Originally Posted: May 8, 2017
Last Updated: May 27, 2020
With all the madness that comes with transitioning from high school to college, it’s hard enough to decide what classes to take, let alone how many! But knowing how much work you can handle in college and preparing for your classes is one of the best things you can do for yourself. And, believe me, it pays off: thanks to planning my college classes out (and earning credit in high school), I was able to graduate with a degree in astrophysics in just three years, a degree most people spend four to five years on!
If you’re new to college, or even if you have been in the game for a few semesters, here are some basic questions to ask yourself when setting up next semester’s course schedule and figuring out how many credits you can handle.
What is your expected college graduation date?
First and foremost, it is critical to have a general—but flexible—game plan for your whole college experience. Are you going for a traditional four-year degree, a five-year dual degree, or a two-year associate? Maybe you got credits in high school and hope to finish college in less time. Or perhaps you’re studying for a bachelor’s degree but the standard time to complete your degree is five to six years. Whatever it is, it’s okay!
It doesn’t matter what your college plan is—as long as you have a plan. What’s important is to know your timeline and try to plan your semester schedule (and maybe even next year’s schedule) accordingly. Many colleges recommend taking around 15 credits per semester, which totals 120 credits after four years (colleges that run on a unique academic calendar will work slightly differently, but the total number of credits is approximately the same). Most bachelor’s degree programs require 120 credits to graduate.
What classes are you taking and for how many credits?
You will benefit from keeping track of your college classes and credits. You can do this in a spreadsheet you make yourself, but your college may offer helpful tools as well. I was fortunate that my college had already made a flowchart of core classes for my major, including not only different classes we could take but also the prerequisites and co-requisites. Many colleges have some sort of “degree audit” that students can complete online, which shows what classes you have taken, how many credits you’ve earned, and what you have left to complete. If your college or university has such a thing, use it!
But in addition to that, I highly recommend asking your department advisor or mentor about any specific course plans they have for people in your major. Using the flow chart we were given, I was able to make my own personal flowchart, including electives and classes for my minor, which spanned each semester I was taking. I knew what college classes I was going to take nearly two years in advance! This may not be ideal for everyone, and sometimes classes are only offered in the fall or spring (or they get filled/cancelled before you can take them). But having a general idea of what classes you need to take can save you a tremendous amount of time and grief scheduling classes and tracking your credits in the future.
How rigorous are your classes?
All college classes are not created equal—not even when they are worth the same amount of credit. You will almost certainly spend more hours on a three-credit physics course than a three-credit philosophy course. I say that from experience because I majored in astrophysics and minored in philosophy. No matter how rigorous my schedule got with math, physics, and astronomy content, I could rest easy knowing that all I had to do was read or do some writing (or nothing at all) for whatever philosophy class I was taking.
In the same way, it’s important to keep in mind how difficult your classes are going to be each semester. Maybe you have a lot of electives and basic core classes one semester. You can overload 18 credits with no problem and get them out of the way. But another semester might see your schedule is filled with major classes you know you’ll be staying up late completing assignments for. In that case you might want to only take 12 credits (or whatever the minimum is to be enrolled as a full-time student). Plan according for expected class difficulty. You can even speak to academic advisors and senior students who have already taken your classes for their advice!
What is your work/extracurricular schedule like?
While some of us are fortunate enough to have our college tuition paid for by family, grants, and/or scholarship, many of us need to work part time during school to make it affordable. (As an aside, I'm convinced it's possible to get free pizza at least once a day on every college campus.) When it comes to your college course load, it's crucial to organize your classes with your work schedule in mind. Do you have classes in the morning and work at night or visa versa? Maybe you work in the middle of the day and have classes morning and evening. Do you have break time during work when you can study? Remember, school is your first job, and they say you should expect to study for three or more hours for every college credit you take, so plan accordingly!
I held two jobs during college: one doing shows at our campus planetarium and one grading papers. I was able to do the grading at home, and most of our planetarium shows took place on the weekends, which allowed me to focus on school during the week. Think of creative ways to adjust your own work schedule to your individual study habits; most employers are very accommodating to students. And when you’re not working, you probably have all kinds of campus extracurriculars you want to do. The planning advice above applies to those activities too!
Are you taking core classes (required) or electives (just for fun)?
Just like how you should consider the difficulty of your college classes, you should also consider how much they'll actually matter for your degree. For instance, with my degree, there were some classes I could take any time (like a fun programming class) and others I could only take in a certain order (like Physics II after Physics I). The classes you need to take at certain times should be the easiest to schedule, but the changeable courses make planning all the more important. You don’t want to miss out on a required class for your major! Also, pro tip: by knowing when you want to take classes in advance, you'll be able to register before any other students.
Are you going for a minor (or double major)?
One last piece of advice: try to schedule your classes around a major and a minor if you can. Besides your major classes, if you stick to roughly 15 credits per semester, you'll have room in your schedule for “miscellaneous” classes every year. Instead of taking random unrelated classes, I recommend taking classes all in one department. This is an efficient way to get a "free" minor without taking on extra course work, because most departments provide classes that fill core requirements. (You might even be able to eke out a double major!) This was how I was able to get a philosophy minor, with just one philosophy class every semester, where I would have otherwise had a random society, writing, or reading course.
Related: How I Chose My (Double) Major
Whatever you do, don’t forget to have fun and take courses you'll love. Scheduling classes in college may be tricky, but with a little forethought and planning, it can become more of a fun scavenger hunt! And remember, even with all the planning in the world, bumps will still arise. Despite all my planning, I still ended up taking 18 credits my last semester, including quantum physics, cosmology and relativity, and astrophysics. But it was still my favorite semester of classes by far—because I was taking exactly the classes I wanted to.
How are you picking your college classes? Are you planning your college credits in advance? For more on college courses, explore our Majors and Academics section!