North American university systems

The higher education systems in the USA and Canada are well known for flexibility and academic excellence, fulfilling university life, and a wide choice of degree programs, which lead individuals to fantastic global careers.

On this page you will find information about terms used in North American education, and learn what they mean for you.

What is the academic year?

The academic year usually lasts nine months. Most universities use a 'semester' system that divides the year into two equal parts separated by a long summer break and a short winter break.

Most universities let you start either in the fall semester (August) or the spring semester (January). In some cases there is also a summer term, which starts in May.

What is a credit?

A credit is a unit of study. You will take several courses each semester. Each course counts for a number of 'credits'. Credits can be awarded for lectures, independent project work, laboratory time and internships.

How many credits do you need?

Typical credit requirements:

120-130 credit hours for a Bachelor's degree

30-64 credit hours for a Master's degree

International Students:

At least 12 credits per semester in order to maintain your visa status

How long is a degree in the USA or Canada?

The duration of your studies depends on the time you take to earn enough credits to complete your degree.

Most undergraduate programs:

Typically you can graduate with a Bachelor's degree after four academic years of full-time study.

Most graduate programs:

Typically you can graduate with a Master's degree after one or two academic years of full-time study.

English Language program, International Year and Pre-Master's students who need additional English language preparation may require one or two extra semesters.

How will you be assessed?

Your teachers will assess your academic performance throughout your program.

Methods of assessment:

  • Written assignments
  • Presentations
  • Laboratory or studio work
  • Class attendance
  • Class participation
  • End-of-semester examinations

How will your work be graded?

Your teachers will grade your work throughout the semester. You will get a grade for each course that you complete.

A = excellent, the highest grade (90% and above)

B = above average (80 – 89%)

C = average (70-79%)

D = the minimum passing grade (60-69%)

F = fail (59% and below)

What do 'GPA' and 'academic good standing' mean?

Students at North American universities are given a grade point average (GPA).

A = 4.00

B = 3.00

C = 2.00

D = 1.00

F = 0.00 (Fail)

At most universities, you must maintain a cumulative GPA of at least 2.0 to be considered in academic good standing and continue to the next year of your degree program. Your cumulative grade point average is the GPA for all the courses you have taken throughout your degree program.

How will you learn in the USA?

The methods of learning at North American universities encompass a broad range of styles. Class lectures are an important part of learning. You will also read relevant material from a variety of sources, as well as complete different types of writing assignments. With expert guidance from your teachers and support from resources on campus, you will take on a high level of responsibility for your own studies, which will better prepare you for your future career.

How will you interact with your teachers?

Relationships between teachers and students tend to be informal at universities in Canada and the USA. Teachers are often available outside of class and offer ‘office hours’, so you can discuss any projects or topics covered in class.

Is it OK to challenge others’ opinions in class?

Sharing ideas is actively encouraged at North American universities. Analysis and critical thinking are essential to your academic success. Students often respectfully challenge teachers in class. Teachers view these challenges as signs of students' understanding and passion for their subject; so you should feel free to share your ideas!