How Does College Work? The Ultimate Guide

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If you’re a high school student, you’ve probably spent a lot of time thinking about college applications. You’ve endlessly considered where to apply, how to make your application as competitive as possible, which scholarships to go for, and the list goes on.

But what happens once you’re enrolled in a college? What are the requirements to earn a bachelor’s degree? Do you know exactly what a college credit is? Or how to meet General Education requirements? And what if you decide to go for a master’s degree, or even a PhD?

If you’re wondering “Wait—how does college work?”, then we’ve got you covered! In this guide, we’ll break down the process of earning a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a PhD. We’ll even explain all those confusing terms that people just assume you already know. We have a lot to talk about, so let’s get started!

What Is College? How Does It Work?

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Undergraduate (Bachelor’s Degree)

The bachelor’s degree is an undergraduate degree that typically takes four years to complete. When you apply to colleges during high school, you’re applying for bachelor’s degree programs. In these programs, you select a major and meet credit and course requirements for that major to graduate. You will need 120 credits to earn a bachelor’s degree.

The two most common bachelor’s degree are the Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) and the Bachelor of Science (B.S.). Some students also choose to pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.).

College Majors

Your college major is the area of study you’ll focus on as you pursue your bachelor’s degree. It determines your program of study, or the courses you’ll have to take to earn your degree. The major you choose should prepare you for the career you’d like to go into in the future. Examples of popular college majors include Business, Engineering, Biology, Psychology, and Communication & Journalism.

Some colleges require you to select a major when you apply. Others require you to apply to a specific undergraduate college (like the College of Arts and Sciences). And some schools don’t ask you to make any of these decisions during the application process.

In most cases, these early choices are not binding. Most colleges ask students to declare their major by the end of sophomore year at the latest. You declare your major by filling out a simple form, either online or in the school’s advising center. If you realize the major you chose isn’t a good fit for you, you do have the option to change it later. (But don’t wait too long—changing your major late in your undergraduate career can delay the completion of your degree.)

College Credits

Regardless of your major, you will need to complete 120 credits to earn a bachelor’s degree. Most college courses last for one semester and are worth three credits. This means you’ll need to take about 40 classes to earn your degree, at a rate of around five classes per semester.

You earn credits by passing your classes. If you fail a class, of course, you don’t earn those credits. In college, the concept of “passing” gets a bit complicated. Some schools require you to earn a C or better to pass a class. Others accept a D as passing, but may require a C or higher for the class to count toward your major. And you typically need to have an overall GPA of 2.0 (C average) or better to graduate. Simply put, it’s best not to earn below a C.

It’s important to note that you can’t graduate by passing 40 classes at random. You will have to follow a program of study based on the major you declare. The program of study is generally divided into three parts:

  • General Education Requirements
  • Electives
  • Major Requirements

General Education Requirements

All colleges require General Education courses, which are designed to give you a broad and well-rounded education. You will spend most of your first two years of college completing these requirements.

Also known as “Gen Ed,” these are low-level courses in subjects like Composition, Humanities, Natural Sciences, and Social and Behavioral Sciences. Your school may require additional subject areas.

You will have to earn a certain amount of credits in each required subject area, as determined by your school. Typically, you’ll need around 36-60 credits total of Gen Ed courses. High scores on AP and IB exams can count toward some of your General Education requirements, meaning you won’t have to take as many Gen Ed classes.

Your college will make it easy to identify which courses can count toward your General Education requirements. For instance, if you can earn Humanities credits for a course, you might see an “H” next to the course’s name in parentheses.

Although you do have to stick to the categories your school requires, you can choose any class you want within those guidelines. Usually, you’ll have plenty of interesting options to choose from!

Degree Requirements

Degree requirements are the specific courses required by your major. For instance, Psychology majors may be required to take classes like Introduction to Psychology, Abnormal Psychology, Statistics, Developmental Psychology, Research in Experimental Psychology, etc. in order to earn their degree.

Many of these degree requirements are upper-level classes. That means you can’t take them right away; you’ll need to earn a certain amount of credits first. Some of these classes will also have prerequisites, or other classes you must pass first. For example, you’ll likely be required to pass Introduction to Psychology before you can sign up for Abnormal Psychology.

Similar to Gen Ed requirements, you can expect your degree requirements to total about 40-60 credits. You can use leftover credits for free electives, which basically translates to “whatever you want.” That means even a Physics major can take Basket Weaving, History of Jazz, and Introduction to Popular Film to get the last of those 120 credits (as long as there are no prerequisites keeping you out).

