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How Many Online Courses Should You Take Each Semester?

April 28, 2014 by Kelly Paul |
Kelly Paul

Let’s face it. Going to – and finishing - college isn’t easy. It takes a lot of hard work, research, reading, writing, presenting, and learning, to complete a degree. College also isn’t for everyone.  But for those adults who know they want to pursue a college education and earn a degree – whether it’s an undergraduate or graduate degree, or a graduate certificate – being able to take courses online is a big deal. 

People often get excited about the convenience and time-saving features of online learning and try to take more courses at one time than they’re prepared to manage - successfully.  To help you navigate what kind of course load you should take, I’ve identified some key questions for you to consider.

  • Are you enrolling in an undergraduate or graduate level program?

    Most full-semester undergraduate courses are 3 credit-hours. For each 3 credit-hour course you will need to plan about 8 hours per week of study and coursework. The amount of study time can change from week-to-week and by course.

    Because graduate level courses are typically more intensive than undergraduate courses, for each 3 credit-hour course you will need to plan about 12 hours per week of study and coursework. As with undergraduate courses the amount of study can change from week-to-week and by course.
  • Is it a course you know will be difficult for you or is it a course you are passionate about and have a lot of subject-matter knowledge?

    If it’s a course you know you’ll struggle through, it’s going to take you a lot more time each week to study, learn, and do well. You’ll have to reach back to prior experience to determine exactly how much time you’ll need to add, but do it and plan accordingly.

    Additionally, if it’s a course you’re passionate about you’ll need to determine if you think you’ll be able to spend less time than average studying or if you’ll actually spend MORE time studying because you enjoy it.
  • Are your course terms full traditional-length semesters or compressed?

    A traditional length semester runs between 14 and 16 weeks. If you take courses that are compressed into a shorter period of time you’ll need to account for the additional weekly study time. Remember, short terms don’t typically cover less content - they typically cover the same content in less time. This isn’t always the case, but it’s important to find out before you find yourself taking on a course load that’s too heavy.
  • Do you work, and if so, how much?

    If you’re like most adults attending college online, you work, and you work full-time. This means at a minimum you’re committing 40 of your weekly waking hours to your job. This obviously doesn’t count commuting, or anything else you do in a week. If you’re someone who is typically awake for 17 hours a day, this leaves you 79 hours each week for commuting, meal prep, eating, family commitments, recreation etc. How many of these hours can you really commit to routine study?

  • Do you travel for work?

    If you do, you’ll want to be certain to anticipate your travel needs over the course of the semester and adjust accordingly. Some semesters you may have more travel commitment than others and depending on how that impacts your study time you may need to take fewer or even more courses.
  • How long will it take you to finish this degree?

    Will you be spending one year in college or will it be a longer period of time? Only you can determine how much of a course load you’ll be able to carry, repeatedly, every semester, for the length of time you’ll be enrolled in college. That initial excitement of taking additional courses so you finish quickly may not be realistic over the long term.
  • Are you receiving any scholarship or financial aid money?

    Some scholarships and financial aid require you to take a minimum number of hours each semester in order to receive monies. Some even set a maximum number of hours you can take. Be sure to know the limits and plan accordingly.

With so many things that impact available time for coursework, you can see there is no one right answer to the question. I will close though, by letting you know how many online courses I took at one time while I worked a full-time job that required travel.


I once took three courses at one time and it was not pretty, my coursework suffered as did my sanity and my relationships with family and friends. 

By: Kelly Paul

Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles at


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