UC Berkeley Academic Systems and Norms

Organization of the University System

American universities are a collection of colleges or schools that focus on an array of broad disciplines of study. In general, a college refers to a place where students can earn undergraduate or graduate degrees. A school refers to a place that mainly serves graduate students. Schools tend to have a more professional or vocational focus than colleges. UC Berkeley has thirteen colleges and schools. 

Within each school or college is a collection of departments. While some departments offer several majors of study, others simply offer one. For example, in the Department of Biological Sciences, one can major in a range of topics from Molecular & Cell Biology to Neurobiology to Genetics. Other departments, such as the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, offer only one major.

Colleges, schools and departments create their own policies and academic standards for their students. It will be important for you to understand these so that you know how your academic achievement will be measured.

UC Berkeley Education System

UC Berkeley Education System diagram
UC Berkeley Education System diagram

Classroom Culture and Expectations

At UC Berkeley, you will take several different types of courses. In some, you may be one of several hundred students in a large lecture hall. In others, you may be one of just a dozen or so students in a small discussion section or laboratory.

Ultimately, it's up to each professor to create the culture and set expectations for students in their classroom. However, in general, the setting of a course often plays a large part in the professor's decisions. Below is an overview of the sorts of courses you are bound to see at the University and  what you can generally expect from them.


  • Led by a professor
  • Often very large – sometimes hundreds of students
  • Professors often need to move through a great deal of material quickly
  • Professors may or may not expect student participation

Laboratory/Studio/Workshop/Field Work

  • Led by a professor
  • Located in a lab, studio, workshop or in the field ("In the field" means off campus.  For example, you could be researching architecture in Oakland for an architecture course or researching doctor-patient interactions at a clinic in Berkeley for a public health course.)
  • Lab, studio, and workshop course sizes vary depending on how many students the classroom can hold. 
  • Field work courses vary in size depending on how much interaction the professor expects to have with students before and after field work activities.
  • These courses might have a separate lecture, seminar, or GSI-led section associated with them. 
  • Expect a great deal of interaction with professor and peers. 


  • Usually led by professors
  • Classes of 5-20 people
  • Generally seated around a table
  • Discuss readings, “big picture” ideas in your field, etc. 
  • Discussion is required


  • Led by a graduate student assistant (GSI)
  • Usually 20-30 students
  • Meant to complement or fill in details of lecture courses or lab courses
  • Expect deeper, slower explanations of tricky concepts; expect to work through sample problems in detail.  
  • Individual and peer work is expected; active participation is expected. 
UC Berkeley Classroom

UC Berkeley classroom.

Student in a UC Berkeley lab

Student in a UC Berkeley lab. Photo by Keegan Houser.

Degree Requirements

In order to earn a particular degree from UC Berkeley, you must take all the courses required for it. The degree requirements for each degree are major-specific. In other words, a Media Studies student and a Physics student will be required to take very different sets of courses in order to graduate. However, no matter the field, all students are likely to encounter the following terms as they learn about their degree requirements.

UC System and UC Berkeley requirements

The UC system requires students to take the following three courses: Entry-level Writing, American Cultures, and American History & Institutions. The university finds these courses crucial to your academic success and to the school’s mission of educating students about their place in the world. Note that F-1 and J-1 students are exempt from taking AH&I. (If you later become a permanent resident, you will have to take this course.)

College requirements

Each college requires that its students take a set of courses related to the college’s field in general. For example, students at the College of Letters and Science must take Quantitative Reasoning, Foreign Language, and Reading Comprehension courses. These courses are fundamental to this college’s liberal arts focus and the skills students learn in these courses will serve them well in any college of L&S major.

Major requirements

Major courses are those most directly associated with your specific field of study. Major requirements in the field of Architecture, for example, include Fundamentals of Architectural Design and Introduction to Construction. These courses are integral to the work of an Architect; without them, it’s likely a person could not work in this field.

Breadth requirements

One of the primary goals of the American university is to introduce students to the world of ideas that exists outside their major fields of study. Students should graduate not only with a deep knowledge of their subject, but also with a general knowledge and appreciation for a broad range of other fields as well. To this end, all undergraduate colleges at UC Berkeley have breadth requirements. Civil Engineering majors, for example, must complete coursework in fields such as economics, social sciences, literature, history, art, and philosophy.

As you select courses required by your degree, you may notice the following terms.


These are foundational courses you must take before you can take higher level courses. Prerequisite courses are like building blocks. You will use the general knowledge and skills you gain in these courses to succeed in courses that are more specific to your major. Students in the College of Environmental Design, for example, must take Physics before they can take Introduction to Structures. Physics is the prerequisite for this higher level course.


