Higher Education Systems in Canada

The North American Higher Education system

A student in Royal Roads University libraryThe North American university system is known for its flexibility and offers a wide variety of paths to the degree and career that you seek. We give you comprehensive end-to-end support through the complex admission process at Canadian and US universities. Contact our expert advisors to start your university journey.

The academic year

In the USA and Canada, the academic year generally lasts nine months, and the majority of universities use a 'semester' system which divides the year into two equal periods. See a typical academic calendar on the right.

There are two intakes a year for the majority of degree programs at university in America. You can usually start a degree at the start of the Fall semester (late August) or at the start of the Spring semester (January).


During each semester, you will take a variety of courses, each of which is awarded a number of 'credits.' A credit is a unit of study. Most courses carry 3 credits, although varying amount of credit can be awarded for lectures, independent project work, laboratory time and internships. Universities usually expect students to complete:

  • 120-130 credit hours for an undergraduate degree
  • 30-64 credit hours for a Master's degree

As an international student in the USA, you are required to maintain a full course load of at least 12 credits per semester in order to maintain your visa status.

Length of a degree program

At universities in the USA and Canada the duration of your program is determined by the time you take to earn enough credits to complete your degree. Most undergraduate programs are designed so you can earn enough credits to graduate with a bachelor's degree in 4 academic years of full-time study. Graduate programs are generally structured to allow you to earn a master's degree in 2 academic years of full-time university study.

International students in class at university in CanadaIf you need to improve your English for degree study, you will take an ESL program, Foundation program or Pre-Master's program before moving into full-time degree study. This may take between 1 and 4 semesters.

Assessment and grading

At Canadian and US universities, your academic performance will be continually assessed by your teachers. They will use a variety of methods including essays, written assignments, presentations, laboratory or studio work, class attendance and class participation. You will also normally take examinations at the end of each semester. At the end of each semester, your teachers will assign a letter grade for each course that you have taken. Typically, letter grades are assigned as follows:
A = excellent, the highest grade
B = above average
C = average
D = the minimum passing grade
F = fail

Academic good standing and progression

At North American universities a grade point average, or GPA, is calculated for each student, based on the following scale:
A = 4.00
B = 3.00
C = 2.00
D = 1.00
F = 0.00 (Fail)

At most universities, you must maintain a cumulative GPA of at least 2.0 to be considered in academic good standing and continue to the next year of your degree program. A cumulative grade point average is the GPA for all courses taken throughout the degree program.

McGill-Queen's University Press The Development of Postsecondary Education Systems in Canada: A Comparison Between British Columbia, Ontario, and Québec, 1980-2010
Book (McGill-Queen's University Press)

To all those who think life in Canada, Europe or

by anotherindian102

Australia is better. Why on earth would you want ANYONE want to live in places where the taxes are higher, salaries are lower, cost of goods and services (whether it be automobiles, clothes, food, electronics, etc.) are higher? Granted, many of these other countries give free or subsidized medicare and/or higher education. But I still say America is the best place on earth for the young. When you get old, it might be a good idea to immigrate to Canada (for the free healthcare, of course!) ;

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