How Does a 'College Unit' Work?

You need a certain number of units to graduate

College student standing in classroom
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A "unit" or "credit" in college is a way for your school to quantify the amount of academic work required to earn a degree. It is important that you understand how the college or university you're attending assigns units or credits before registering for classes.

What Is a College Unit?

A "college unit of credit" is a number value assigned to each class offered at a college or university. Units are used to measure the value of a class based on its level, intensity, importance, and the number of hours you spend in it each week.

Typically, a 1-unit course corresponds to classes that meet for one hour of lecture, discussion, or lab time per week. As follows, a course that meets twice a week for one hour would correspond to a 2-unit course and a class meeting twice for 1.5 hours would be a 3-unit class.

In general, the more time and work a class requires from you or the more advanced study it provides, the more units you will receive. 

  • Most standard college classes are awarded 3 or 4 units.
  • Some very difficult, labor-intensive classes might be awarded a high number of units. For example, a challenging, upper-division class with a lab requirement might be assigned 5 units.
  • Easier classes that involve less work or those considered more of an elective might be assigned just 1 or 2 units. These may include an exercise class, a course that doesn't meet often, or one that doesn't require a high reading load.

The term "unit" is often used interchangeably with the term "credit." A 4-unit course, for example, might very well be the same thing at your school as a 4-credit course. Regardless of how the terms are used, it's smart to see how your particular school assigns units (or credits) to the classes offered.

How Do Units Affect Your Course Load?

In order to be considered a full-time student, you have to be enrolled in a certain number of units during each period of the school year. This will vary by school, but on average it is between 12 and 15 units per semester or quarter.

Sidenote about quarters: sometimes, the amount of classes in two quarters doesn't fully match the number of classes in a semester, in which case the quarter units become worth about 2/3 of the semester units.

Minimum and Maximum

Your school's calendar and the degree program you're enrolled in may play a factor in the minimum number of units required. Similarly, your parents' insurance can affect your requirements as well.

At most colleges, a bachelor's degree requires 120-180 completed units and a typical associate's degree requires 60-90 completed units, which translates to the already mentioned 12-15 units per semester. This number may also vary depending on your initial level placements. In some cases, first-year students have to take remedial classes that don't count to these totals, as they are there to help students reach the college entry levels.

Additionally, your institution might strongly advise against carrying more than a certain number of units. These maximums are put into place simply because the workload might be considered unmanageable. Many colleges are concerned with student health and want to make sure you do not take on too much work that may cause unnecessary stress.

How Many Units to Take?

Before you register for classes, make sure that you are familiar with and understand the school's unit system. If needed, review it with an academic advisor and be sure to use your unit allowance wisely.

For example, taking too many 1-unit electives your freshman year may leave you in a pinch for necessary classes later in your college career. By having an idea of the classes you will need each year and sticking to a general plan, you'll make the most out of the classes you take and be one step closer to earning your degree.

Typically, one unit, or one hour of class, will require two hours of study time. Consequently, a 3 unit course would require three hours of lectures, discussions, or labs and six hours of independent studying. A 3 unit course will, therefore, necessitate about nine hours of your time.

To be successful in college, choose the amount of units based on your other engagements, such as work and other responsibilities. Many students try to take on as many units as they can, only to find themselves in distress or unable to perform sufficiently in their classes.

It is understandable that sometimes students must finish their degree within a certain amount of time. This may be due to their college's requirements or personal finances. However, when necessary and possible, extending the length of your study could be beneficial to your mental health as well as to your GPA and therefore to your learning and overall college experience.