Can you explain how course schedules are structured in the United States? Is there a pre-set timetable? Do people generally attend classes with the same people? Do most people graduate on time?

For example, in Russia we have cohorts of students who attend the same degree program. Everyone in that cohort has the same or nearly the same timetable for the whole 4-year period. Those people attend the same classes, which are mostly preselected, together and get to know each other. If you fail a class you either have to redo the exam or, failing that, retake the whole year.

In the US, after being accepted, my understanding is that something like this happens: Every student chooses their own classes based on the gen-ed requirements and the classes that are required for their major. The classes are structured like a skill tree with more advanced classes requiring other classes to be taken, but every student can take and retake classes in their own time and are not required to "keep up" with anyone else. Two people graduating with the same major may end up having attended a very different set of classes at different times.

If so, how is a university able to create a unique timetable for every student? Wouldn't constructing a timetable so that every student could take their desired classes be a nightmare? If everyone is taking different classes in different order, would it mean that many people are unable to complete their degree in 4 years?

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    "If everyone is taking different classes in different order, would it mean that many people are unable to complete their degree in 4 years?" I'm not quite sure why you say this. Dec 9, 2022 at 16:09
  • Because if I, for example, I, as a chemical engineering student decide to miss calculus on the first semester then I would not be able to take differential equations on the second semester which would mean I would need to take my physical chemistry a semester later which in turn means my chemical reactors class would be moved up one semester and so on... Dec 9, 2022 at 16:14
  • How would you rephrase the question? Dec 9, 2022 at 16:15
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    @AzorAhai-him- Eh, in my undergraduate biology degree, missing, say, first year chemistry would have definitely meant you graduate late unless you were allowed to skip a prereq. Gen chem required for o-chem second year, required for biochem third year, required for upper division electives 4th year. The solution is simple, though: everyone interested or possibly interested in biology takes chemistry first year. Yes, if you come to a major late, though, you might graduate later than 4 years; that seems unavoidable.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 9, 2022 at 16:33
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    So, I guess, for OP, yes, if you are a chem engineering student and you'll not be able to finish your degree in four years if you miss calculus the first semester, then the solution is don't miss calculus. Making sure students are aware of these sorts of things is the main job of the advisors mentioned in Buffy's answer and discussed among Buffy and Azor Ahai in the comments there.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 9, 2022 at 16:35

4 Answers 4


US education is not "one system" - every institution is potentially unique because they all run themselves. There is no national system. There are regional accreditation organizations, but these organizations don't care about the mechanics of scheduling.

If so, how is a university able to create a unique timetable for every student?

At large US universities (i.e., those with incoming classes approaching or greater than 10,000 students), they certainly don't bother with anything like that for individual students. Courses come with a set schedule; students choose to enroll in those that fit their needs and schedule for each term.

When a department is choosing when to offer a course, they'll certainly consider likely conflicts with interested students. For example, incoming students in Biology likely need some version of "Biology 101" and "Chemistry 101" in their first semester; if they don't take these right away, they'll be behind the next semester as these are required prerequisites for the next semester of classes, and those for the next semester, and so on. Therefore, the Bio and Chem departments will talk to each other and offer these courses at different times; at a big university, there are likely many sections of each with different instructors. The same applies to various courses within a major; frequently there are classes that, say, every Physics student will take the first semester of their third year. They're not going to offer Physics electives typically taken by third-year physics students at the same time as that standard course, or no one would enroll in the electives.

A Biology student likely also needs to fulfill some sort of history requirement, but they have flexibility on when and how in their studies they do this. If they want to fulfill it specifically with History of International Basketweaving, they might not be able to practically take it the same semester that they take Reptile Dissection. In an extremely unlucky case, maybe they never have room in their schedule for it because one year it conflicts with Bio 101, the next year it conflicts with Organic Chemistry, then they miss it for Reptile Dissection and finally for their Bioinformatics Lab. That's likely okay, because they can fill their history requirement with a different course, but some students may choose or need to take additional semesters to complete all the coursework they want. It's especially likely to find conflicts when students try to complete multiple majors, because not every possible combination of majors can coordinate all their classes to not overlap.

Schedules tend to be fairly consistent from year-to-year: roughly the same courses, roughly the same number of students, so it's not like these things need to be revamped from scratch every year. When a new course is added to the schedule, the department will work with administration and look at the whole timetable of courses much the way a student would. There's also likely to be some pre-existing structure, like courses only start at certain times of day. As an undergraduate, all my classes on M/W/F started at 8, 9:05, 10:10, 11:15, 12:20, etc, designed to have a 50 minute course with time to get anywhere else on campus before the next slate began. Longer courses might occupy multiple time slots, and there were also options for evening classes that started around 5:30, lasted much longer, and met less frequently, all to accommodate part-time students/students with full-time day jobs/students with daytime childcare responsibilities.

