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Understanding the U.S. Academic System


The American educational system is intended to provide a broad education for as many people as possible. A high proportion of the population of the United States completes secondary school (high school) by age 18 and a large percentage of high school graduates go on to some form of higher education.

  • Degree Levels

    College or university education consists of the following:

    • Bachelor's Degree: 4-year degree; students are called 'undergraduates"
    • Master's Degree: 2-year degree following the Bachelor's degree; students are called 'graduates"
    • Doctorate Degree (PhD): a highly specialized degree usually following the Master's degree.
    • Postdoctoral study and Research following the doctoral study.
  • The Semester System

    The academic year at UNF is comprised of three semesters: Fall, Spring, and Summer. Each semester is 16 weeks in length. The summer semester is divided into three sections, Summer A, Summer B, and Summer C. You may take classes during Summer A, Summer B, and/or Summer C. Summer A and Summer B are usually 6 weeks in length and Summer C is 12 usually weeks in length.

  • Majors and Minors

    Most undergraduate students in the United States select a major by their third year of study. A major is a program of study that is well defined and either prepares a student academically for employment in a particular industry, provides a broad education without depth in any one particular field, or prepares the student for further study in that academic area. Most students select one major and perhaps a minor. Some students select two majors.

    Each semester students study different subjects of either a general nature or specific to their major. Many courses are required of all students in a particular major, but students generally have a variety of elective courses to choose from.

  • General Education Requirements

    General Education is the first part of a degree, before you get into the area of study (or major) courses (the main classes that define your degree). General education courses cover a variety of topics such as English, Mathematics, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and Humanities.

  • Course Descriptions

    Courses are identified with an alphabetic and numeric coding system. The alphabetic abbreviation identifies the course content, and the numbers have the following meaning:

    • 1000 and 2000 level - freshman or sophomore-level courses
    • 3000 and 4000 level - junior or senior-level courses
    • 5000 level - beginning graduate-level courses
    • 6000 level - graduate-level courses
    • 7000 level - doctoral-level courses

    Example: ENC 1101 = freshman level English course

  • Prerequisites

    A prerequisite is a specific course or subject that you must complete before you can take another course at the next grade level.

    For example, if you wish to take 'Intermediate Macroeconomics" and the prerequisite is 'Business Statistics," if you cannot show that you have completed and passed Business Statistics, you will not be approved to register for the course.

  • Credits

    The quantity of academic work a student does at a university is measured in credits. The number of credits a course is worth usually depends on the number of hours per week that it meets. A 'three credit course," for example, will meet three hours weekly for one semester. It might meet for three sixty-minute sessions, two 1 ½ hour sessions, or for one three-hour session. A student who has achieved a passing grade in the course has earned 'three credits" or 'three-credit hours."

    The student must earn a specified number of credits in order to graduate. A typical Bachelor's degree program requires 120 credits to graduate. Graduate (Master's) degree program generally require a minimum of 36 credits for the degree. It is necessary to apply for graduation and complete all graduation requirements in order to earn a diploma.

    Transfer students who have earned university credit abroad may transfer some of their previous credit. Academic advisors will determine how many previous credits will transfer and count towards a degree at UNF. Students should be advised it might take longer than originally anticipated to complete a degree program with transfer credit due to general education requirements.

  • Student Classification

    Students are classified based on the amount of credit hours earned:

    • Freshman: 0-29
    • Sophomore: 30-59
    • Junior: 60-89
    • Senior: 90-120
  • The Grading System

    The quality of a student's academic work is measured by means of letter grades. Each letter grade equals to a certain number of points, and these points are used to calculate a student's Grade Point Average (GPA). View UNF's grade policy on the University Catalog website.

    Professors differ greatly in their awarding of grades. Each professor at the University has his or her own philosophy and methods of grading. Many professors grade objectively, basing students' grades on their exam scores alone. Others grade subjectively, requiring students to participate in classroom discussions and other activities.

    Some professors use fixed grading scales whereby each assignment or examination can receive a maximum number of points (e.g., 10, or 100), and the total number of points accumulated is converted into a letter grade (e.g., 90-100 is an A). Some others grade 'on the curve." They use a formula so that the highest group of grades will receive A's, the next highest group will receive B's, etc. Under this system, the students in the class are competing with each other for high grades. This information should be clearly stated on the course syllabus.

  • Academic Advisor

    Your academic advisor helps you plan your program of study in a way that will best enable you to fulfill your graduation requirements and at the same time allow you to pursue studies to your area of interests.

    Undergraduate students will typically meet with their academic advisor during periods of class selection and registration. Graduate students on the other hand work very closely with the academic advisor throughout the school year.

    At UNF, there are specialized academic advisors by college and there are also general advisors for first time in college students called First Year Advising.

  • Methods of Instruction

    The most common method of instruction at UNF is the classroom lecture. Lectures are supplemented by classroom discussions, reading assignments, and writing assignments. It is important for a student to contribute to classroom discussions. Your grade may be determined in part by your contribution. If you sit in 'respectful" silence, the professor may assume that you're not interested or that you don't understand the topic being discussed.

    When the class is too large to permit discussion or you don't have the opportunity to ask questions in class, it is recommended that you meet with your professor during their office hours.

    Many courses require work in a laboratory, which involves a separate course registration, where the theory learned in a classroom is applied to practical problems. Most often science courses will require laboratory time.

  • Examinations / Tests / Quizzes

    You will have many examinations, tests, and quizzes. Nearly every class has a final exam at the end of the semester and most have a mid-term exam. There may be weekly tests or quizzes. Your grade in the class will often be based on your exam scores.

    You may not look at other students' papers or at course materials during an exam. If you cheat on an exam it can result in a 'zero" grade for the examination and disciplinary action.

    An objective exam tests the students' knowledge of particular facts. There are several different types of exam questions:

    • Multiple Choice: choosing the most appropriate answer from among a series of answers.
    • True and false: indicating whether a stamen is true or false.
    • Matching: matching words, phrases, or statements from two columns.
    • Identification: identifying and explaining the significance of a name, term, or phrase.
    • Fill-in: completing a statement by filling in a word or phrase left blank.
    • Essay: writing an essay in response to a question or statement; tests a student's ability to organize and relate his knowledge of a particular subject: are often graded subjectively by the professor.