Organization of the Academic System

The Semester System

The academic year at this university is composed of two semesters of approximately 17 weeks in length. In addition, there are summer sessions of various lengths. While many U.S. universities use the semester system, some divide the academic year into shorter periods, either "quarters" or "trimesters."


The quantity of academic work a student does at the University is measured in "credits." The number of credits a course is worth usually depends on the number of hours per week that it meets. A "three-credit course," for example, will meet three hours weekly for one semester. It might meet for three fifty-minutes sessions, as undergraduate classes normally do, or for one three-hour session, a fairly common pattern in graduate classes. At the end of the semester, the student who has achieved a passing grade in the course has earned three credits.

A student must earn a specified number of credits in order to graduate. This number varies for undergraduates and graduates. Information about graduation requirements can be found in the University's General Catalog.

The Grading System

The quality of a student's academic work is measured by means of "grades." There are four "passing" grades, A, B, C, and D. There is one "failing" grade, F. (At the graduate level, only A and B are considered passing grades.) The grading system in some colleges includes "plus" and "minus" grades. Each grade carries a designated number of "points" per credit.


Points per Semester Hour



























A student's grade-point average (or GPA) is calculated by dividing the number of credits earned into the number of grade points earned. For example, if a student has taken three courses, each for three hours of credit, and the grades include one A, one B+, and one C+, the GPA would be 3.22. The calculation is like this:


Credit x Points

Total Points










Grade Point Average (GPA) = (12+9.99+6.96)/9 = 3.22

You can also see the Office of the Registrar’s GPA Calculator or the Tippie College of Business GPA Calculator for help computing a grade point average or predicting a future GPA.

The "cumulative GPA" is the GPA a student has earned for all studies undertaken. Although grades of A+ have a value of 4.33 in calculating the GPA, the cumulative GPA shown on a student's permanent record will never be higher than 4.0. There is a difference of opinion as to whether plus-minus grading will hurt or help a student's overall grades. The plus-minus grading system is intended to allow finer distinctions in evaluating academic work.

There are some other grades that may appear on your transcript, or permanent record. However, they will not affect your grade-point average (except for the second grade only option).


Audit Successful


Audit Unsuccessful


In Progress










Honors course




No grade reported






Grade not included in GPA


Changed grade


In particular, you should know when it is possible for you to take a course on a "pass-fail," "satisfactory-fail," or "satisfactory-unsatisfactory" basis. Students use these optional grading systems to protect their grade-point averages. Here is the way it works: In a class that is being taken on a regular grading system, a student must earn an "A" or a "B" in order to have what are generally considered "good grades." If a student earns only a "C" or a "D" his grade is considered marginal and his grade- point average suffers. Grades of "P" (for "pass") and "S" (for "satisfactory") are not included in the computation of a grade- point average. A student can get a "P" or "S" grade in a course where he or she does not expect to perform well and his or her grade average will not suffer as a result. (Failing grades in courses taken under these optional systems are taken into account in calculating grade averages.)

Each instructor at the University has his or her own philosophy and methods of grading. Some use fixed grading scales, whereby each assignment or examination that is graded can receive a fixed maximum of points (for example, 10 or 100), and the number of points accumulated at the end of the semester is converted into a letter grade (for example, 450-500 points is an A). An alternative to this method is that of "grading on the curve," whereby a formula is used to assure that there will be a certain number of A's, a certain number of B's, and so on. Under this system, the students in the class are competing with each other for high grades. You will notice the absence of cooperation among students in these classes. It is helpful to learn about the philosophy and method of grading that each of your teachers uses.

Second Grade Option

Some colleges may accept up to three courses taken at The University of Iowa for a second grade. Under the second-grade-only option, both grades are visible on the permanent record, but only the second grade is used in all GPA calculations and as hours earned. Please note that different colleges have different second-grade-only policies which govern their courses. Here are some second grade only policies:

Graduation Requirements

Graduation requirements specify the number of credits you must earn, the minimum GPA you must achieve, and the distribution of credits you must have from among different departments or fields of study. In addition, it is necessary to "apply for graduation" when you near the time that you will be completing your graduation requirements. Since graduation requirements vary among various divisions of the University, you should consult the General Catalog and your current Schedule of Courses for information. Questions can be addressed to your departmental office or to your academic advisor.

Academic Advisor

Undergraduate Students

Your academic advisor is a faculty or staff member who helps you plan your program of studies in a way that will best enable you to fulfill your graduation requirements and at the same time tailor your studies to your interests.

Most Liberal Arts undergraduate students at the University of Iowa are initially assigned an academic advisor at the Academic Advising Center (AAC). AAC advisors are not faculty members; they are "professional advisors" whose only job is academic advising. They receive thorough training concerning the complexities of graduation requirements. Once students enter their major, they will be assigned an academic advisor specific to their field of study. Some of them might be professional advisors, and some of them might be faculty advisor. The College of Business and the College of Engineering also use professional advisors for many undergraduate students. Only a few majors will stay with Academic Advising Center for all four years.