If this all sounds complicated, don’t worry. Your college will clearly outline the General Education requirements, degree requirements, and free electives you need to earn your degree. Most likely, you’ll also have access to an online portal that shows you which requirements you’ve completed, and which classes you still need to take. And if you ever have questions, professors and advisors are there to help.

Once you’ve met all the necessary requirements, you’ll graduate with your bachelor’s degree! Then, you can start your career or continue with your education.

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Graduate (Master’s Degree)

After you finish your bachelor’s, the next degree you can choose to earn is a master’s degree. The application process for master’s programs is very similar to the application process for bachelor’s programs and may involve an interview. It’s worthwhile to earn a master’s degree if it’s required for your dream job, or if you’ll earn significantly more money in your future career with a higher degree.

Master’s programs build upon the foundational knowledge you learned in your bachelor’s degree program. You gain the in-depth skills and knowledge needed to become an expert or specialist in your field. Most master’s degrees require 30-40 credits and take about two years to complete.

Since the master’s program is more accelerated, all or most of these credits will consist of specific degree requirements. You may also be required to complete practicums, internships, and/or research projects. Some programs require you to present your research at seminars or submit it for publication in journals and periodicals. During graduate school, you can expect smaller class sizes, more discussions, and significantly more reading.

Final Projects

Many master’s programs require you to submit an extensive final research paper known as a master’s thesis. You may have the option to choose between a “thesis track” and a “non-thesis track.” If you choose the non-thesis track, you’ll still have a final project, but it may be a field experience or a capstone project instead.

Capstone project is a broad term for a culminating assignment that requires you to apply what you’ve learned during the master’s program. Depending on your area of study, it might involve creating a portfolio, conducting original research, or presenting your solution to a common problem in the field.

When you’ve completed the requirements for your master’s degree, it’s time to graduate! This time, you get to wear a fancy hood in addition to the traditional cap and gown. Then, you’re once again faced with the decision to launch your career or continue down the path to academia.

Doctoral Degrees

Doctoral degrees are called terminal degrees, meaning they’re the highest degree you can earn in the field. Most careers do not require this level of education, but you may need a PhD for a career in academia or research. PhD programs vary widely, with most requiring 60-120 credits and taking 5-8 years to complete. This time is typically divided between coursework and the dissertation.

The application process is again similar. Requirements may include a resume, three letters of recommendation, competitive scores on graduate exams, a statement of purpose, and an interview. These programs admit a small number of applicants and are highly competitive.

There are two main types of doctoral degrees: applied doctorates and research-based doctorates. Here, we’ll focus on research-based doctorates (PhDs), as each applied doctorate has its own unique path.

In general, the first 2-3 years of a PhD program are spent on highly specialized coursework. You can expect even more discussion and reading than you experienced in your master’s program.

Many PhD students also work as Teacher Assistants, or TAs. They assist professors with teaching classes and grading papers. Depending on your subject area, you may also conduct research and spend time in labs for the duration of the program.


Most PhD programs require students to pass exams at various points in the program. At the end of the first year, students may take a comprehensive exam to test their knowledge. They must pass this exam before they can be admitted to the next level of the program. Some schools give students a certain number of chances to pass this exam, while others have a time limit.

Later in the program, students will take a candidacy exam to progress to the dissertation. This exam is sometimes known as a “qualifying exam.” The exam generally includes both a written and oral portion and is evaluated by a committee. Students must pass the exam to continue to the dissertation portion of the PhD program. Many programs give students two opportunities to pass; if they do not, they are removed from the program.


The dissertation is the final requirement of the PhD program. It takes 2-3 years to complete, and sometimes even longer. It’s a book-like document that contributes new research to the PhD candidate’s field and demonstrates expert knowledge.

After extensive research and writing, candidates present the dissertation to a committee. This is called “defending” the dissertation. Defending the dissertation also involves answering questions from the committee, thus defending that the assertions in the dissertation are valid and stand up to examination.

Once you’ve completed required coursework, passed the candidacy exam, and successfully defended your dissertation, you earn your PhD. At this graduation, you’ll wear an elaborate gown, typically with velvet trim. Now that you’ve earned the highest degree possible, you can work in research, academia, or a highly paid position in another field.

Final Thoughts: How Does College Work?

Whether you’re planning to earn a bachelor’s, master’s, or PhD, we hope we’ve cleared up any confusion about how college works.

It’s not as complicated or as overwhelming as you might think. Your school will help you navigate requirements and ensure you’re able to successfully travel the path to graduation!

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