How Many Classes Does a College Freshman Typically Take?

Last Updated on July 28, 2022 by David Shaw

How Many Classes Should College Freshman Take Tips and Guide

As the new college intake season approaches, it’s time to get busy Googling your college questions before the rubber hits the road. As an incoming college freshman yourself, there might be a lot of questions about taking classes especially if your university has a whole different academic system. Many might also ask how many classes should freshmen take, or what the typical workload of a semester would look like.

Generally, freshmen are advised to take 12-15 units, just a few units above the minimum required units to allow more time to space to adjust to the new school environment. While some can easily handle up to 16-18 units, they might have less time to spend on extracurricular activities.

Planning out the right amount of classes to take in your freshman year can have a huge impact on your overall performance. Sometimes, one additional class more or less into your schedule can make a huge difference to the amount of effort and workload you have to work for. To better prepare you, let’s discuss how to better help you make the right decision to conquer your freshmen year.

What Does a Typical Academic Term Look Like?

Before understanding what a heavy or light workload term looks like, let’s first talk about the difference between a semester and a quarter system. Different universities across the US adopts different kind of academic systems, mainly the ‘quarterly’ or ‘semester’ systems. Normally, students find it more difficult to adjust from semester to quarter system at first due to its quick pace.

Generally, the minimum required units is around 12 units per term. A light-workload term should have 3 to 4 classes, which is somewhere around 2 to 4 units in addition to 12 units. Whereas for a term around 16 units or more should be considered heavy, and above 20 units should be pretty extreme.

Universities require a student to register for a specified minimum number of units so they can be categorized as a full-time student.

How much credit or unit hours is one class?

Most of the general classes offered in colleges have around 4-5 unit hours, and each unit hour is equivalent to an hour of lecture per week. So let’s say you’ve enrolled for 14 units for a term, then you should expect to spend around 14 hours attending lectures weekly. While you should know that for some sports or fitness-related classes that are less formal, they may be only around 1-2 unit hours.

Understanding unit and credit hours

Credit or unit hours is the metric colleges use to determine a student’s degree progress, to which a certain amount of units must be obtained before earning a college degree. Different universities use the terms credit and unit interchangeably which means the same thing. Further on, I will use unit hours for the following examples in this article.

Taking more classes per term doesn’t necessarily mean graduating earlier

There might be a handful of free and major elective classes you’ll likely have to take before earning your Bachelor’s Degree in college. When you see other peers taking many classes per term, it doesn’t mean they’re gonna graduate earlier because they might just be taking a bunch of general elective classes.

As for major elective classes, if there is a course that requires you to take 3 classes sequentially, it simply means you’ll have to spend 3 terms (semester or quarters) to complete it. To translate that timeline for each system, 3 semesters is around 1.5 years while 3 quarters equals 1 year of your academic career.

To better understand what are free elective and major elective classes, we’ll explain them further down below.

What Classes to Expect in Your First 2 Years at College

If you haven’t already known, general elective classes usually account for up to half of the overall curriculum for most Bachelor’s Degree programs. That means for the initial two years of college, you’ll be taking some general elective classes, where some of which will also be counted as prerequisites to your major-required classes.

Understanding required electives vs general (free) electives

Usually, for a Bachelor’s Degree program, there will main be 2 kinds of electives you’ll have to take — the required elective (or technical electives) and general electives. As for general electives, you usually have more classes to choose from and fewer options when it comes to required electives that are closely related to your declared major of study.

This correlates to why we suggest taking more classes in your Freshman or Sophomore year to clear out general elective classes so you won’t have to deal with them after your Junior year. Going into your Junior year, you should expect yourself to take mostly major-required or related classes because taking any general elective classes at this point might sidetrack you or be a nuisance when registering for classes.

Leveraging Summer time to take classes

Summer term can be a perfect time to take certain classes which you feel are getting in your way. If you dread taking any classes like Calculus, History, or even major-related classes, then you should definitely make use of Summer to take and finish them in a shorter period of time.

Although you should know that universities usually charge the same tuition fee despite the shorter duration term, but graduating early does usually pay off or make up for the little loss.

If you’re wondering about the benefits of taking Summer classes, check out our article on 9 benefits of taking Summer classes

Importance of a Good Freshmen Academic Plan That Can Benefit You

In this context, a good academic plan means graduating within the normal timeframe according to your program or major of study, which is normally within 3-5 years.

Generally, taking more classes before approaching your 3rd (Junior year) means you’ll likely be dealing with fewer classes afterward, and the opposite typically tends to also be true.

With that said, for any given major, you can strategically plan out your class schedules to graduate 1-2 semesters or quarters earlier than the typical timeframe suggested by your school. Among other factors you should know when you want to make a good academic plan:

Semester vs. Quarter Systems Can Be Leveraged Differently

Quarter (Trimester)Semester
Duration in weeks10 – 11 weeks14 – 16 weeks
Duration in days70 – 77 days98 – 112 days
Duration in months2.5 – 3 months3.75 – 4 months

Depending on your school system, you might have the benefit of leveraging things like the number of units or credits you can take per year.