While some courses are absolutely required for a particular major, others are optional or are useful for students who want to delve deeper into a particular aspect of their field; other electives are related to the choices you have in fulfilling breadth requirements. You will have room for several electives built into your degree requirements. For example, Chemistry majors must all take Inorganic Chemistry; this is not an option. However, each individual student can choose to take other courses at their college that relate to different aspects of Chemistry. These are electives.

Remember that academic advisers are your best resource for learning about degree requirements and selecting courses that fulfill them.

Grading System

U.S. universities use a standardized system called the grade point average (GPA) to report how a student is doing in their classes. In each course you take, you will earn a letter grade.  That letter grade corresponds to a number from 0 to 4. The GPA is a weighted average of the numbers 0 to 4 that you earn in each course. It is weighted because some courses are more units —and, therefore, considered more difficult — than others. The GPA is cumulative. This means that it will be recalculated at the end of each semester to reflect in one single number how well you are doing at the university.

UC Berkeley Residential Life offers a detailed explanation of the GPA and a GPA calculator

The Units System and Full-Time Enrollment

UC Berkeley assigns each course a certain number of units based the workload it requires. 

For lecture or seminar courses, 1 unit = 1 hour of class per week + 2 hours of student work per week.

For laboratory, studio, workshop, or fieldwork courses, 1 unit = 3 hours of lab/studio/etc. work per week.
Additional Units

+1 unit if the lecture has a section as well

+1 unit if the professor expects the course to require 3+ extra hours per week of student work (heavy reading load, heavy concept load, or heavy lab load).

Learn more about unit values.

Full-Time Enrollment

Both immigration regulations and your college require that you be enrolled full-time.  What is full-time enrollment?

According to immigration…

For UC Berkeley F-1 and J-1 undergraduates, immigration regulations require that you be enrolled in at least 12 units each semester. 

According to your college…

Each college determines what “full-time” means for its students. For most undergraduate majors, 12 units is the minimum. However, for some colleges, the minimum is different. For example, at the College of Letters & Science (L&S), the minimum is 13 units per semester. 

Combining Immigration and College Unit Requirements

International F-1 and J-1 undergraduate students must follow both their college's rules and immigration rules for full-time enrollment. When these numbers differ, students must be enrolled in the higher number. For example, a student at L&S is required by immigration laws to be in 12 units and by L&S to be in 13 units per semester. They must, therefore, take at least 13 units per semester.

Understanding a Syllabus

In each class, you'll receive a syllabus. (The plural of syllabus is syllabi.) A syllabus is a guide to the course. While syllabi differ greatly from discipline to discipline and professor to professor, you can expect to find the following elements in each one:

  • Basic information – names and contact information for your professor and graduate student instructor (GSI); the location and time of your class; the professor's and GSI's office hours; required textbooks and materials 
  • Grading policies
  • Course schedule – a list of topics to be covered; a schedule of homework, papers, quizzes and exams
  • Standard information - the UC Berkeley Honor Code; information for students with disabilities; information on adding and dropping courses to your schedule
Reading the syllabus is the first step to success in a course.  Not only can you find out basic logistical information about the course, but you can understand exactly what your professor finds important in the class
Dedicate time to reading through the syllabi for your classes.  Highlight important ideas and deadlines.  Make notes if there is any point you don't understand, and then make time to go to office hours as soon as possible to clarify these issues.  
Below are a few sample syllabi from UC Berkeley departments. Note that each contains the common elements of a syllabus, yet each differs from the others in important ways.  These differences point to what the professors finds important in their courses.  

Office Hours

Each professor and each graduate student instructor (GSI) that you have will hold office hours. Office hours are times when you can meet these instructors to ask questions about the class, seek guidance on tricky material, delve deeper into interesting ideas, inquire about research opportunities, discuss your field of study in general, or simply get to know the people who are teaching you. 

Some pointers about office hours:

  • Office hours are for everyone. In the U.S., it's common for all students  not just those who are struggling in a course  to go to office hours. View office hours as a chance to engage more deeply in your field rather than a punishment you must face only if you are struggling in a course.
  • Go early and go often. At the beginning of each semester, professors and GSIs often see just a few students per session. They have a great deal of time at these points to interact with you and address your needs in detail. However, before exams, students flock to office hours. This makes it difficult for instructors to help each individual student as much as they would like. It's important to go to office hours as soon as you have questions.  
  •  In spite of their name, office hours are not always held in an office. Your instructor might set up weekly office hours in a library, a lab, or a coffee shop. 
  • Watch for schedule changes. Sometimes professors or GSIs need to change their schedule for a week or two in order to meet other academic obligations. Some offer extra office hours before exams.  
  • If you can't attend office hours because of a schedule conflict, speak with your professor or GSI after class or send them an email. Explain the situation and ask if you can arrange another time to meet. Most will be happy to do this.