Classes, Assignments & Exams


Let’s talk about the academic structure of universities in the US. Classes vary for undergrad, masters, Ph.D. differs and are similar sometimes. It varies from professor to professor, course to course, and department to department. Here are some of the vocabulary that will help you fit in during the first two weeks.

1. Colleges = School. It’s a common thing to refer to universities, colleges as a school.

2. Classes = Lecture

3. Branch/subject = Major & minor depending on what courses you are doing.

4. First-year = Freshman

5. Second year = Sophomore

6. Third-year = Junior

7. Fourth-year = Senior

In Masters, since it’s only 1/2 years, you can refer to it as the year you’re in or an even better way to refer to it as your next graduation date. Most recruiters focus on your graduation date because they want to get you into the company quickly. All three will have the following options for courses.

  1. Required credits – These classes will be compulsory from universities. They can be associated with all majors or can only be affiliated with your major. They help set standards for everyone at the university and ensure good teaching has been done to call someone an industrial or mechanical engineer.

2. Electives – As a student, you get a set of credits for elective courses. The elective is defined as an optional course of study. You have the option to take a certain number of elective courses. It could be related to your major or can be completely different. You can even opt for a dance course as an elective. But to get the most out of the university, people usually choose electives in a particular field and do a minor in that.

3. Audit – A fun thing about universities in the US is that you can audit a course. Let’s say you can take a maximum of 21 credits per semester. After taking 17 credits, you feel like taking one more class for learning rather than for the grade. Well, then you are in luck as you can audit the course. If you audit the system, the credits won’t be counted. Most of the time, if you are auditing a class, you are exempted from doing the assignments or taking the exams. This helps the students to learn without any commitments. Different universities have different policies about adding audit courses on the transcripts.

4. Course with prerequisites – There will be few courses with prerequisites. This means that to enroll in a particular class, you have to take the one offered in the previous semester. Let’s say you take CS101 in the first semester, and the following semester university is offering CS102; well then, CS101 is a prerequisite to the CS102 course. The information provided in CS101 is essential to understand the CS102 system. In many cases, this has happened where students are asked to take an extra course once they enroll in their master’s program because they do not have the prerequisite course in their undergrad.

5. Research project – Alright, so this one is a bit more complicated than you would think.

a. UG – You can do a capstone project for the senior year. If you plan to do a master’s or Ph.D. later on, which is associated with more research on the professional side, you should prioritize thesis over courses only. If you plan to work or do an experienced master’s that will help you find a job, you should consider individual courses.

b. Masters – There are two types of master’s programs. With a thesis or without an idea or with an option to choose from. There are master’s program for two years where doing a view is mandatory. What a thesis looks like? Check the idea I did for my undergrad on Risk management. It’s an undergraduate thesis, but the format is exactly what you would do in your masters. You can do a non-thesis course and finish it within lesser time to save money in your semester. Check out this video to know more!

A lot of courses are for one year and are heavy on coursework.

c. Ph.D. – PhDs are a beast on their own. To summarize, in short, you’d have a few courses in the first year that are mandated before you take your qualifiers. The purpose of the Doctoral Qualifying Exam is to evaluate the student’s ability to apply and synthesize the skills and knowledge acquired during graduate study. The exam is an essential benchmark in a doctoral student’s progress towards candidacy.

You can take the qualifiers twice and cannot proceed with your Ph.D. without the qualifying exam. While you are doing courses in the first year, you will start with the research process alongside the professors. PhDs can be 3 to 6 years long depending upon the major and a few other factors.

A certain number of credits are required to graduate in the UG, Masters, and PhDs. The number of credits varies from course to course and department to department. To learn about the credit system in US education, check out this blog.


If you are an undergrad, many of your first-year classes will be with people from different majors. In most universities, students can change their major after their freshman year.

These classes help students decide if they are happy with their current majors or if they want to change them later on.

Over four years, there are the following types of classes:

  1. Required credits
  2. Electives
  3. Auditing courses
  4. Research project

Major-Minor Concept 

Significant is defined as the core of your specialization. This is your branch. As I mentioned earlier, there is no pressure to go with the exact degree you’re planning to do. Most of the time, you can switch after your freshman year. Your major will define more than half of your courses and what your degree will say.

Fun fact: According to the American Nation Centre for Education Statistics (NCES), over 40% of the students change their majors after their freshman year.

The concept of minors was introduced to give an edge in the competitive job world. Let’s say you’re a computer major and have used up your elective credits to take economics courses. If you take enough studies in economics, it will become your minor. It will reflect upon your degree and transcripts as well.

I will give you a real-life example here; let’s say a Fintech company is looking for a software engineer. They would prefer someone with an economics minor to understand the product better and create a product that better serves their customers. 

Another example would be industrial engineering with a minor in design or robotics.

Assignment Types

Here are a few types of assignments you may end up getting. In my six years of foreign education and meeting so many people, this is the compilation of all the funny, weird and monotonous assignments.

  1. Regular assignments – These would comprise recurring questions and answers. It could be subjective if the course is related to maths, multiple-choice questions, or writing a code and submitting that on your university platform.

2. Group projects:

a. Presenting a topic from the course.

b. Presenting a business idea – this was while I was enrolled in a business course. We were divided into groups and developed a business idea with seed money of $200 given by the university. Whoever creates the most profitable business wins a particular prize.

c. Summarising a book – One of these assignments was to present a book and correlate the politics in the book with the course study. It was a group of 6, and everyone presented it individually.

3. Critical thinking assignments – one of the assignments at Purdue was for the entire class. It was developing a business plan to increase revenue for a Boston Kitchen non-profit organization and rely less on donations. Every week, the professor would give assignments and present the ideas to the team at Boston Kitchen.

4. Case Study – This includes writing about a particular case. It could be about an instance in history or a business marketing plan, or about a company adopting new technology. You have to write a paper on it.

5. Literature review – A literature review discusses the published information in a particular subject area and sometimes information in a specific subject area within a certain period. A literature review can be just a simple summary of the sources, but it usually has an organizational pattern and combines summary and synthesis. 

Source: The professor can ask you to write based on APA format instead of writing the whole paper. They want to research things, and this helps to summarize them.


Here are a few percentages divided, depending upon the class and class professor to professor. This will vary with different universities, but this percentage divide will give you an idea of how the system is divided.

  • Most common pattern. – Midterms (40%) – Finals (60%)
  • Assignments (60%) and Final presentation/paper (40%)
  • Assignments(35%) + Midterms (30%) + Finals (35%)
  • Only Assignments (100%)

The types of exams can vary. It could be a regular exam where you have 2-3 hours to finish the paper.

Due to COVID, many professors have started giving take-home exams where students are given five days to finish the exam. It’s an open book, but they tend to make it difficult, which is worse than having a closed book. Sometimes the project could end with a final presentation. All of these exams will vary from subject to subject and professor to professor.