There are also typically counselling resources for students, because yes, especially early on, scheduling can be intimidating for a new student. In practice, though, if a student is registering for, say, 3-5 total classes, probably at least 2-3 of them are pretty clear choices based on their major, so that the decision space is not so vast.

Smaller institutions may have much more systematic class times where most students from the same major take exactly the same courses, or major and elective credits are offered in separate semesters. I'm less familiar with these systems, but consider that some US institutions may only have something like 300 incoming students per year; in that sense, they're smaller than many pre-university high schools in the US.


Students arrive at college with different levels of understanding about what they want to study. I knew from the first it would be mathematics. My daughter only chose her major study (philosophy) after three years of study, having studied many things already. The latter case is unusual and most choose initially or after about one year.

In many, perhaps most universities, every student is at some point chooses or is assigned a faculty member as an advisor who meets with the student to plan for the coming terms, according to the interests of the student at the time. In large universities the early advisement might be by a special office rather than a faculty member. In general, though, students have a way to get advice on planning the path to the degree.

There are limitations in that there is a core undergraduate set of courses that must be taken. Everyone takes a bit of, say, history, science, philosophy, writing, literature, etc. in addition to any chosen major.

Once you have a major, you have an additional set of core requirements. In math it will include analysis, algebra, probably topology, etc. These are normally started in the first years. The advisor has the duty of giving good advice on course sequencing.

Choosing a minor subject will also have core requirements and some later options. Where I studied a "minor" in philosophy was almost guaranteed due to the overall core requirements. A minor has, say, about half as many courses needed as the major.

A student in math and a student in literature will, perhaps, share a course or two in the first year, but not likely afterwards.

The final two years are more specialized with fewer required courses and more options in the major and (perhaps) any minor(s) chosen. All this is guided by the advisor who meets with the student for course planning and possibly other academic advice. One normally has the same advisor over all four years, but, perhaps not, especially if the major is chosen later. You want an advisor who is a faculty member in your major.

Note that the advisor is guided by somewhat flexible rules. A certain number of courses is required for this and for that and courses have some sequencing requirements, but exceptions are possible and not necessarily rare. I had an exception made for my foreign language requirement, for example, having studied both French and German, but not quite enough to satisfy the requirement for either. For that, the dean needed to approve and took my overall trajectory into account.

In the upper level courses you are likely to see many of the same students in your classes, but this depends on the size of the institution. My undergrad place was small, and I could depend on having two fellow (yes, fellow - all male college) students in all my upper level courses and a few others in some others. At a large place, this might not happen as often.

Even in US grad school with advanced courses at the start, you would see many of the same students in the courses intended to prepare for comprehensive exams.

Note that US higher education isn't like a production line, with everyone getting the same treatment and everyone progressing at the same rate. If students fail, they might retake the course or find an alternative, even changing majors. Retaking final exams after a failed course probably isn't an option here. I've never heard of it anyway.

The education is much broader and is intended to form an "educated person", not a technocrat, though some specialties have that characteristic (law, medicine...). The system in general has been described as producing a Renaissance Person.

Some detail, typical, but not universal as there are a couple of popular systems:

An undergraduate program might consist of 16 "credits" per term for 8 terms or 128 credits overall. This might be four or five courses per term or maybe six, with some having less weight and some more (lab science). Overloads are possible. I once did 21.5 credits in a successful term. A "credit" is roughly equivalent to meeting one hour per week in a course, so a 3 credit course has three meetings per week over about 15 weeks or 45 hours of instruction, including exams.

The major might be in the neighborhood of 48 or so credits or around 40% of the total. Many students take more in the major than the minimum. A minor might be around half of the major.

Some places (Dartmouth for example) use a different system with things divided up differently, but the totals roughly the same.

