How Many Classes Should You Take While In College? (Universities & Community College)

Knowing how many classes to choose while enrolled in college is not always the easiest decision. In this article, we will break everything down for you so you know exactly how many classes you should take and I’ll give you some strategies for choosing your course load.

Key Takeaways

Knowing how many classes to choose while enrolled in college is not always the easiest decision. In this article, we will break everything down for you so you know exactly how many classes you should take and I’ll give you some strategies for choosing your course load.

Just how many classes should you take while in college? 

Should you go with the flow and take the same amount that all of your peers are signing up for or should you go for fewer or maybe even more classes?

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In this article, we will cover how many classes you should take at both a university and a community college and give you some tips and insight into the process of choosing your course load.

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How many classes should you take in college?

You should take as many classes that allow you to perform at your optimal level while complying with university requirements and making progress towards your educational goals. 

For some students, the goal would be achieving a 4.0 across all of their courses while other students might set the goal at an overall 3.0 or perhaps simply just passing (hello, senioritis).

The point is that every student is different and will require a different level of course load to perform at their optimal level. And that’s completely fine. 

Your goal starting out should be to find that optimal level and then stick with it or make adjustments based on how personal or external circumstances change.

Also, make sure you are aware of any semester average requirements. 

Some colleges may expect students to take an average of 15 credits per semester but still allow them to take less /more than that during some semesters.

Make sure that you are on the right path and are hitting any average credit requirements by speaking to a college counselor on a regular basis.

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The standard course load for full-time university students

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.

The minimum course load for full-time university students

12 hours is usually considered the minimum commitment for full-time students. 

Strategies when choosing the number of hours to take

12 hours is a good number because it usually amounts to four courses and often that means that you can schedule out a four-day week of classes while attending two classes each day. 

Having two blocks of classes four times a week is very manageable for a lot of students and it’s a great starting point when you begin college because you will get a sense of the time commitment needed to succeed (and still have fun). 

The problem is that 12 hours is below the average requirement of many universities which would typically be 15 hours a semester.

This just means that when taking 12 hours you want to be strategic about your course load and here are some examples of strategically choosing your classes.

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When taking 12 hours makes a lot of sense

If you are taking particularly demanding courses that require a lot of study time or research and reading, four classes might just be the sweet spot.

You should be able to get a sense of the difficulty of a course by reading course reviews and talking to other students. 

Some students will take a high course load of something like 18 hours one semester and load it up with easier courses (e.g., electives) and then take a 12 hour semester the next semester when they are enrolled in more difficult courses.

Or maybe you really want to focus hard on a couple of courses to get great letters of recommendation. That might be a good time to limit yourself to 12 hours during a semester.

When you are unsure about 12 hours vs 15 hours

If you’re not sure how you will handle 15 hours then perhaps start off with 12 hours your first semester and if things go well, then the next semester you can jump up to 15 hours. 

Usually, there will be a deadline by which you can drop a course without penalty. 

So if you were unsure about taking 12 hours or 15 hours you could always just plan on dropping one of those courses if you determined the course load was too heavy.

You could also use the same practice to make the jump from 15 hours to 18 hours and so on.

But just remember that college is about much more than just earning credits and graduating. It’s also about participating in extracurricular activities, finding ways to serve/get involved with your community, and having fun with your fellow classmates and networking.

Try not to get obsessed with maxing out the number of credits that you can handle because chances are it will come at the cost of your social life.

During a couple of my semesters in college, I took a whopping 24 hours each semester and it definitely reduced my social life to a large extent. 

At the time, it felt great to knock out so many courses but looking back I realized that I could’ve done a better job of balancing academic work with living a social life. 

Plus, colleges like to see well rounded students and if you’re solely focused on classes you won’t look as attractive to some institutions, especially if your grades start to slip.

Related: Can you get a bachelor's degree at a community college?

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Dropping below 12 hours

Be very careful about dropping below 12 hours.

That’s because if your status changes from a full-time student to a part-time student, it could have a lot of effects on things like your financial aid, housing, etc.

For example, some scholarships may require you to be enrolled full-time in order to receive your scholarship.

Also institutions like the University of Virginia may exclude part-time students from special honors and things like the Dean’s list.

Dropping below 12 hours could even mean you getting placed on academic probation and eventually kicked out.

One major exception that usually applies at colleges is for your last semester. 

If you don’t need to take 12 hours to graduate and only need something like nine hours then you can probably get granted temporary part-time status with no issue.  

Some students like to only take courses that are required for graduation at that point in their college career but other students might like the opportunity of trying out a random course just for the sake of learning something new.

