As the end of year 13 sneaks closer and closer, so do big decisions about your newfound post high-school freedom. 

For those of you who haven’t lost your sparkle and want to keep learning (or just want to be making the big bucks), university is likely on the horizon.

As you start down the endless rabbit hole of university websites and applications you might find yourself with some questions like how do I choose a degree? What’s a major and do I need one? How do I know what courses to take? 

Have no fear, StudyTime is here! This handy guide will break down all that pesky terminology, and in no time, you’ll have all your studies planned and your application ready to go!

Why do a degree?

Before we jump into degrees, majors, minors and how it all works, you might want to take a moment and consider if a university degree is right for you. 

University degrees can offer you a lot. Completing your undergraduate degree can help you to;

  • Develop skills like time management, critical thinking, problem solving and communication
  • Increase job opportunities
  • Further your career progression – it can be a great way to network and get to know people with expertise in your field
  • Learn more about a topic you’re interested in. 

Still wondering if university is right for you? Check out this StudyTime article on Planning your University Studies that goes into detail on whether uni is a good fit for you, as well as helping you figure out which university to choose, and how to apply. While that article focuses more on the admin side of things, this article will presume you’re keen to go to uni, you’re just not quite sure how the degrees work.

What even is a degree? What’s a major? And how does it all work?

What is a degree? 

A degree is a qualification that you study towards over multiple years. The first degree you do (the first level of study) is called an undergraduate degree, or a bachelor’s degree. They can be very specialised, like a Bachelor of Architecture or a Bachelor of Midwifery, or they can also be very broad, like a Bachelor of Arts. 

A typical bachelor’s degree will take 3 years of full-time study to complete (we’ll talk about what that means in a moment). Some will take longer, though – for example, midwifery, law and engineering often take 4 years to complete. 

You complete your degree by earning a total number of points across your years of study. But how do you earn points?


Courses – or papers, as some people call them – make up the backbone of your degree. You can think of a course like a class at school. It’s specialised to a subject, and you will attend weekly lectures and tutorials or labs, as well as complete tests and assessments. 

For every course that you complete you will earn points towards completing your degree, a lot like how completing internals and exams earns you points towards achieving NCEA. Most 3 year degrees are made up of about 360 points. 

Most courses take one semester, or about two school terms, to complete and will earn you between 15-20 points, although this can vary by university. The number of points indicates approximately how much time you should spend on studying and attending lectures and labs for that course. 

For example, if you’re taking a 15 point course, you should dedicate approximately 150 hours over the semester (the number of points x 10). If you’re looking to achieve top grades, you may want to spend extra time studying. To pass a course and earn the points you will need to satisfy any passing requirements and get at least 50% across all the assessments. 

Considering most people complete 120 points per year, therefore 60 points per semester, you can expect to be working around 60 hours per week on coursework. Basically, if you’re studying full time, university is basically your full time job.

Courses are split into three levels:

  • 100 level (usually taken in first year) 
  • 200 level (usually taken in second year, or sometimes in third year) 
  • 300 level (usually taken in third year)

Most degrees will require a certain number of 200 and 300 level points to complete the degree. They may also require you to complete a certain number of points from courses within the degree. You can find these requirements by looking up each degree on university websites.


You’ll have probably heard older siblings or students throwing around the word “major”, as in, “I’m doing a Bachelor of Science majoring in Biotechnology”. This sounds super fancy, and you might be wondering, what is a major? And do I need one? 

A major is the main subject that you study in your degree, kind of like a specialisation. Majors have required courses at 100, 200 and 300 level which usually take up part of the points in your degree. Depending on your chosen degree and chosen major, there may be more or less required courses. 

Majors are important because they add structure to your degree and help you gain specific knowledge of the field of study that you pick. 

Double majors

Double majors sound even more fancy! Imagine telling your judgemental aunt at Christmas that you’re studying a Bachelor of Science majoring in Biotechnology and Chemistry. 

The difference between a major and a double major is that you need to meet the requirements of a major for two subjects, instead of just one. This will add more structure to your degree and allow you to specialise in multiple areas

Since you’d have to take courses anyway to make up points towards your degree, adding a second major doesn’t usually add much to your workload or the completion time of your degree. However, how much extra work you have to do will depend on the subjects you’re choosing.

Some degrees may even allow you to take majors from other degrees, which can be good if you have interests across multiple fields. For instance, someone studying chemistry may be able to do a second major in statistics. However, be aware that not all degrees will allow you to take a double major.


Minors are a lot like majors, but have fewer required courses. This lets you gain some specialised knowledge in an area of interest without committing to all the requirements of a major. Again, not all degrees will have the option for minors. While you should pick at least one major to specialise in, there’s no need to pick a minor if you’re not interested in doing so. 


After selecting the required courses for your major/s (and minors if you have them) you may be lucky enough to have some left over room in your timetable. If you do, you can fill it with electives. 

Electives are courses that do not contribute to the requirements of your major or minor, but will make up points towards your degree. They are a good opportunity to take courses that sound interesting to you but don’t fit in with your chosen area of study. 

Some degrees will fill your timetable with required courses and you won’t have the space for electives. That’s okay, you may find that there are some empty slots later on in your degree, or if you’re really interested, you can look into taking summer papers.

