"Credit," "Credit Hour": What Do These Mean?

Dec 2023

9 Minute Read

Tagged as: How to Apply

Discusses the terms credit, credit hour, transcript, grade report etc

Higher education institutions in the US and the UK have many things in common. However, some of the terms they use have meanings that are unfamiliar to many. And unfortunately for many prospective students and their families, there's no comprehensive resource out there that explains these terms.

Until now.

Our "Defining the Terms" series is meant to help you understand many common yet somewhat confusing terms used in secondary and higher education, and what they mean in the context of your student’s future. We work with the language of education every day, and sometimes, we take this for granted. The existence of several versions of the English language can create a lot of confusion. We hope that this series of posts will help you through the fog.

In this post, we are going to define one of the most commonly-encountered, yet most confusing terms for international students: the word "credit." This term is very common, particularly when applying for summer programs and researching degree requirements. We will now examine some of the most common ways the word is used.

What is "credit?"

Generally speaking, the term "credit" is used to indicate the completion of a course.1 For example, CollegeBoard, the body who administers the AP exams, uses the term thusly:

"If you earn an AP Exam score of 3 or higher, chances are you can receive*credit, advanced placement, or both from your college — nearly all colleges and universities in the United States — as well as many institutions in more than 60 other countries — grant **credit* and placement for AP scores…" (CollegeBoard)

What this means is that students with high AP exam scores are essentially regarded as having completed the course(s) that the exams they took correspond to. These courses will appear on their transcript (or school report) and count toward the completion of their degree. "Credit" means the same thing when used in the context of high school courses.

What is "course credit?"

"Course credit" is simply a synonym for credit—it is just a more specific way to say it.

What is a credit hour?

While "credit" and "course credit" can have more definitions than is convenient, a credit hour2 has only one meaning. This term is almost always used in a higher education context, and it refers to a single unit of credit involved in completing a course.

This may sound even more confusing than these terms already are. Fortunately, the concept is actually much simpler than it sounds. In US universities, each class is worth a certain number of credits. Further, all students take a certain number of credits to maintain a full-time course load each term. While this number varies each term, many universities set this minimum threshold at 12 credit hours.

For a 12-hour course load in the US, most students will take between 3 and 5 classes. At Texas A&M University, for instance, science, mathematics, and social sciences courses that require laboratory meetings are usually worth 4 credit hours each. Foreign languages are also usually worth 4 hours per course, as they must meet all 5 days of the week. Humanities, history, and other upper-level lecture courses are usually worth 3 hours each.

So, a student taking two laboratory science courses, calculus, and a composition course at Texas A&M would be taking a total of 13 credit hours, which is a full-time course load.

In the UK, credit hours are calculated a little differently. In the case of the University of Kent, credit hours per course more closely match with the amount of time a student spends in class each term. A high-level accounting course is worth 30 credit hours. Regardless of the numbers used, however, "credit hours" are really just numbers used to calculate someone’s progress toward their degree.

Related terms: "transcript" and "grade report"

A "transcript" is a document requested by US and UK universities when students apply. This document shows all grades a student has received and all courses they have taken throughout high school. Transcripts are official documents directly released by their school.

A "grade report,"3 on the other hand, only shows a single term’s worth of grades. This is also called a "report card" (US) or "mid-year school report" (UK). This can be officially released by the school, or it can be a photocopy of the report received at home. The reason universities ask for transcripts is because grade reports can be easily falsified.

Requiring both a transcript and a grade report is a security measure, certainly. However, seeing both can help admissions committees when evaluating an application, because it can reveal a student’s current progress in relation to their past achievements.

In the next post, we will be looking at the terms "major," "course," and "class."

Lastly, if you're beginning your college application journey and are in need of more support, be sure to download Occam's free app, Wend, on the App Store.


  1. Related terms: course, class, lecture
  2. Related terms: course, course load, credits, transcript
  3. Related terms: courses, course load, credits, degree requirements

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