by Ashley Cullins |Updated October 27, 2022
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If you’re a high school student, you’ve probably spent a lot of time thinking about college applications. You’ve endlessly considered where to apply, how to make your application as competitive as possible, which scholarships to go for, and the list goes on.
But what happens once you’re enrolled in a college? What are the requirements to earn a bachelor’s degree? Do you know exactly what a college credit is? Or how to meet General Education requirements? And what if you decide to go for a master’s degree, or even a PhD?
If you’re wondering “Wait—how does college work?”, then we’ve got you covered! In this guide, we’ll break down the process of earning a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a PhD. We’ll even explain all those confusing terms that people just assume you already know. We have a lot to talk about, so let’s get started!
Click above to watch a video on what is college.
Undergraduate (Bachelor’s Degree)
The bachelor’s degree is an undergraduate degree that typically takes four years to complete. When you apply to colleges during high school, you’re applying for bachelor’s degree programs. In these programs, you select a major and meet credit and course requirements for that major to graduate. You will need 120 credits to earn a bachelor’s degree.
The two most common bachelor’s degree are the Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) and the Bachelor of Science (B.S.). Some students also choose to pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.).
Your college major is the area of study you’ll focus on as you pursue your bachelor’s degree. It determines your program of study, or the courses you’ll have to take to earn your degree. The major you choose should prepare you for the career you’d like to go into in the future. Examples of popular college majors include Business, Engineering, Biology, Psychology, and Communication & Journalism.
Some colleges require you to select a major when you apply. Others require you to apply to a specific undergraduate college (like the College of Arts and Sciences). And some schools don’t ask you to make any of these decisions during the application process.
In most cases, these early choices are not binding. Most colleges ask students to declare their major by the end of sophomore year at the latest. You declare your major by filling out a simple form, either online or in the school’s advising center. If you realize the major you chose isn’t a good fit for you, you do have the option to change it later. (But don’t wait too long—changing your major late in your undergraduate career can delay the completion of your degree.)
Regardless of your major, you will need to complete 120 credits to earn a bachelor’s degree. Most college courses last for one semester and are worth three credits. This means you’ll need to take about 40 classes to earn your degree, at a rate of around five classes per semester.
You earn credits by passing your classes. If you fail a class, of course, you don’t earn those credits. In college, the concept of “passing” gets a bit complicated. Some schools require you to earn a C or better to pass a class. Others accept a D as passing, but may require a C or higher for the class to count toward your major. And you typically need to have an overall GPA of 2.0 (C average) or better to graduate. Simply put, it’s best not to earn below a C.
It’s important to note that you can’t graduate by passing 40 classes at random. You will have to follow a program of study based on the major you declare. The program of study is generally divided into three parts:
- General Education Requirements
- Major Requirements
General Education Requirements
All colleges require General Education courses, which are designed to give you a broad and well-rounded education. You will spend most of your first two years of college completing these requirements.
Also known as “Gen Ed,” these are low-level courses in subjects like Composition, Humanities, Natural Sciences, and Social and Behavioral Sciences. Your school may require additional subject areas.
You will have to earn a certain amount of credits in each required subject area, as determined by your school. Typically, you’ll need around 36-60 credits total of Gen Ed courses. High scores on AP and IB exams can count toward some of your General Education requirements, meaning you won’t have to take as many Gen Ed classes.
Your college will make it easy to identify which courses can count toward your General Education requirements. For instance, if you can earn Humanities credits for a course, you might see an “H” next to the course’s name in parentheses.
Although you do have to stick to the categories your school requires, you can choose any class you want within those guidelines. Usually, you’ll have plenty of interesting options to choose from!
Degree requirements are the specific courses required by your major. For instance, Psychology majors may be required to take classes like Introduction to Psychology, Abnormal Psychology, Statistics, Developmental Psychology, Research in Experimental Psychology, etc. in order to earn their degree.
