How Does the US College System Work?

This article is written by Nafisa Karimjee, who currently lives in Texas and studies at the University of Houston. It is meant for students living abroad, aged 10-15, who want to move to the US.


The college system in America can be confusing. With all these different courses and credits its hard to keep track everything especially if you’re not it.

The first thing you need to know is that American colleges work using a credit system.

How Credits Work

Think of going to an arcade.

You can play at machines that give you tokens in return.

For example, you could play mini-basketball and get 50 tokens for scoring all the hoops. Then you could go to the Pac Man arcade machine and get another 70 points. Each game gives you a different number of points.

Then when you finally leave the arcade you can buy something for everything you earned.

This is the same way that the credit system works.

You build up credits until you have enough to finish the degree.

Classes are like different games, and credits are like the number of tokens. If you take a chemistry class you get 3 credits. If you take a lab for chemistry that class is considered to have 1 credit. If you take psychology you get 3 credits. Different classes have a different number of credits.

The number of credits you receive per class is dependent on what the subject is.

Requirements For a Degree

Now, depending on the degree, you need 120 credits to graduate.

Each degree has certain classes you must take. For example, business majors are required to take specific classes like marketing, economics or such; it typically depends on the university to decide which classes you need to graduate in a particular degree.

Now each student at the university, regardless of which major, are required to complete core courses. These courses are major requirements each student must complete to get a degree from the university.

These courses you have to take are generally history, government, English, speech…etc.

The good news is that these courses count towards the 120 minimum credits you need to graduate. For example, students need to take two English classes. If you complete the two English classes then you get 6 credits.

These 6 credits count towards the 120 minimum credit requirements you need to graduate.

Planing You Semester

There are two academic terms in a year. One is considered the fall term and one the spring term. Generally to be considered a full-time student you need to be taking 12-18 credit hours per semester. Depending on which class there will be a different number of credits.

Below is an example of what a schedule looks like for a freshman (first year) student.

Classes for a freshman – Example

Fall 2019

  • English 1301 (3 credits)
  • Government 2321 (3 credits)
  • Chemistry 1411 (3 credits)
  • Chemistry 1 lab (1 credit)
  • Psychology 2301 (3 credits)

Spring 2020

  • English 1302 (3 credits)
  • Chemistry 1412 (3 credits)
  • Chemistry 2 lab (1 credit)
  • Calculus (4 credits)
  • U.S History 1301 (3 credits)

Each semester adds up to be somewhere between 12-18 number of credits. Some people decide to take more or less. It just depends on how quickly you want to finish your degree. 12-18 is just the range on what students typically get.

Sometimes, you can take classes in a winter mini or spring mini.

This means during your Christmas break or spring break you take a 3-4 week class.

A class that is usually a semester-long is summed up into 3 weeks. It can be rigorous but it can be done. Since there is a whole semester’s worth of information summed up in 3 weeks, it is recommended that you only take one class during a winter or spring mini.

You can also complete classes during the summer break.

Summer vacation is around 3 months long and you can complete classes during summer break.

During the summer, there are different academic terms. For example, having a summer session 1 and summer session 2. The number of academic terms depends on the university or college you attend.

The summer courses are not as difficult as winter/spring mini because they are a bit longer at around 5-7 weeks.

College vs University

Many people don’t understand the difference between a college or university. Generally, they are the same thing but college is a two-year institution whereas a university is a four-year institution. There are different types of degrees you can get which are:

  • Associates (not common outside the US)
  • Bachelors
  • Masters
  • Doctorate

In a college or two-year institute, you can only receive 66 credits for an associates degree. An associates degree is saying that I’ve completed two years of college in a particular major.

To compare, a bachelor’s degree needs 120 credits minimum which typically takes 4-5 years.

People take courses at a college to complete their prerequisite classes. You (generally speaking) have to take the pre-requisite classes before you take the advanced class. It’s kind of like saying you need to walk before you run.

So an example would be taking a general biology class at a college so you can take genetics or microbiology at a university. Many people take their core classes (English, History, Government, etc) and prerequisite classes for a particular major at a college.

So now when they transfer or move to a 4-year institute they can start taking the more advanced classes and only have to focus on completing the rest of the credits for the degree.

As with everything, there are always exceptions. Sometimes, you don’t always have to take the prerequisite classes. You can sometimes take tests that allow you to skip straight to the more advanced classes.

Let’s say you are at a college doing a major in biology. For the first two years at college, you take 15 credits per semester.

This means you’ll have your associate’s degree after 2 years. In those two years, you take general biology 1, general biology 2, English 1, government… etc. You have now completed your prerequisite classes and your core classes.

Now you transfer to a university that offers classes that your college does not.

After completing 2 years at a university, taking 15 credits per semester, you have now done 4 years of university and completed your bachelor’s degree in biology (even though you have only done the last 2 years actually at university, we still refer to it as a total of 4 years at university, therefore ignoring the college altogether – yes I know, very confusing)

Does this mean everyone has to attend a college before university?

The answer is no.

Some do prefer to go straight to university after high school and complete the prerequisite and core classes at the 4-year institute.

However, many people after high school go to a community college (a local college) because it’s typically close to home and is much much much cheaper than paying to go to university. One semester at a university can cost between $7,000 -$15,000 and that’s on a cheap side.

College, however, can cost may be up to $1,000 per semester.

This does not include international fees or other fees such as buying supplies or textbooks.

American Jargon

There is a lot of American jargon that only Americans are aware of. Some of the relevant ones are listed below:

  • Courses = classes
  • Semester = term (only two semesters per year)
  • Freshman = first year
  • Major = main degree from a university
  • Minor = secondary degree
  • Transfer = moving your credits from one institution to another (e.g. college to university)
  • Community college = local college

Do Your Research

When applying to a university or college know what degree you want to do. Whether it is engineering, architecture, biology or more know what classes you have to take for that particular degree.

Remember that each state also has different systems. Texas has a different system to New York which has a different system to California. The system talked about above is the texas system. Even though there will be a lot of similarities between states, there may also be significant differences depending on where you want to go.

As always, do your research.

For more about Nafisa, visit her website Teach the Student.

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