Just note: depending on how your tuition is structured, you might be paying the same amount for 12 hours that you would for nine hours. 

Another exception could apply if you experience some type of family emergency or major personal issue. 

For example, if there is a death in your family or you get sick, colleges may allow you to reduce your course load for a semester while you re-group and come back ready the next semester to get back on track.

If for whatever reason you cannot get back on track for a full-time status, you might be able to get approved for permanent part-time status.

With permanent part-time status, you'll probably be limited to something like 10 hours but you can also get reduced tuition. 

Again, typically you need to show some type of extraordinary circumstances that make it difficult or impossible for you to study full-time. 

This will usually be done by writing a formal request to the dean and may require you to submit proof of your situation. 

For example, USC requires that if you have a medical condition, you bring verification from your doctor recommending that you take a reduced course load because of your  illness.

If your situation changes, you may be allowed to get back to full-time status depending on your institution.

Regardless of your situation, you’ll definitely want to speak with a campus counselor if you think you need to go under 12 hours. 

Adding to your course load

If you are taking 15 hours and you want to add to your course load then you’ll need to make a few key considerations and decisions.

Dual enrollment

The first decision you have to make is do you want to take all of your courses from the college you are enrolled in or do you want to enroll in two colleges at once.

Taking all of your courses from the same college will make things easier in terms of the enrollment process and may prevent you from having to visit two campuses.

It also makes it easier because you don’t have to keep up with things going on at two separate colleges.

However, the big benefit is that you can expand the courses available to you during that semester and possibly get around course limits.

Course limits 

Most colleges impose a limit on the number of courses that you can take from their institution. 

Usually this limit is about 18 or 19 hours per semester but it could be even lower for the first semester.

This means that you may have to seek special approval if you want to exceed around 18 hours.

Typically, that would just mean providing some type of reasonable justification for why you should be able to take the extra courses and why you are qualified to do so.

For example, maybe you need just that one extra course to stay on track for your graduation plans and maybe you have a solid track record with your GPA.

If you have not demonstrated that you are performing well in your prior courses you probably will not get approved for going above the course limit. 

Some schools may be more strict than others when granting this type of permission, so a 3.0 might be good enough to exceed the limit at one school but a 3.2 might be needed at another. 

Also keep in mind that departments within colleges can have different requirements. 

So if you are trying to increase your course limit while pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering that might be a different threshold than for liberal arts.

A college counselor should be able to give you insight into how to get approved for more hours. 

Also, at a certain point, colleges will likely have a hard cut off that you cannot exceed even if you can prove to them you have a higher IQ than Albert Einstein. This ceiling might be around 21 to 24 hours a semester.


An alternative route to adding a lot to your semester schedule is to simply go after mini semesters or mini-mesters

These are shortened semesters that you can pick up during the summer, spring or fall, and even during winter (which usually are the shortest). Some colleges also offer a pre-summer semester which occurs at the end of May.

These courses could be offered online but sometimes you are required to attend them in person. 

The shorter the semester, the longer the class session will be which means that if you are doing a short semester during winter break you could be attending some very long classes.

These will also have limits based on a set amount of hours. For example, at NAU you may be limited to only one course during a winter mini-session or 16 credit hours/units for summer term.

How many courses should you take at a community college?

If you’re attending a community college, your course load usually can be solely determined by your own personal needs and goals. 

It’s not a big deal if you are part-time or full-time and you can even take a single class at a community college

This is often the case because you are paying per credit whereas at a university you might be dealing with a flat tuition rate.

This is one of the biggest benefits of attending a community college

You don’t have the pressure to take a certain amount of courses and it gives you time to figure things out and test the waters.

If you plan on taking the standard route of completing a degree at a community college in two years then pretty much all of the information above applies to you. 

You may want to start off with 12 hours and see how things go with the possibility of jumping up to 15 hours.

You also can think about taking classes from multiple community colleges if it makes sense for your schedule and goals.

The good thing is you probably will not have to worry about things like academic probation if you decide to go under 12 hours. 

But you still want to talk things over with a college counselor just to make sure there are no major changes that will happen if you go below a certain amount of hours.

Final word

Choosing the right amount of course credits to take each semester really depends on your optimal level of performance. 

You first need to make sure that you are complying with any minimum or average requirements by the college but you can then pace yourself at the right speed.

Think strategically about the difficulty of your courses and also explore alternative options which would allow you to supplement your course credits with mini-mesters. 

If extraordinary circumstances arrive in your life then talk with campus counselors about ways to minimize your course load while you get back on track.

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