Many of these degree requirements are upper-level classes. That means you can’t take them right away; you’ll need to earn a certain amount of credits first. Some of these classes will also have prerequisites, or other classes you must pass first. For example, you’ll likely be required to pass Introduction to Psychology before you can sign up for Abnormal Psychology.
Similar to Gen Ed requirements, you can expect your degree requirements to total about 40-60 credits. You can use leftover credits for free electives, which basically translates to “whatever you want.” That means even a Physics major can take Basket Weaving, History of Jazz, and Introduction to Popular Film to get the last of those 120 credits (as long as there are no prerequisites keeping you out).
If this all sounds complicated, don’t worry. Your college will clearly outline the General Education requirements, degree requirements, and free electives you need to earn your degree. Most likely, you’ll also have access to an online portal that shows you which requirements you’ve completed, and which classes you still need to take. And if you ever have questions, professors and advisors are there to help.
Once you’ve met all the necessary requirements, you’ll graduate with your bachelor’s degree! Then, you can start your career or continue with your education.
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Graduate (Master’s Degree)
After you finish your bachelor’s, the next degree you can choose to earn is a master’s degree. The application process for master’s programs is very similar to the application process for bachelor’s programs and may involve an interview. It’s worthwhile to earn a master’s degree if it’s required for your dream job, or if you’ll earn significantly more money in your future career with a higher degree.
Master’s programs build upon the foundational knowledge you learned in your bachelor’s degree program. You gain the in-depth skills and knowledge needed to become an expert or specialist in your field. Most master’s degrees require 30-40 credits and take about two years to complete.
Since the master’s program is more accelerated, all or most of these credits will consist of specific degree requirements. You may also be required to complete practicums, internships, and/or research projects. Some programs require you to present your research at seminars or submit it for publication in journals and periodicals. During graduate school, you can expect smaller class sizes, more discussions, and significantly more reading.
Many master’s programs require you to submit an extensive final research paper known as a master’s thesis. You may have the option to choose between a “thesis track” and a “non-thesis track.” If you choose the non-thesis track, you’ll still have a final project, but it may be a field experience or a capstone project instead.
Capstone project is a broad term for a culminating assignment that requires you to apply what you’ve learned during the master’s program. Depending on your area of study, it might involve creating a portfolio, conducting original research, or presenting your solution to a common problem in the field.
When you’ve completed the requirements for your master’s degree, it’s time to graduate! This time, you get to wear a fancy hood in addition to the traditional cap and gown. Then, you’re once again faced with the decision to launch your career or continue down the path to academia.
Doctoral degrees are called terminal degrees, meaning they’re the highest degree you can earn in the field. Most careers do not require this level of education, but you may need a PhD for a career in academia or research. PhD programs vary widely, with most requiring 60-120 credits and taking 5-8 years to complete. This time is typically divided between coursework and the dissertation.
The application process is again similar. Requirements may include a resume, three letters of recommendation, competitive scores on graduate exams, a statement of purpose, and an interview. These programs admit a small number of applicants and are highly competitive.
There are two main types of doctoral degrees: applied doctorates and research-based doctorates. Here, we’ll focus on research-based doctorates (PhDs), as each applied doctorate has its own unique path.
In general, the first 2-3 years of a PhD program are spent on highly specialized coursework. You can expect even more discussion and reading than you experienced in your master’s program.
Many PhD students also work as Teacher Assistants, or TAs. They assist professors with teaching classes and grading papers. Depending on your subject area, you may also conduct research and spend time in labs for the duration of the program.
Most PhD programs require students to pass exams at various points in the program. At the end of the first year, students may take a comprehensive exam to test their knowledge. They must pass this exam before they can be admitted to the next level of the program. Some schools give students a certain number of chances to pass this exam, while others have a time limit.
Later in the program, students will take a candidacy exam to progress to the dissertation. This exam is sometimes known as a “qualifying exam.” The exam generally includes both a written and oral portion and is evaluated by a committee. Students must pass the exam to continue to the dissertation portion of the PhD program. Many programs give students two opportunities to pass; if they do not, they are removed from the program.
