College Credit Hours, Declaring a Major & Other Questions Answered

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Go to college. Take classes. Get degree. Sounds pretty simple right? If you are a first generation college student what sounds simple on paper turns out to be pretty complex in practice.

Besides all of the excitement of applying and getting accepted to a college, there is a complex maze of schedules and requirements needed to earn a degree.

Let’s answer a few common questions about the college experience using the University of Minnesota and University of Michigan as an example.

What requirements do I have to meet to choose a major?

Before you apply to colleges, be sure to understand the requirements of the major you may pick. You can always apply ‘undecided’ but make sure the program you have your eyes on won’t require you to take major specific classes in your freshman year.

The first thing to do is to visit the school’s site for your major and see if they have a recommended schedule. Some schools may give you a proposed schedule year by year with the required and optional classes you can take while others will leave it up to you to figure out the schedule that works best for you. Looks for a “college catalog” or “program guide” for your major – these guides will list everything you need to know for your specified program.

For example, here is the catalog for majoring in Computer science at the University of Minnesota and the University of Michigan. Each are a little different, but similar in many ways. Both will list the number of credits that are required, the GPA requirements and the specific classes that are required to earn your degree.

What’s a “pre” program or lower class?

Before admitting you to a formal program, many larger universities will put you in a “pre” program such as “Pre-Computer Science” or “Pre-Engineering”. Some colleges refer to this as a lower and upper class track. “Lower class” is comprised of more generalized classes needed for any majors within that college.

Using the College of Engineering example, you’ll be expected to take general mathematics and liberal arts classes before applying to your specific program. “Upper class” is usually comprised of your junior and senior years and is where most of your core major courses are taken.

Once the prerequisites are met for your “lower class” track and you have a high enough GPA, you can formally apply for your program. Be sure to read through your guide or talk to an advisor to understand when it’s best to declare your major.

How many credits do I need to graduate?

In order to graduate you will need to meet a specific set of requirements including credits, GPA and required courses. For a college on a semester based system you will typically need to complete about 120 credits to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Most classes are about 3 credits – depending on the school, some classes may be 4 credits so this would break down to roughly 40 classes to earn your degree.

Further breaking this down, you’ll average 10 classes per year with an expected graduation in four years. On a semester based system, this boils down to about 4-5 classes per semester depending on how many credits each class are worth.

The 120 credits will be broken into three types of classes - required classes, technical electives and electives. Required classes will make up the core of your major. These will be classes that everyone majoring in your chosen major will take. Technical electives will be related to your major, but will give you an option of specializing in a specific area.

For example in the University of Minnesota’s computer science program, students can choose from several elective tracks that go towards their major including computer architecture, big data or robotics and artificial intelligence. Between required and technical electives you will have 70-80 credits specifically related to your major. The remaining 40-50 credits will come from other electives such as liberal arts classes or other classes that may interest you.

What GPA do I need to graduate college?

The last main area to pay attention to is your GPA. If you’ve got your schedule laid out so you know what classes to take and when to take them, you just need to make sure you maintain good grades. Colleges will require you to meet a certain GPA to be admitted into a specific program and once admitted in that program, you will need to maintain your GPA.

Make sure you have regular check-ins with your advisor to ensure you are on the proper path. Talk through your proposed schedule and specific requirements to ensure you don’t have any surprises pop up a few years into your program. Good luck!