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" in college is like a credit and your school will require that you complete a certain number of units before earning 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" 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.

In general, the more work that 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 "units" is also often used interchangeably with the term "credits." 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 around 14 or 15 units per semester or quarter.

The school's calendar and the degree program you're enrolled in may play a factor in the minimum number of units required.

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.

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.

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.