The dissertation is the final requirement of the PhD program. It takes 2-3 years to complete, and sometimes even longer. It’s a book-like document that contributes new research to the PhD candidate’s field and demonstrates expert knowledge.
After extensive research and writing, candidates present the dissertation to a committee. This is called “defending” the dissertation. Defending the dissertation also involves answering questions from the committee, thus defending that the assertions in the dissertation are valid and stand up to examination.
Once you’ve completed required coursework, passed the candidacy exam, and successfully defended your dissertation, you earn your PhD. At this graduation, you’ll wear an elaborate gown, typically with velvet trim. Now that you’ve earned the highest degree possible, you can work in research, academia, or a highly paid position in another field.
Final Thoughts: How Does College Work?
Whether you’re planning to earn a bachelor’s, master’s, or PhD, we hope we’ve cleared up any confusion about how college works.
It’s not as complicated or as overwhelming as you might think. Your school will help you navigate requirements and ensure you’re able to successfully travel the path to graduation!
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In college, classes can last around 50 minutes, meeting three days a week or twice a week, meeting for an hour and 15 minutes. A class that meets for an hour two or three days a week is a standard college schedule for full-time students.How does the college process work? ›
- Start the College Application Process.
- Complete the FAFSA.
- Fill Out the Common App.
- Write a Standout College Essay.
- Ask for Recommendation Letters.
- Learn the Ins and Outs of Financial Aid.
- Decipher College Tuition Costs.
- Find Scholarships to Pay for College.
- Create a list of colleges you're interested in.
- Research and visit schools to narrow down the list.
- Fill out the FAFSA®, and consider finances and scholarship opportunities.
- Get letters of recommendations, if required.
- Take college admission tests.
In college, classes can last around 50 minutes, meeting three days a week or twice a week, meeting for an hour and 15 minutes. A class that meets for an hour two or three days a week is a standard college schedule for full-time students.How does choosing courses in college work? ›
How are college classes chosen? First- and second-year students typically take a mix of core requirements and electives. Students will then usually take courses within their major during their junior and senior years. It's best to work with your college adviser to make sure you select the correct courses.What are the 4 stages of college? ›
The four types of degrees are associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees. Each college degree level equips you with skills for a successful career.What are the 4 steps to college? ›
- Take the right classes. To get into college, start by taking the right classes in high school. ...
- Meet the challenge. ...
- Achieve honors. ...
- Tap into computing.
The unweighted scale is most common, and the highest possible GPA on this scale is a 4.0. The unweighted scale doesn't take the difficulty of a student's classes into account. Weighted scales are also used at many high schools.How can I get into college with a low GPA? ›
- Explain the Circumstances Behind Your Low GPA. ...
- Improve Your SAT/ACT Scores. ...
- Write an Exemplary Essay. ...
- Get Strong Recommendation Letters. ...
- Showcase Your Non-academic Skills and Talents. ...
- Consider an Online College. ...
- Join a Community College.
Most colleges begin accepting applications in early August. If you know you'll have a busy senior year ahead, consider gathering your materials over the summer so you can start the process in August and September.
