What Are Electives at US Universities?

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By Oshitha Narangoda
Last updated on August 10, 2023

College elective courses allow students to broaden their education and explore new interests. Our guide covers everything you need to know about elective courses.

What are electives? Electives are courses at US universities that count toward graduation but may not be directly related to a student's major or degree program. In this image, a group of three international students taking an elective course at a US university stand in a row and study scripts for a theater exercise.

Did you know that students who enroll in an elective course are more motivated to successfully complete their academic programs? Electives — or classes you can take outside your core curriculum — are a central feature of many US liberal arts colleges, and can be a rewarding part of your US university experience. 

When you pursue a degree at a college or university in the US, typically you will see three categories of courses: general education requirements, courses required for specific majors, and electives. These options give you a range of choices and can significantly improve the quality of your college education. 

What Is an Elective Course?

Electives are courses that count toward your credits for graduation, but are not requirements for your particular degree of study. Any courses offered at your college or university that do not have any other conditions — such as significant course prerequisites — may be taken as an elective. 

Your options are endless and do not have to be limited to your field of study. For example, if you are an English major but have an interest in psychology, you could consider psychology as an elective course to expand your portfolio. Selecting an elective in your field is also very beneficial. For example, taking art history or historical literature classes can boost your knowledge when pursuing a degree in art and literature.

Elective courses give students freedom of choice. In both college and high school, students can take classes outside their prescribed plan of coursework. To understand how these optional subjects impact your study plan, it’s important to know the differences between core subjects and elective subjects.

What Is the Difference Between Electives and Core Courses?

At US universities and colleges, courses can be classified as:

  • Core courses — These are mandatory courses you must take to meet the requirements of your program.

  • Elective courses — These non-required courses allow you to study topics that interest you, outside of your core courses.

The combination of both types of classes make up the total number of credits required to complete your degree. Unlike core courses, these optional subjects are meant to be lighter, more fun, and can benefit you in numerous ways.

Choosing an Elective in High School

For many high school students, elective courses allow them to pursue their passions and personal interests, like music, dance, or art. When these optional subjects are carefully selected, they can prepare you for the challenges of college academics and improve your college-level academic skills.

When reviewing applications, college admissions teams focus not only on the types of elective courses a student has chosen, but also on their context and outcomes. They will consider whether the student has:

  • Delivered a transcript signaling progression toward a goal and grades that showed academic potential

  • Built a solid foundation of core courses

  • Taken any challenging courses

  • Participated in academic challenges throughout high school

Why Should You Take College Electives?

Because elective courses allow you to choose from a variety of subjects outside your main field of study, they offer unique advantages that can help you grow personally and professionally.

Here are some advantages of elective courses: 

Electives Can Improve Your GPA

An elective course (ideally) should be less strenuous than your core courses. Grading may be on a different scale from your required courses, and if the workload and/or criteria are less intense, you may earn a grade that improves your overall grade point average (GPA).  

You can start planning your studies around your elective courses by having an idea of which ones you want to take. If your primary program is intensive and does not give you much space for difficult subjects, you can choose comparatively easier options that have less coursework and simpler assignments.

Electives Develop New Skills

Taking additional optional courses can broaden skill sets — and some skills may even support the activities in your degree program. For example, if you major in economics, choosing psychology as an elective can help you understand the mindset of buyers and sellers which allows you to understand the reasons for their spending patterns. 

Electives Let You Explore New Fields of Study

These courses give students space to find their niche by showcasing their talents and developing new interests and abilities. They also provide an opportunity to explore an area of interest or discover completely new areas you may not have considered before. (You may even want to change your major if you develop a strong interest through a particular elective class!)

Electives Diversify Your Professional Portfolio

Employers look for more than just good grades and a degree. They look for skills like creativity, drive, passion, self-esteem, organization, and more, all of which come with diverse experiences inside the classroom and out. These subjects help you discover and build your skills, whether they are career-specific or general. 

If your optional subjects are all focused on one particular area, look into making these courses a minor. Minors, certificates, and double majors not only look good, but also demonstrate your time management skills and a wide variety of knowledge and interests. Be sure to look into all the requirements of your optional courses to make sure you choose the right amount of subjects for your study load.

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How Many Electives Can You Take in College?

Every university has its own guidelines for how many elective courses you should take to reach the required number of credits to graduate. Your university or college advisor can work with you on a study plan in advance so you don’t have any surprises after you enroll.

While there are many courses to choose from, a few popular subjects include:

  • Public speaking — Taking a public speaking elective in college hones your communication skills in front of groups of people. This is important in a professional setting, particularly if your line of work could include presentations, speeches, or similar.

  • Computer science/web development/web design — According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, computer and information technology jobs are projected to grow faster than the average for all occupations from 2022 to 2032. If you are aiming for a job in this industry, choosing a related elective can help you gain relevant skills.

  • English composition or creative writing — With optional courses related to writing, you can practice your English language skills and improve your grammar, communication, and storytelling abilities.

  • Marketing — Marketing subjects allow you to learn about various promotion techniques, consumer psychologies, and market trends. These are valuable skills that can adapt to many types of jobs.

  • Foreign languages — Speaking more than one language opens up unique jobs with organizations that handle multinational clients or services. It can also significantly help you collaborate with multicultural teams. You may even be able to apply for a job in another country!

  • Psychology — A basic knowledge of psychology will help you understand how to work with others, speak with clients, and understand human behavior and thought processes. These insights improve your soft skills and stand out to employers as a strong member of a team.

How Many Credits Do You Earn with Electives?

For every class you take, you are awarded a set number of credits. When you enroll in an elective course, keep in mind the number of credits you need to complete your degree program, in addition to mandatory courses you still have to take. 

The exact number of courses you need will be different at each college and will vary between programs. For example, the average number of credits needed for a two-year associate’s degree is 60, while you need 120 for a four-year degree. Of these, elective subjects such as physical education or art may count for one to four credits, depending on your university. As the credits associated with each course can vary, remember to speak with an advisor before making your choice.

What Should You Consider When Choosing an Elective Course?

When choosing your optional courses, remember to consider your timeline for graduation and your personal study plan for your degree program. This will help you choose additional subjects that align with your objectives for the future.

Here are a few factors to consider when making your choice:

1. The subjects you choose should be specific to your goals — There are three different categories of electives you need to complete your degree: free, major/area of study, and general education. Degree programs list the credit distribution requirement needed for each elective. Understanding the differences will help you pick the right options and avoid repeating courses.

2. Choosing optional courses unrelated to your major is not mandatory — You have choices. There is no need to fill up your free elective requirements with programs that do not relate to your degree program. Consider enrolling in courses that support your primary field of study if you feel they would benefit you more.

3. Carefully research the requirements of each elective — As some courses can involve large projects, assignments, or even internships, the subjects you choose may increase the time it takes for you to complete your degree.

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How Can We Help You Choose Your Elective Courses?

Deciding which subjects you want to take may seem confusing at first. Working with a Shorelight counselor can help by focusing on both your requirements and the elective courses to chart your path toward your bachelor’s degree. 

Shorelight counselors provide personalized programs that support international students from application to enrollment. Our counselors’ expert knowledge will provide you with a much clearer perspective about the variety of options available.

The benefit of a US college education is having the flexibility to choose what you want to study. Be as adventurous or as cautious as you need to be when choosing an optional course. This will allow you to fulfill your general education requirements, boost your GPA, expand your interests and knowledge, add variety to your course schedule, and prepare for your future.

Consult a Shorelight advisor to get help with your academic plan >