How to Read College Course Codes Like BUS104

How to Read College Course Codes Like BUS104

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Have you ever encountered college course codes like:

  • CHE101
  • CS415
  • BUS2101

If you are curious about how this course code system works, then you are in the right place.

This article elaborates on the course code system as used in most universities. Specifically, you will know how to interpret course prefixes and course numbers in course codes. With this knowledge, you can quickly determine the course subject area and its level of complexity, easing your university life in the long run.

How to Read Course Codes

Course codes are unique designations used to represent college/university courses. Institutions in undergraduate and graduate studies adapt a course code system, allowing students to identify classes in course subject area and level.

Course codes consist of letter and digit combinations. The code begins with a prefix of three or more letters representing its department or academic content. Additionally, the letter code is followed by three or more digits that indicate the course level.

Course Number

The letter prefixes in a course code are then followed by a three (or more) digit course number. The course number distinguishes the level between program courses. The first code number, which usually ranges from 1 to 9, allows you to determine the complexity level of the course discipline and tells you whether the course belongs to an undergraduate or graduate program.

The higher the first code number, the more advanced the course is. Table 1 shows a sample designation of course numbers that indicates the course level.

Course NumberDesignation
100 – 299Lower-division courses for freshmen and sophomores, including introductory classes and intermediate-level courses
300 – 499Upper-division courses for juniors and seniors, which include advanced intermediate-level courses and advanced-level courses
500 – 599Graduate courses open to qualified seniors
600 – 699Graduate courses are limited to graduate students only, except for seniors admitted to an accelerated master’s program
700 – 799Doctorate graduate courses
800 – 899Courses limited to degrees offered in colleges of Medicine, Pharmacy, Veterinary Medicine, and Public Health
900 – 999Graduate studies involving research, thesis, or dissertations
Table 1. Number Definitions (taken from the University of Arizona)

Courses with first code numbers 1 to 4 are undergraduate courses. These undergraduate courses are further classified into lower and upper-division courses. Courses with the first code number above 4 are considered graduate courses. 

Some graduate courses are open to qualified undergraduate students, while other graduate courses are for graduate students only. Also, specific course numbers are limited to doctoral students.

Most US colleges/universities widely adopt a three-digit course number format. However, a four-digit course number is employed by some universities such as Louisiana State University and the University of Iowa for their course code system. Still, the first digit of the course numbers signifies the course level, which most universities similarly implement. Furthermore, the interpretations for the course’s second, third, and fourth digits vary from one school to another.

Course Prefix

Course prefixes are generally three (or more) character abbreviations of the course discipline or department. The course code prefix allows you to identify the course content offered or the department to which the course belongs within your chosen program. 

For instance, the Thomas Edison State University provides a list of three-letter code prefixes with the corresponding department they represent, such as ACC for Accounting, CHE for Chemistry, and EDU for Education. 

St. Petersburg College, on the other hand, has a list of code prefixes that represent the course content, which include AMH for American History, ECP for Economic Problems & Policy, and MAC for Mathematics: Calculus & Precalculus. 

Cornell University uses prefixes with more or less than three letters to represent the course discipline, such as HD for Human Development, BRTY for Biometry and Statistics, and NTRES for Natural Resources.

Course Code

Combining a course prefix and a course number will result in a course code, which helps you identify the department subject of the course and its level. For instance, you will recognize that COMM1101, where the course prefix COMM represents the course discipline Communication. Course number 1101 signifies that it is an introductory course in the Communication subject area. While EDUC3920, where the course prefix EDUC stands for Education, is an advanced Education course. Additionally, a course code CS6210, where CS means Computer Science, tells you that it is a graduate course in the Computer Science department.

How to Know Which Course Is Harder?

Undergraduate studies are categorized into lower and upper-division classes. Lower-division courses (with first digits 1 and 2) mainly focus on introductory and basic concepts and theories that serve as the foundation for advanced courses. These are usually taken during undergraduate freshman and sophomore years.  

Upper-division courses (with first digits 3 and 4) are advanced and high-level courses that allow you to develop problem-solving and analytical thinking skills and apply theories to practice. Undergraduate juniors and seniors usually take such courses. Diversely, courses with first digit 5 and higher are taken upon pursuing graduate studies.

In conclusion, advanced courses are more rigorous and demanding than introductory courses. To identify these advanced courses, you only need to look at the first digit of the course number. The higher the first code number, the more advanced it is. 

Courses with first digits 1 and 2 are likely more straightforward than courses with first digits 3 and 4. Moreover, courses with first digits 5 and above are even more challenging. Comparatively, MATH3340 (Abstract Algebra) is more complex than MATH1101 (Calculus 1), while MATH6110 (Real Analysis) requires a higher grasp of understanding than the other two.


Knowing how to interpret course codes gives you a quick idea of what the course is all about. Nevertheless, your course codes knowledge does not necessarily give you an advantage in your studies. Finishing your undergraduate or graduate courses still requires a tremendous amount of effort and focus on your part as a student.