The amount of time each student is in class each day will depend on their major, their course load, and their schedule. Most classes in college will meet two or three times a week, often either on a Tuesday/Thursday schedule or a Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule.Is 4 classes a semester too much? ›
The standard course load for full-time students is 12 to 18 hours which usually comes out to about 4 to 6 courses per semester.How many classes should I take in college? ›
You usually need to take at least 12 credit hours per semester to qualify as a full-time college student. Twelve credit hours usually translates to four courses worth three credits a piece. Some students take more than 12 credit hours a semester.Should I take 4 or 5 classes in college? ›
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.What time is best for college classes? ›
Research shows that most students perform better in early afternoon classes. Students should individualize their class schedule based on their chronotype and habits. Students who plan out their schedule can help optimize their productivity.What time should I schedule my college classes? ›
Schedule classes in the morning so that you'll be more productive during the day. However, if you know you're not going to wake up for an 8 a.m. class, try scheduling a 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. class at the latest. That way you can go to class and study during the day in order to free up your night to spend time with friends.What is a 8 year degree called? ›
An “eight-year degree” typically refers to a doctorate degree or PhD. Although some doctorates can be completed in as little as three years, these degrees typically require more time studying highly specialized subjects.Can a 2.5 GPA go to college? ›
Yes, you can still get into college with a 2.5 GPA, although your path to a 4 year degree may look different than that of a student with higher grades. While there are selective private schools that require a higher GPA to be considered, you can always research universities that accept 2.5 GPA or lower.What is a 6 year degree called? ›
A bachelor's degree (from Middle Latin baccalaureus) or baccalaureate (from Modern Latin baccalaureatus) is an undergraduate academic degree awarded by colleges and universities upon completion of a course of study lasting three to six years (depending on institution and academic discipline).What are the 4 C's in college? ›
Consequently, the present study aimed at exploring how to enhance the 4 C's (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity) among the college students of the Communication Skills Course in Tanzania through the Project-Based Learning model.
- 1.) Don't be afraid to ask your professors for help. ...
- 2.) Attend study sessions or join a study group. ...
- 3.) Attend ALL of your classes. ...
- 4.) Try sitting near the front of the classroom. ...
- 5.) Research and develop good note-taking habits. ...
- 6.) Sleep is important. ...
Colleges see all your grades, but they tend to look most at your junior and senior years.Does a 5.0 GPA exist? ›
Students in an AP class with weighted grading receive a five-point weighted average for each of the four-letter grades: As, Bs, Cs, and Ds. As a result, a student who only takes AP classes and receives A's will have a 5.0 GPA.How can I get a 7.0 GPA? ›
To earn a perfect GPA on the weighted scale, a student must take all Advanced Placement or Dual Enrolled courses and earn an A+ in every class.Can you get a 6.0 GPA? ›
Not All GPAs are Created Equal
There is wide variability in the scale used to calculate GPA. GPAs can be based on a 4.0, 5.0 or 6.0 scale.
Undergraduate students need to have a minimum of 2.0 GPA while graduate students need a 3.0 GPA. While most universities use this standard grading system, each institution differs in the way they grade students as shown by varying GPAs.What is the lowest GPA to get into Harvard? ›
You should also have a 4.18 GPA or higher. If your GPA is lower than this, you need to compensate with a higher SAT/ACT score. For a school as selective as Harvard, you'll also need to impress them with the rest of your application. We'll cover those details next.What GPA is required for Harvard? ›
The GPA requirements for Harvard University are between 3.9 to 4.1. You will need an incredibly high GPA and will likely be graduating at the top of their class in order to get into Harvard University.Do colleges look at senior year grades? ›
The important thing to know is that colleges do look at your senior year grades. So, a weaker performance in senior year than in previous grades can impact your application and college admissions decisions.What age is it too late to apply for college? ›
In fact, you can go to college at any age—there's no such thing as a maximum age limit for admission.
