Do grad school admissions (particularly for Arts) care about how many classes you've taken per semester during your senior years?

For example, I'm (potentially) finishing my undergraduate studies with a 3-class semester. However, during this time I'll also be volunteering in classrooms for experience (I want to do a BEd before a Master's, the latter is far down the line) and potentially working part-time. I've taken 4 to 5 courses for all my other semesters save for one other, when I was also working and doing job searching for my school's Co-op program.

I'm worried, potentially, that a 3-class load will reflect poorly - even though I did a lot of other things during this time. However, my GPA is very high, above what is considered the competitive average to be accepted.

In your experiences how do grad schools weigh overall GPA vs overall class loads?


5 Answers 5


"In your experiences how do grad schools weigh overall GPA vs overall class loads?"

  • GPA is much more important.
  • Course load is often not even seen, unless people dig into your transcript to more details such as which courses you took and which ones brought up/down your GPA: In this case if you took only 3 courses/term throughout your undergrad, it might raise eyebrows but you are saying it's only your senior year so it won't likely be a problem.
  • More important than GPA and Course Load combined, is reference letters and publication/research-experience if you have any. GPA means very little to me because I know that a 70% at Oxford (where I did my PhD) is considered a "1st" which is the highest-level of honour and is only awarded to the best of the best students, yet in Canada (where I did my undergrad degrees) it was common to get 90s or even 100% occasionally. Furthermore even within Canada a 90% at University of Waterloo might mean something different from a 90% at Laurier Unviersity (in the same city), and a 90% in Psychology might mean something different from a 90% in Literature (even at the same university), and a 90% in PSYCH 101 with a leniently grading TA might mean something different from a 90% with a harshly grading TA (even for the same course in the same university in the same country!). Your volunteering and experience-gaining, which you say is the reason why you're taking 3 courses instead of 5, might actually be benefiting you more than you imagine, because if you do well you might get a strong reference letter, which is usually more powerful than a good GPA alone.

Most people are not going to care what course load you took. In my opinion, making graduate admissions decisions on that basis would be inappropriate.

However, I do recommend taking the highest course load you are capable of. This will help you learn more, graduate faster, and start earning money sooner. At many institutions, taking the maximum allowed course load will also save you money.

If you take a low course load for a long time, I would suggest doing something meaningful with the rest of your time, and mentioning all the great stuff you did in your graduate school application.

  • Well, for the UK this wouldn't be true... - You get no choice in modules at university and if you wanted to add modules to finish sooner, you'd be paying for it directly and not via the students loan company. Also, just taking more modules even if you are capable of doing so will NOT make you necessarily learn more, especially if you start just preparing for exams. Having time not to rush through the subject allows you to better process the contents. Overloading yourself with information is not going to have a positive effect.
    – DetlevCM
    Jul 20, 2020 at 19:20
  • @DetlevCM I thought "course load" was an American concept, so I assume the asker is at an American university. I did say "highest course load you are capable of" not "highest possible load" Jul 20, 2020 at 23:59
  • This still assumes that people are familiar with the US educational system, which is not a given and might even be incomprehensible to some. (Why on earth does the US use the same name for a school and university? Or do schools issue university degrees? A college is a school, NOT a university...) - As to modules/lectures: There was definitely flexibility in which topics you attended in Europe before the "Bologna reform" in Europe. - And as mentioned in my comment, the UK will let you pay to finish faster (even if it is not necessarily advisable). Making assumptions on an international site....
    – DetlevCM
    Jul 21, 2020 at 6:20
  • ...is typically not advisable it it may be a good idea to be explicit. Even if it may seem obvious to some (i.e. your US readers).
    – DetlevCM
    Jul 21, 2020 at 6:20
  • @DetlevCM I think my answer does address all the situations you have raised. Jul 21, 2020 at 7:00

They will probably consider your courseload on top of everything else, but if you are only taking fewer courses in your last year and not as a continued pattern then it will probably not be considered relevant.

For example, if a student has a low or mediocre GPA while consistently taking only one or two courses per semester, that will not look good; it may be a concern that that student may have trouble passing all of their classes under the kind of courseload that is necessary to complete a graduate degree in a timely manner. On the other hand a good GPA while taking a very heavy courseload starts to be more impressive.

But again, this kind of thing will only be considered as part of a larger pattern, in relation to concerns about being able to perform well in a graduate program.


I was actually going to ask this same question because I also had a low course load throughout most of my undergrad. education (without working or extra cirricular activites). I can't answer from experience since I haven't applied anywhere yet, but I think it may depend on the circumstances and your overall courseload throughout your undergrad. education.

Since you've been taking four-five classes all your other semesters and have a high GPA, they're probably not going to care about a single semester with three classes, regardless of whether you working/volunteering/etc. in your spare time.


I was at Harvard University graduate school of arts and sciences.

To be a full-time student a graduate student must take at least 12 credit hours, otherwise they are part time.

In terms of GPA, most undergraduate schools will only accept your unweighted GPA

Admissions is a holistic gesture, and it isn’t a “all or nothing” decision.

They are wanting to know why you may, someday, establish significantly innovative and pioneering work in your field, and that the work that you have completed, in the past, is…

truly exceptional.

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