From my experience, universities that follow the quarter system gives students more flexibility to take more class as well as spread them across the academic year compared to semester systems. This is because quarter systems (excluding the Summer terms) essentially have 3 academic terms, which is one academic term more than the Semester system, which only has 2 terms within an academic year.

However, whether you’ll attend a university following the semester or quarter system can be an uncertain variable to control, so look into your future dream schools or prospective institutions you’re going to attend. In short, universities following the quarter system usually give you more flexibility to take classes, granting you the benefit of graduating earlier than the normal timeframe.

Opting for Lighter Class Workload Is Generally Advised for Freshman in College

This fact is especially important if you’re attending the dream school that you’ve worked so hard for. It’s not about how many classes can take and score well anymore like in high school anymore. Instead, what you’re paying for in college is the opportunity of meeting new people, and exposure to good campus clubs, extracurricular activities, or research projects.

Tips for Finding Easy and Good Classes to Take for Freshmen

When you need pointers and suggestions as to which classes to take, most people will point you to academic advisors for help. However, from what I learned in college, academic advisors often don’t give you the most candid advice and suggestions.

Thankfully, there is a better place and community to look at when it comes to getting the most accurate, candid, helpful suggestions and tips on which classes and professors to take. Also, there’s an article we wrote on the best easy A classes to boost your GPA!

Seniors or peers

In my opinion, seniors or your peers are your best resources to get good recommendations for finding the right classes to take. Unlike advisors, your seniors or peers that have taken a specific class before will specifically know the course materials as well as provide you insights about which instructor to select or avoid. Most of the time, they can even provide you with their lecture notes, past exams materials, or textbooks for free!

Rate My Professors

RateMyProfessors is a free university instructor review and rating website widely used by students across the world.

student review on rate my professors

Where this resource really shines is when students who’ve taken a specific class with a professor before can provide helpful information for future students. Information like the grades obtained, attendance, textbook requirement, and most importantly, an honest review can give you a good idea of whether should you take certain classes taught by certain instructors or not.


Academic advisors are the go-to resource for people who don’t know better, that includes new students coming into college. Often, academic advisors are only good at formulating and outlining a graduation plan, but won’t give you good recommendations on which professor to take. In such cases, it calls for referring to your seniors for help as they know what’s best for you based on their prior experiences.


Reddit is often a good backup option when you can’t find any reviews on a class and instructor of your university. However, given the fact that your university subreddit can be moderated anonymously by anyone, not all reviews and information you can get about classes can be taken seriously.

Note: When posting or inquiring about a class, make use of the comment section and rating features should further serve as a guide to whether someone’s opinion is credible or not.

Here’s a list of the biggest college subreddits we know as of 2022:

UniversitySubreddit Members
University of California – Berkeleyr/berkeley117k
University of Waterloor/uwaterloo83k
University of California – Los Angelesr/ucla51k
The University of Texas at Austinr/UTAustin47k
Georgia Institute of Technologyr/gatech40k

For a comprehensive list of college subreddits, here’s a link to find out.

Your university’s own review platform

Some universities have their own instructor review platform which is normally created by students as a personal project or senior project. And those that go further to collaborate with their university can be very reliable and professional.

Reasons to Take More Classes in Your Freshmen or Sophomore Years

People of all backgrounds attend a university for different goals and purposes, and it is understandable that some prefer to hop on the fast train. And for those asking how and why should you take more classes to maximize your time in college, we may have the answer for you.

Besides the fact that taking more classes could also potentially help you graduate faster, there are many other good reasons that may motivate you to take more classes in your first 2 years of college.

  • Focus solely on your major classes after junior year
  • Have more options and flexibility to easily switch majors in the future
  • Don’t prefer to involve in extracurricular activities
  • Have more flexibility and freedom during Summer
  • Stay motivated and do well in classes

Although most of these practical tips should be greatly relatable to a STEM major student, most of them apply nicely to other Liberal Arts majors as well. For even more tailored and streamlined tips, definitely look for a senior to guide you.

Taking More Classes at the Start Lightens Your Junior and Senior Year Burden

It is worth noting and reemphasizing the fact that taking more classes before approaching your Junior or Senior year can undoubtedly lighten your academic workload in some ways if you put in more effort during the first 2 years of college.

If you wish to focus more on your final year projects, then you’ll be thankful that you’ve finished all general elective classes because they didn’t get in your way especially when you can avoid time conflicts between classes you want to take.

More Resources

Best Easy A classes in college to help boost your GPA

9 Benefits of Taking Summer Classes

8 Ways to Transform your College Experience and Make it Fun

David Shaw

I enjoy blogging about the college experience, teaching people how to navigate and hack their way through college. I also enjoy promoting financial literacy among young individuals.

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