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Ideal Course Load

college phase 4 phase 5 Jun 23, 2022

Guest post by Kimball Bullington, Ph.D.

When a new freshman enters college the question of how many hours to take is one that demands an immediate answer. Is there an ideal load? Should I take a light load to make the adjustment to college easier? Should I register for a heavy load and then drop the classes I don’t like?

The search for an ideal load for the beginning freshman begins with a look at the number of hours required to graduate. Divide the number of hours required to graduate by 8 to find the average number of hours you must take in order to graduate in four years without taking summer courses. For instance, if your school requires 120 hours that amounts to 30 hours per year or 15 hours per semester (120 / 8 = 15). The ideal beginning load would be the average number of hours to graduate in four years or slightly above average.

Isn’t it a good idea for beginning freshman to take less so as not to overload and give extra time for the adjustment to college? My answer is no for four reasons. First, if you take less than 15 hours in any semester you must offset that with an equivalent number greater in some future semester, take extra hours in the summer, or extend the graduation beyond four years. All of these options add to your stress and/or cost.

If you take a lighter than average load the first semester you may be tempted to fill the extra time with social activities and social commitments that will become part of your “overhead” in the future. Better to adjust your social overhead to a real load than an artificially light one.

Taking less than a full load may lead you to develop sloppy habits. You may not develop appropriate time management habits with the reduced pressure.

Finally, a lighter than average load may jeopardize your scholarships. For instance, many scholarships can be lost if a student falls beneath the minimum full load, often 12 semester hours. If a student takes a lighter than average load (e.g., 12 instead of 15 hours), there is no room to drop a problem course. If a student drops a course while taking 12 hours, then they may lose their scholarships – not only for that semester, but for the rest of their college program!

The reaction to all of this might be to take an extra full semester with the idea of dropping courses in the first week. The problem with this is that it creates a culture of non-commitment. Dropping courses should be considered an exceptional activity, not the norm.*

For most students, an average (15 hours) or slightly above average (16-18 hours) load is ideal. The ideal load saves money, reduces stress, enables good habits, and protects your scholarships. You will be UniversityReady with an ideal load.


Dr. Kimball Bullington is a Professor of Business with a specialization in Supply Chain Management at Middle Tennessee State University, and has been advising new college students for the past 25 years.


*NOTE: At the same time, while you definitely don't want to develop a habit of non-commitment, adding an extra course and registering for 18 hours with the plan to drop one after evaluating the courses can be a kind of insurance policy, and is a strategy I (Matthew Bullington) usually recommend.

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