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Academic System in U.S. Colleges and Universities

The academic calendar, the types of courses and the credit and grading systems in the United States may differ greatly from those of your home country.
By GPA Admin

Academic System in U.S. Colleges and Universities

Academic Year

In North America, the academic year runs from early September through the end of May with the exact dates varying from one university or college to another.  In most institutions, it is divided into two 16- to 18-week terms also known as semesters; in others it is divided into three trimesters or four quarters of roughly 10 to 12 weeks each. 

Many institutions also offer 4- to 8-week optional summer terms also known as summer sessions.  These are offered for students who want to get through their degrees faster, ease up their course load during the year, or make up for an unsuccessfully completed course.  During the academic year, there are at least two main holidays: a 2- to 4-week holiday from December to January and a 1-week holiday in March or April also known as Spring Break.

Types of Courses

The courses that make up a degree program may be divided into several types, mainly, core courses, major courses, minor courses, and elective courses.  Core courses are the foundation of any degree program and are required of all students.  They include a variety of courses in mathematics, humanities, physical sciences, social sciences, and English.  The required number of core courses is different from one institution to another. 

Another type of course that takes up a good part of a student’s work load are major courses.  These cover the subject area in which the student has chosen to concentrate.  Approximately one quarter to one half of a student’s degree requirements is made up of major courses.  In addition to core and major courses, also required are minor courses which revolve around the subject area in which the student has chosen to place a second concentration.  The required number of minor courses is approximately half the number of major course requirements.  Lastly, elective courses are classes that students choose from any department.  They allow the students to explore other subject matters of interest.


Every course as described above is valued by a number of credits.  This is important to know because universities and colleges in the United States follow a credit system.  In order to complete their degrees, students must accumulate a required number of credits as determined by the university or college they are attending through the courses that they take.  Credits are also known as units or as semester/trimester/quarter hours.


For each course taken, the university or college uses a grading system that assesses a student’s success within that course.  Almost everything a student does in that course affects the final grade.  These include examinations, essays, papers, class participation, attendance, pop quizzes, written assignments, laboratory or studio work, presentations, etc., and in the case of music or art majors, performance and artistic presentations. This means that keeping up with course work, reading assigned material and regular class attendance are vital to a student’s success within a course as well as to earning the credits valued for that course.  In general, the percentage and grade scale for courses is: A=90-100%, B=80-89%, C=70-79%, D=65-69% and F=0-64%.  At the completion of each term or academic year, a student earns and builds a Grade Point Average (GPA).  Upon finishing the degree program, the student has what is called the Cumulative GPA. 

In addition, some institutions also offer some kind of Honors degree.  To qualify for honors, depending on the university or college, a student may need to take additional credits, take a comprehensive exam or write a thesis on their major field.

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