Newly-arriving undergraduates get information from orientation telling them who their initial academic advisor will be. Each semester, you will need your advisor to authorize registration and change in registration.

Graduate Students

For graduate students, academic advisors play a crucial role in academic life. If you are a graduate student, you may be dependent on your advisor for many things, including grades, financial support, help in forming an examining committee, and letters of recommendation. If you are a graduate assistant, your advisor might also be your "boss."

Ideally, you will want to form a "mentor relationship" with your academic advisor, whereby your advisor introduces you to your chosen profession and enables you to develop within that profession by introducing you to other researchers, helping you attend professional conferences, helping you find periodicals in which to publish, and generally taking a keen interest in your progress as a student and as a young professional.

Unfortunately, the “mentor relationship” is not the norm. In an Institute for International Education (IIE) study, mentoring relationships between the graduate student and his advisor were found . . . to be the exception rather than the rule. And this was true whether the student involved was foreign or American. (Mentors and Supervisors, p. 60)

When we examine the situation of a typical academic advisor, it is easy to understand why this is the case. Professors in American research universities are under great pressure to attract funding for, carry out, and publish the results of research that contributes to a body of knowledge. Their professional futures and reputations are at stake. They generally are not rewarded financially or professionally for being good academic advisors. Sometimes, because of the preoccupation with funding, research, and publishing, professors may seem abrupt or insensitive to students' needs. They are likely to wait for students to take the initiative in discussing coursework, research issues, or academic progress. Students thus need to exercise some initiative in their relationships with their advisors.

This is not to say that there are no "good" academic advisors, or that no student has a rewarding relationship with the advisor. Certainly there are many faculty members who have a genuine interest in their advisees and who are willing to devote considerable time to them.

Different academic departments have different procedures for assigning academic advisors to graduate students. In some departments, either the chairman or the head of graduate studies serves for at least the first semester as a new student's advisor. Then the student selects an advisor, based on shared academic interests.

In other departments, a new student is assigned a faculty advisor based on some system of distribution of the department's "advising load." Later, students may have the opportunity of selecting the advisor they prefer.

In any case, new graduate students can learn who their advisors (or temporary advisors) are by visiting the departmental office and asking the secretary for the information.

Selecting an Advisor

How does one find a suitable academic advisor? Probably the best way is to talk with other students who have more experience in the department than you do. Ask about the personalities of faculty in your department, their research interests, the amount of funding they receive, and any other details you believe might be pertinent, such as scheduling, upcoming sabbaticals, etc. When you have narrowed the possibilities, make appointments with potential academic advisors and talk with them about your respective research interests and schedules. This will give you an opportunity to determine whether you and the potential advisor are personally compatible.

Personal compatibility is a big factor in selecting an advisor. Naturally, your research interests and methodological preferences should coincide with those of your academic advisor. Your schedule may also play a large role in selecting an advisor. It is important to select someone who is available for consultation when you need it.

Sometimes graduate students want to change academic advisors. A variety of reasons might account for this wish, including differing research interests, incompatible schedules, or interpersonal discomfort. It is fairly common in American graduate education for students to change academic advisors. In most--but not all--cases, faculty members expect changes to happen, and are not troubled when they do.

Changing academic advisors is not necessarily an indication to your current advisor that you are dissatisfied with his or her work. Because of the reasons mentioned above, professors at U.S. colleges and universities understand that students' research interests may evolve during their studies, and that another faculty member in the department may be better suited to guide a particular student's research. 

You may want to talk to other students with more experience in your department to find out whether you should expect any special difficulties. Before talking with your current advisor, interview prospective new advisors and select one who (a) seems suitable to you and (b) is willing to take you as an advisee. Ask that person's advice as to how best to approach your current advisor on the subject of making a change.

If you determine that you want to change your academic advisor, here are some suggested things you can say to your current advisor to make the transition smoothly: "Professor X's research interests are more in line with my interests." "Professor X is more available for consultation than you, because of your busy schedule." If you need assistant with conflict resolution or advocacy, Office of the Ombudsperson is a great resource. Please visit for more information about the Office of the Ombudsperson.


You must "register" for the particular courses you "take" each semester. Before you can register, you must meet with your academic advisor, reach agreement on a "course schedule," and get your advisor's approval for your plan. Students can register in person by accessing MyUI through the University’s web site.  MyUI is an interactive computer program through which UI students can communicate with administrative offices. Information about each semester's registration schedule and procedures appears in the Schedule of Courses and on MyUI. Make sure you are aware of all registration deadlines, especially deadlines before which you may discontinue a course without penalty (usually called “drop dates”).