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    "Every student is assigned a faculty member as an advisor who meets with the student to plan for the coming terms" This is definitely not true for "every" American student. In fact, I've never heard of this (in SLACs, maybe?). In large state universities I am familiar with, students are assigned staff-member advisors, then get handed off to an undergraduate advisor in their major department once they declare a major. Dec 9, 2022 at 15:57
  • @AzorAhai-him-, yes, you are probably correct for large universities, but it also happens in medium sized places. The advising in large state places is more likely by an office of advisement early on. Correction issued.
    – Buffy
    Dec 9, 2022 at 16:02
  • Still, I've never heard of undergrads being "assigned" a faculty advisor in any way. Perhaps through research, but for "picking classes," that is only ever done by a staff member (or in one case, a PhD student whose appointment was undergrad advisor). But, my experience is only with very large universities. Dec 9, 2022 at 16:07
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    Even in my tiny major dept (~30 students/year) we didn't have faculty advisors. In larger departments, I can't imagine faculty are thrilled to help undergrads figure out scheduling conflicts?? Dec 9, 2022 at 16:13
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    @AzorAhai-him-: Well, after reading this comment, you will have heard of it. :) At my institution (public R3, about 6000 undergrads), in most majors, every student gets assigned a full-time faculty advisor at the end of their second year. Students meet with their advisor once per semester to discuss classes for the following semester, progress toward graduation, future plans, or any other issues. In some cases it makes sense to schedule one-on-one meetings. In other cases, where many students will have similar schedules, they do it in groups. Dec 9, 2022 at 23:08

One thing that makes the scheduling easier is that there are often multiple "sections" of a possible course.

e.g. there are might be Calculus I lectures on Monday/Wednesday/Friday at 9 am (section 1), 10 am (section 2), 11 am (section 3), and Tuesday/Thursday at 11 am (section 4) and 2 pm (section 5). Students can register for any of these five sections of the course and they're considered to be equivalent, although different professors might teach the sections.

At smaller colleges like my institution, many courses are offered in single sections. We take pains to make sure that known schedule conflicts are avoided. e.g. Vector Analysis (Math) and Electricity and Magnetism (Physics) are corequisites, so we check to make sure that there isn't a conflict. If it happens that Abstract Algebra is scheduled at the same time as Electricity and Magnetism, then a student who wants to take both will have to make a choice.

It's absolutely true that schedule conflicts like these can delay graduation for students. In the US, graduation rates are usually computed for 4-years and 6-years, with the 6-year graduation rate often twice as high as the four-year graduation rate. There is a growing trend of using software tools to construct conflict-free class schedules to help students graduate on time.

  • Are all sections end up being filled? Would you not end up that some sections have more attendees then others? If so, would it not make the operating costs rise very quickly since some of the sections would only be filled to partial capacity? Dec 10, 2022 at 0:02
  • Sections are usually filled in first-come, first-served order, so students who register early get their pick of sections and students who register late may have little (or no) choice. If the course enrollment is several times the section size, you won't end up with much wasted capacity. When it gets down to single sections of a course, they're typically only offered once every year or even once every other year. Yes, it's very expensive if a single section course has a total enrollment of only 10 students. However, this is balanced by large general education courses with big sections. Dec 10, 2022 at 2:05

This varies greatly by institution and also, potentially, by your intended major. Some institutions admit undergraduates to a specific major directly, while others do not expect you to officially declare a major until later on, sometimes in the second year (often because selecting a major can have financial aid implications).

Within that colleges and universities have "general education" requirements that may also vary by major. Sometimes general education will be totally free choice, sometimes it will have categories with choice within them, and sometimes there will be specific courses recommended for specific interests or majors. For example, STEM majors typically will encourage you to use calculus or another course required for the major for your math general education requirement. One the other hand, they may not care which literature class you take. The English department, however, may want their potential majors to take one certain literature course but not care what math.

In some schools, large and small, there is a common first year curriculum for everyone (that may also include additional courses). Columbia University is famous for this: "Six shared courses, in which all students study the same content and learn foundational academic habits of mind and habits of work."

Very small institutions may offer a cohort model. One extreme example is the Webb Institute. But, in fact, many colleges have "learning communities" in the first year in which a group of students takes some or all courses together. And once you are in a major, you will probably be moving through classes with many of the same students in the same order.

Many institutions offer "guided pathways" or "meta majors" in the first year. In these systems students are given options that will keep them moving forward but are intended to also move them along in their likely majors.

In sum, there is no one answer to your question because institutions vary so much from one to the next. You should research each institution you might consider (e.g. based on location, available majors, size) for its special characteristics and practices.

Addition in response to comments:

I can't really answer the questions in general because they depend on the institution. From personal experience at my institution they are more common for course-based graduate programs. Keeping a cohort together for four years, especially where students can fail courses, change majors, study abroad and so on would be challenging. A place like the Webb Institute are very small and offer just one program, so they are more able to do this.

  • Can you elaborate on the cohort model. It sounds like something we have. Why is it so uncommon? It seems to be a very good system from the point of view of the university since it allows to plan the timetable in advance without considering the individual wishes of individual students. What happens when a student falls behind his cohort such as when they fail a class? Dec 10, 2022 at 8:31
  • I assume you mean that all people in the same cohort are working towards the same major Dec 10, 2022 at 8:52

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