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How Many Credits Do I Need for a Bachelor's Degree?

Abigail Endsley
Abigail Endsley

July 22, 2017

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The college system can be endlessly confusing (especially if you’re trying to transfer credit between schools.

Whether attempting a transfer or simply trying to decide how many classes to take this semester, one of the most commons we get from students is:

How many credits do I need for a bachelor’s degree?

The simple answer: you need complete 120 college credits to earn a bachelor’s degree. This is equal to approximately 40 classes (3 credits per class). Most colleges expect you to earn this degree in 4 years.

But it’s more complicated than that.

You can’t just register for any course that tickles your fancy and expect to magically earn a bachelor’s degree. The kind of college credit you must earn to qualify for graduation is dictated by your school and major. That’s what we’ll be talking about in this post.

Let’s start with the basics.

What are college credits?

A credit is the standard measurement of a student’s academic competency. College credits represent how much effort you, the student, put into a single course over a semester (15 weeks). This effort is most often represented by hours of work.

1 college credit represents approximately 1 hour spent in a classroom and 2 hours spent on homework each week.

Most single-semester college courses are worth 3 credits, or 9 hours of work per week.

If you’re hoping to graduate in 4 years, you’ll need to average 15 credits a semester (roughly 5 courses). By this estimate, that’s 45 hours of work per week! (Of course, whether these courses actually take 45 hours to complete everything is up to you.)

What kinds of credit will I take for a bachelor’s degree?

You’re required to study a specific arrangement of topics to qualify for graduation. But don’t panic! You’ll still have plenty of flexibility and choice within these restrictions. Almost any college you choose will split your bachelor’s degree into 3 basic sections:

1. General Education Requirements

To encourage a broad education, your college will require you to take up to 60 credits of low-level courses spanning a variety of general subjects. While you get to choose which choose which courses you take, you must pick from your college’s requirements.

Here’s an example of what you might find in this section:

In this example, your college requires 6 history credits. They don’t care which period you study. You can study Western Civilization, American History, or History of the Vietnam War. As long as you complete 6 history credits, you’ve fulfilled the requirement.

2. Free Electives

This may be the most fun section of your bachelor’s degree. In this section, your college will allow you to complete up to 30 credits of any course you want.

The free electives you choose may have nothing to do with your major, and that’s fine! That’s why they’re called “free” electives.

3. Area of Study

This section is for the specific courses required by your major.

Generally, many of these courses will be upper-level courses (meaning they’re more specific, more intense, and more time-consuming than the rest of your bachelor’s degree).

If you were pursuing a degree in psychology, your area of study requirements may look like this:

You’ll notice this example includes a 6-credit requirement for “psychology electives.” This means you may choose two psychology courses from a pre-approved selection. (You’ll also likely have fewer free electives as a result.)

Why should I care how my bachelor’s degree is structured?

Understanding your degree’s structure is invaluable when considering transferring credit between colleges. Maybe you took some courses at your local community college, or are planning to? Or perhaps you began on a bachelor’s degree years ago and dropped out for some reason, but are hoping to go back?

In either of these scenarios, improper planning may lead to credit transfer issues.

For example, most degrees’ area of study includes specialized courses which may not transfer well. But, general education requirements tend to be similar between colleges. That’s why these credits are far more likely to make a successful transfer.

If you’re considering switching colleges for any reason, it’s important to understand your future college’s degree structure first. This will help you avoid wasting time and money on college credit that overlaps, or doesn’t transfer at all.


Want to learn more about bachelor’s degrees and transfer credit? Click here to read Why Won’t My Credits Transfer? This is the first of a two-part series designed to give you an overview of how transfer credit works and what steps you can take to ensure your credit transfers successfully.

If you’ve got credit to transfer or are considering using transfer credit as a way to lower the cost of your degree, this next post is a great place to start.

Abigail Endsley
Abigail Endsley

A former student counselor and Unbound student, Abigail is passionate about empowering others to achieve their goals. When she’s not dreaming with her friends, you can find her reading or singing Broadway songs. Loudly.

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