What Are College Credits, and Why Do They Matter?

Before and during your college journey, it’s essential to understand how college credits relate to your coursework and your progress toward college graduation. You may already know a bit about the college credit system if you’re taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes since passing scores on end-of-year AP exams could qualify you for college credits. But what exactly are college credits, and how do they help you complete your degree?

What are college credits?

College credits are a school’s way of quantifying the number of hours you’ve contributed to your course of study. While there is no standardized definition for these credits, every school assigns a predetermined number of credits to each class.

One college credit often represents one hour spent in the classroom per week. Many systems also factor in time spent doing homework for the course outside of the classroom. A standard semester-long college course is worth three to four credits in most universities, with smaller or half-semester classes counting for one to two credits.

Schools use these credits to track a student’s progress toward graduation, determine class rankings (freshman, sophomore, etc.), and differentiate between full-time and part-time enrollment; the minimum requirement tends to be 12 credits for full-time students.

For example, the University of Southern California (USC) states that “a normal academic load is 16 units for undergraduate students.” This translates to roughly four semester-long classes, although students can take up to 20 units per semester with special permission.

Earning college credits in high school

If you’ve heard about college credits while you’re still in high school, it’s probably because you’re taking AP classes. These more rigorous classes challenge ambitious high school students with college-level coursework. In return, students are usually eligible for college credit if they pass an AP exam at the end of the class.

Earning college credits in high school can help students test out of specific general education requirements, make room for a minor or double major, or even graduate early. The number of credits you earn will depend on the school; for example, the USC offers four-semester units of elective credit for every AP exam where students score a 4 or a 5.

The AP Board offers a valuable tool that lets you search by the university to calculate how many college credits you can earn for various AP courses. Many schools have a cap on how many college credits you can earn from AP courses, and some schools only offer credit for AP courses in specific disciplines.

Regardless, taking AP classes is an excellent way to get a head start on your college credits before you even graduate from high school.

Earning college credits in college

You’ll receive a certain number of credits for every course you complete with a passing grade in college. Most colleges have a specific minimum credit requirement you must meet to graduate. Continuing with our USC example, undergraduate students at this school must complete a minimum of 128 credits before they graduate.

Most college academic advisors use credits to help students track their progress toward graduation. If students enter their junior year with less than half of the credits they need to graduate, their advisor may recommend that they up their course load for the semester to stay on track.

Some courses are worth more credits than others, so you’ll want to keep your school’s graduation requirements in mind when you’re signing up for classes. You can still get credit if you take a class pass/fail, but you won’t receive college credit for any courses you audit for no grade.

Because credit requirements depend on the school, it’s essential to meet with your academic advisor at least once per semester to evaluate your progress and make sure you’re earning the credits you need to graduate on time.

How many college credits should you take each semester?

The number of credits you should take each semester will depend on your degree and your specific school. Still, the average academic load for full-time undergraduate students usually ranges from 12 to 18 credits.

Keep your course load as full as your schedule permits but try not to overload yourself. Remember, college credits are only as important as their effect on your GPA, so don’t take so many classes that you’re stretched too thin.

Many colleges also separate their credit requirements into different “buckets,” such as general education requirements, major requirements, and general electives. This ensures that students explore a broad range of courses while still devoting most of their schedule to their primary course of study.

For instance, at Vassar College, a liberal arts college where most semester-long courses equal one credit, students can’t take more than 50 percent of the 34 units required for their degree in a single field of concentration. Technical or specialty schools often allow a higher percentage of students’ total credits to be earned in their major study area.

Do your college credits transfer if you switch schools?

Ideally, when students transfer from one college to another, most or all of their completed credits should transfer from their old university to their new one. This will save students valuable time and money as they work toward graduation at their new school.

However, every school has a different policy regarding transferring credits, so students considering transfer should do their research beforehand to see which of their completed credits will transfer to their new school. Many schools even have special transfer admissions counselors on staff who can answer the school’s transfer credit policy questions.

Why are college credits important?

Earning college credits early can be an excellent way for high school students to test out of certain core classes and free up room for extra electives, a second major, or early graduation.

A basic understanding of credits can help students draw a roadmap to graduation or negotiate optimal credit transfers when switching schools in college.

Knowledge is power on the road to college and beyond, and a firm grasp on how college credit works can help students take control of their education and position themselves for success.

Featured image credit

Matthew Pietrafetta

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