers office on campus and get their help. They’ll teach you how to write and perfect a résumé, how to interview, how to network, and they’ll point you to events where you can practice these skills with the very same people who might one day be your bosses.
Along with these events, junior year is also common when college students start to do internships for college credit. Sometimes these are required by a major or minor, and sometimes they are just a really good idea highly recommended by your professors. If you are spending time away from campus to work on internships, that may take up space in your schedule you would otherwise use for a class. But they’re also giving you course credit, so you could be coming out even.
According to international teacher and writer Melissa Morgenstern, junior year is the most common time for college students to study abroad. She says, “Assuming you consider all of your options, you will probably have the least trouble during your junior year in terms of academic credits, program variety, and your overall choice of destinations, but perhaps a bit more to deal with personally and emotionally.”
Around this time, you might also be thinking about career and life plans that would make it better for you to finish your degree in less than four years.
For example, you might meet with a future employer who really wants to hire you as soon as possible, or who tells you the job market in your field is better at this moment than it will be a year in the future. You might have a romantic relationship that would work better if you could finish early and move to a new hometown with or marry your partner.
Now, these possibilities won’t all apply to you, obviously, and some of them can come up during any year of college. But, generally speaking, taking a maximum or an overloaded number of courses may be harder or even impossible in junior year. Be sure you are taking at least the minimum number required, and more than that if necessary to stay on course for graduation. Remember, while everything you are doing junior year is important, performance in your classes is the key to all of it.
How Many Classes You Should Take as a Senior
At this point, you’d probably rather we talk to you like a friend than an advice blog. Senior year is often thought of as the victory lap of college. The time to blow off steam, take a few (easy) classes as possible and relax with your work practically over. Sadly, we can’t endorse that kind of behavior. Just remember that you (or someone you love) are paying good money for every moment you spend at school, so you should work hard to get as much out of them as possible.
There is a balance to be struck senior year. If you are ahead on credits and don’t need to take a full course load in one or even multiple terms, it might be worth graduating early instead. The sooner you can get to the job market the better in most industries. You could get several months’ head start on your classmates and start paying your college loans back sooner. Just remember that most upper-level courses are designed to get you right to the professional level of expertise, so they will be hard and require a lot of hours of study. If you can’t fit all of them in along with continuing your career search and preparing for leaving school, don’t force yourself to do too much.
If you do think you need to be there for your full senior year, consider taking the minimum number of credits needed to stay enrolled full time. Then take a course you have wanted to but couldn’t fit elsewhere in your schedule. If you don’t need the credit, audit the course, or take it on a pass/fail basis. Enjoying a class on an interesting subject from an expert teacher and just doing so for the joy of learning is a great experience. It’s the kind of thing people tend to do many years after college, so why wait?
On the other hand, you can also take a course in a vital skill you might need in life or an advanced subject that most in your field wouldn’t know. Knowledge is power, and you might pick up an edge over the people you’re competing with for careers.
And if you still can’t motivate yourself to take more than the minimum number of courses, pick up some extra shifts at work, see if you can find another internship, spend the time studying for exams you may need to take to get in to graduate school, or just polish your interviewing and networking. Don’t think of college as something to escape from—think of it as something you only get one chance at that will make the rest of your life easier.
Jacob Imm is a communications specialist in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 10 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.