What You Need to Know about the American University Credit System

If you’re preparing to become an international student and pursue a degree in America, it’s important that you figure out how the American university credit system works as well as how European academic credits are converted to American credits. 

The American credit system measures your attendance and involvement with the courses you take. It does not measure performance; that job is reserved for grades. However, a student needs a required number of credits to graduate, regardless of how good or bad their grades are. 

So, here are the basic things you should learn about the American university credit system:

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Key facts about the American university credit system

  • The American university credit system is different from the credit systems used in Europe, or other parts of the world 

  • You will need a certain number of academic credits to graduate your programme

  • Credits determine if you need to take a preparation programme to meet your Bachelor's or Master's degree admission requirements

  • Credits may influence your GPA 

  • Especially in the US, the number of academic credits a programme has may determine tuition fees for the degree

How many credits do I need to graduate college or graduate school?

The simple answer is that the number of credits you need to graduate depends on how long the overall programme duration is. Each semester awards a certain number of credits, so if you multiply the number of semesters you need to study with the credits per semester, that’s how many overall credits you’ll need.

So, how many credit hours per semester are there? Normal full-time degrees require 15 credit hours per semester, so 30 credit hours per year. If your Bachelor’s degree takes 3 years to graduate, that means you’ll need 90 credit hours total.

What are semester hours?

Semester hours are the same as credit hours. The terms are used interchangeably in US universities.

A semester credit hour (SCH) is the amount of credit a student earns for the successful completion of one contact hour and two preparation hours per week for a semester. One semester hour equals 15-16 contact hours per semester, regardless of the duration of the course.

Basically, for a one-semester credit hour course, you should invest one contact hour in class and two additional preparation hours each week that take place out-of-class. These can represent homework, fieldwork, or practical courses.

How do I get the credit hours per semester I need to graduate?

This answer is easy too. You simply study and pass your classes. Each class awards a set number of credits. You pass all your classes during a semester, you get all the credit hours per semester you need!

If you have elective classes in addition to regular classes during a semester, you should make sure the electives you pick amount to the total number of credit hours per semester you need in addition to the mandatory classes.

What is a contact hour?

Ah, yes, the plot thickens! A contact hour is different from a credit hour. A contact hour includes any lecture or lab time when the professor is teaching the student. Usually, 1 contact hour equals 50 minutes in real time.

What's the difference between contact hours and credit hours?

In universities and colleges in the United States, students usually receive credit hours based on the number of "contact hours" they spend studying per week in class. A credit hour is usually the standard way of measuring workload at a college or university.

So, the total number of credit hours per semester you get is made up of the contact hours you spend studying.

How many credit hours does a course/class have?

In the American university credit system, most colleges and universities award 3 Semester Credit Hours (SCH) (45-48 contact hours) for the successful completion of a study class. The number of credits for lectures, independent project work, laboratory time and internships vary depending on specific institution requirements.

Student working on her assignments

How many credits do you need for a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in the US?

A course is measured in the number of Credit Hours needed to complete it. For an undergraduate degree, basic courses may have 1 credit or 2 credits. In a Master’s degree, including MBAs, most courses are either 3 or 4 credits.

In the American university credit system, a standard full-time study load is usually 30 credit hours per year. Typically, in order to graduate with a degree, universities expect students to complete:

  • 120-130 credit hours for a Bachelor’s degree

  • 30-64 credit hours for a Master's degree

Some universities use Semester Credit Hours to set tuition fees and scholarships for prospective students. During a semester, an international student has to take between 9 and 12 credit hours, depending on each college or university.

What are Quarter Credits?

Some universities in the United States use Quarter Calendar Credit Hours, where the academic year is divided into three terms. In this case, a Bachelor’s degree usually requires a minimum of 180 quarter hours to complete instead of 120.

How do semester credit hours influence GPA?

In the US, the number of credit hours per semester you earn is also used to determine a student’s Grade Point Average (GPA) for a semester or academic year. In some cases, GPA scores are required for admission to advanced study programmes in the US (most typically for MBA programmes).

GPA scores range from 0.0 to 4.0. A score of 4.0 is the equivalent of an A average, while 0.0 represents an F score. Each American Bachelor’s and Master’s programme specifies their own minimum GPA requirement for graduation.

The semester GPA of a student is calculated based on the final marks received for each course and the credit hours per semester awarded by the programme. The final overall GPA is the average of all courses completed during the years of study.

Find out why the GPA is so important for your studies abroad.

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How to convert European credits to American credits

ECTS is the most commonly used credit system in Europe. The major difference between the European Credit System ECTS and the American University Credit System is that the first is based on student workload and the second on contact hours.

The student workload represents the number of hours needed to follow and prepare for a class, take examinations, and prepare for these examinations.

The ECTS is oriented towards the time required for a student to meet the intended study outcomes, while the American university credit system is more oriented towards the time a faculty member needs to teach.

Here’s a comparison between the grading system in the Netherlands and the one used in the US

Example of converting ECTS to semester credit hours

For a college or university in the US:

1.67 ECTS = 1.00 US college credit hours

Conversion standards may vary between higher education institutions in the U.S.

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