For applicants that plan to start school in the Fall term, the deadline for regular application usually lies around December to January of the same year. However, it can be as early as November or as late as March.Is 4 classes a day a lot in college? ›
Taking 12-15 credits is considered “full-time” in college lingo. That amounts to 4-5 classes, and for young students, that course load is really heavy (let's be honest, it's heavy for MOST students of any age).What time do college students wake up? ›
She said freshmen wake up at about 8 a.m. in college compared to 6:30 a.m. in high school. The study also found that college students go to bed at about 12:20 a.m. on weekdays, which is later than the high school senior's average time of 11 p.m.How long is a class in college? ›
Usually, some classes will run an hour and 15 minutes and meet twice a week. Some classes might be three hours long and meet once a week, while some may be as short as 50 minutes and meet three times a week.Is 18 credits too much for a freshman? ›
Most colleges and universities with a semester system recommend 15 credits per semester, which amounts to 30 credits per year. Full-time students are enrolled in at least 12 credits and a maximum of 18 credits per semester. The right number of credits to take per semester is on a case-to-case basis.How many hours is 1 credit hour? ›
During the course of the semester, a credit hour is equivalent to one of the following: 15 hours of classroom contact, plus appropriate outside preparation (30 hours).Is 15 credits a semester a lot? ›
While it might seem strange, for many students it's better to take about 15 credits in their first semester. This is recommended because 12 credits are usually the minimum to be considered a full-time student at the college. It can even affect tuition in some cases.What does a freshman college schedule look like? ›
Your freshman year will likely be filled with a few 3-credit classes and more 1-credit and 2-credit classes. You should be prepared for spending at least 3 hours every week for every 1-credit (one hour in class and two hours out of class), but you may need to dedicate more or less time.How many classes does a college freshman take? ›
Some students, though, take 18 credits or more per semester, but sticking to 15 your first semester is a good idea, especially while you adjust. However, it's important, to be honest with yourself, your goals, and your scheduling before overdoing it. Too many classes can easily lead to F's in several of them.What is the college process like? ›
Applying to college typically involves taking standardized tests, writing personal statements, collecting letters of recommendation, and filling out applications.
Courses and Grades
Highly selective colleges look for students who: Complete core academic requirements. Take more challenging classes, even though they may have slightly lower grades than they'd achieve in lower-level courses. Enroll in several college-prep or college-level courses (such as AP) and perform well.
- Complete all coursework and departmental graduation requirements for your degree. ...
- Apply to graduate. ...
- Check your official records. ...
- Confirm your diploma arrangements. ...
- Prepare for the ceremony. ...
- Take care of business. ...
- Prepare to repay student debt.
If you've been accepted to college, you'll see some information about upcoming events for prospective students—these are to help get you familiar with the campus and opportunities that the school can provide, and you should look at this as your chance to decide if the school is really the best fit for you.How hard is college actually? ›
Yes, college classes are typically harder than high school classes because the course work, topics, and depth of materials are more complex, set at a faster pace, and require more studying.How long does it actually take to finish college? ›
Many colleges require 120 credits for graduation (though that minimum may vary depending on the institution), so full-time students can expect to complete their bachelor's degree within four or five years.Is college hard at first? ›
You may be surprised to learn that many students fail academically in their first year of college. One-third of freshmen students don't make it to their sophomore year. That's a huge number, and it worries everyone concerned with higher education.What will make colleges not accept you? ›
- Failure to meet high GPA or test score standards.
- Insufficient academic rigor.
- Lack of demonstrated interest.
- Application essay errors.
- Poor fit.
- Academic integrity concerns.
Yes, colleges can revoke an acceptance offer any time, including after admitted students put down their deposit. Most revoked admission offers occur between May 1 and the start of the fall semester.Can a college reject you then accept you? ›
The good news: you can get accepted into a college after being denied. But it does require a bit of work on your end—and it also may require some soul-searching to make sure your first-choice college truly is the right choice for you.How fast can you finish a 4 year degree? ›
In fact, most adults—even busy ones with active personal and professional lives—can achieve a traditional 4-year degree in under 3 years. But it takes some effort and planning.
An accelerated online bachelor's program is usually the quickest way to earn a bachelor's degree. You can take more credits at once and graduate earlier — sometimes in 1-2 years. However, most bachelor's programs take about four years, and part-time online programs can take much longer.Can you finish 4 years of college in 2 years? ›
Finishing a bachelor's degree in two years with online accelerated degree programs, transfer credits, and degree completion methods is possible. Many students would choose to fast-track graduation to save money and time and explore careers.Do grades matter after being accepted to college? ›
Colleges consider your fall and final semester grades even if you've already received admission; that's how much your final year grades matter.What happens if you accept two admission offers? ›
Double depositing means putting down a deposit, and thus accepting admission, at more than one college. Since a student can't attend multiple colleges, it is considered unethical.
There is no rule keeping denied students from asking admissions officers the reason for the decision. However, it's very much likely for them to get a generic response or none at all. It's a better idea for denied students to ask admissions officers what they could do for increased admissions chances.