Conjoint degrees

If you choose a conjoint degree, it means you will complete two undergraduate degrees at the same time and in a shorter period of time (than doing them one at a time). This is because you will end up doing less courses per degree. 

Your study programme will be extended slightly – most conjoints are expected to take 4-6 years to complete – and the workload is typically higher than for a single degree, meaning, you may need to take more courses than the average student. For this reason conjoint programmes usually require students to maintain an average grade of B- to ensure you’re not falling behind.

Double degrees

Similar to a conjoint, doing a double degree lets you enrol in two degrees but you will need to complete the full amount of points for each degree. Some universities allow you to share points across degrees which can make it advantageous to study two degrees at once. 

Honours degrees

“Honours” is another term that you may have discussed. Usually an honours year is an optional year completed after an undergraduate degree, so we won’t discuss them in detail here. You will do an additional year of study with 400 level courses to extend your knowledge in a specific area, often alongside performing your own research with a supervisor or teacher of your choosing. 

However, some degrees may incorporate honours as a necessary part of the bachelor’s degree, for example professional programmers.

Planning Your Study

Now that you understand all the bits and pieces, we can start putting together the puzzle to plan your degree.

Step 1: Picking a major

The first step is to choose what you want to major in (you can then see which degree fits your chosen subject later). Some helpful things to consider are:

  • What you are interested in
  • What you want to do for a career
  • What high school subjects you have taken 

For example, if you have an interest in human behaviour, take English, Biology and Statistics papers, and if you want a career in helping people, then a psychology major might be a good match for you. 

Some universities may require you to pass certain subjects in high school. For example, the University of Canterbury requires engineering students to have 14 Credits in Maths/Calculus, Physics and Chemistry. It’s a good idea to look these up as early as possible so you can try to achieve these prerequisites in advance.

If you haven’t taken the required subjects or didn’t achieve enough credits, don’t worry! There are usually work around and alternative courses you can take in your first year or over summer to make up the knowledge you’ve missed. For example, at Canterbury, students who don’t have enough maths, physics or chemistry credits can take MATH101, PHYS111 or CHEM114. 

Other subjects may suggest subjects that are useful, but not absolutely required. It can be helpful to look at what these are if you’re having trouble deciding on a major.

Step 2: Selecting your courses

Now that you’ve picked your major, you can start to choose your courses. The first step is to go to the university website of the university you plan to study at and search for the requirements of your major. 

Most majors will have some mandatory courses and may allow you to choose between certain courses. For example, a major in psychological science (at Victoria University of Wellington) is very structured and has four mandatory 100 level courses, five mandatory 200 level courses and three mandatory 300 level courses. A major in psychology at Auckland University has much more freedom and you can select from a range of courses to make up the required points for your major.

Be aware that some 200 and 300 level courses will have prerequisites. A prerequisite is a course you must have already completed before you can sign up for the paper. For example, at Victoria University of Wellington, taking the mandatory PSYC242 – Experimental Research Methods course, requires you to have already completed either PSYC121 or PSYC122 as well as STAT193, MATH107 or QUAN102. 

For this reason, it is highly recommended to look at 200 and 300 level courses that you’re interested in, and plan backwards to make sure you’ve taken all the important prerequisite courses. 

If you do decide to change things up halfway through your degree, though, don’t stress! As long as your grades are good, some lecturers will be okay with you joining classes that you don’t have all of the prerequisites for. It’ll usually just mean a bit of extra work for you to ensure you’re caught up.

If doing all this planning feels overwhelming and you’re still feeling a bit uncertain, you’re definitely not alone. Try not to panic too much, as courses are subject to change each year and you’re allowed to change your mind. 

Degree programmes are relatively flexible, and most first year courses tend to be pretty generalised. Some degree programmes may not even offer specialised courses until your second year. It’s usually pretty easy to change things up a bit if it doesn’t feel right for you, and universities are full of people who are there to help you figure out what does feel right. 

Step 3: Timetabling

Finally, it’s time to build your timetable. Write down all the courses you’ve picked,  check to see which semester they’re running in and how many points they are worth. 

For full time study you will be aiming to take about 3-4 courses per semester or around 50 -70 or so points each semester – this can vary depending on your university. Aim to take no more than 4 courses per semester as you don’t want to be overwhelming yourself. Trust us, spreading your workload evenly over the whole year is one of the biggest favours you can do yourself.

Subtle differences to be aware of

It’s important to remember that all universities are different and will have slightly different requirements depending on the degree and major that you chose. For example Auckland University has a “general education” component, and Otago University has either preferential or competitive entry. 

The best thing you can do to figure out these specific things is contact a course advisor at your preferred university (or universities). You don’t have to know exactly what you want to do, since course advisors are there to help you figure it out as they have detailed knowledge on each degree at the university. Organising a course advice appointment is free, and can usually be done online. Come prepared with the questions and you’ll soon have answers.


To sum it up, university degrees can seem big and confusing but now that you know all the terminology, you’ll have no trouble finding the things specific to your interests. Most importantly, degrees are often flexible and many people end up changing something about their degree as they move through uni. 

Don’t forget, course advisors are there to help you out!

Further resources

General Information about University Study,

Degree Information for: 

Auckland University and University 101 at Auckland

Waikato University and Future Students Team

Victoria University of Wellington and Course Advice

Canterbury University and Future Students Office

Otago University and Liaison Team