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Can I Take More Than 20 Units in a Quarter?

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While we recommend staying below the unit enrollment cap, under certain circumstances, undergraduates may request to enroll in more than 20 units for the quarter. Students must go through a special “request for exception” process, and provide a compelling academic reason for why they are seeking to exceed max units.

The application process takes time (for you, for Academic Advising, and for the Registrar), and approval isn’t guaranteed. And even if you are approved, taking more than 20 units can be a significant academic challenge. We recommend talking to your Academic Advisor early on to determine if exceeding max units is the right choice for your situation.

For more information, watch Your Guide to the Exceed Maximum Units Exception Request from April 2024.

The Rules

  • The process described below applies only to Stanford undergraduate and coterminal students.  Students matriculated at other Stanford schools (e.g. the GSB, Med School, and Law School) should refer to their own school's policies and procedures.
  • Only undergraduate students who have completed their first quarter at Stanford may request an exception to take more than 20 units. 
  • You can request to take up to 22 units maximum (23 if you are a coterm student).
  • Requests to exceed max units units should be submitted only when you have finalized your course choices. They are not meant to be used for "shopping" purposes.
  • Applications will be accepted no earlier than Week 1 of the quarter, and can be submitted up through the Add/Drop Deadline in Week 3.
  • For more information on maximum enrollment, see the Stanford Bulletin: Full-Time Status.

Considerations Before Making a Request

Axess allows you to enroll in up to 20 units per quarter. We recommend a course load of 12-15 units in your first quarter, and about 15 units per quarter thereafter. While you can submit a request to exceed max units after your first quarter is complete, we recommend extreme caution.

Keep in mind that every unit of work, by federal mandate, is supposed to represent an average of 3 hours of work a week. (See: What is a Unit?) PWR 1 for example, at 4 units, should be 12 hours of work per week: 4 hours in the class itself, and 8 hours of work outside of class. For every hour of class time on your schedule, there is likely to be 2 hours of work (if not more) outside of class spent on reading, studying, completing assignments, etc.

A 12-unit quarter, then, translates to a 36-hour work week. A 15-unit quarter is more like a 45-hour work week, or 5 hours more than a full-time job. 20 units would be a full-time job and a half. This is further complicated should you want to pursue research, employment, athletics, or extracurricular opportunities as well. We encourage students to think of any activity that they regularly participate in as counting for 1 unit for every 3 hours. So, a 12-unit course load with 6 hours of exercise a week and 9 hours of extracurricular organizations is actually the equivalent of 17 units. It all adds up.

Some students find they thrive with heavy course loads, while others flounder. It has less to do with an individual student’s abilities, and more to do with the amount of time they dedicate to extracurricular activities, including work, sports, organizations, and socializing-- all of which are valid choices and valuable to your experience here at Stanford.

Take full advantage of the shopping period to test out your courses and to get a better idea of their demands on your time. This will help you to confirm that you do, in fact, want to take all of the courses you are interested in. Many students who set out to exceed maximum units decide not to do so after attending all their classes for a week, and this can be a wise choice!

The Request Process

You should attend all of your desired classes prior to submitting a request for exception, and keep attending them during the time your application is being considered. However, you will not be able to enroll in all of your desired units ahead of time. For any classes you cannot sign up for yet, let your instructor know that you are in the process of submitting a request for exception. Early communication may be crucial to the success of your plan.

Ask your instructor if you might be added to the Canvas course site as a guest to get access to the course materials. This would also be a good time to request a signature or an email statement from your instructor confirming their willingness to add you to their course. An instructor endorsement is required for any course you may want to add that limits its enrollment, or could reach its enrollment cap before your request can be processed.

Note: requests for exception are not meant to be used for "shopping" purposes. There is no waiver that would allow you to “temporarily” enroll in more than 20 units while shopping or making your decisions.

If you try out the workload for at least a week and decide you do want to keep all of your classes, your next step is to identify the correct exception process.


Adding an activity (ACT) course

If the final course you want to add is an activity course (as identified by the ACT notation in Explore Courses), and you are not a first-quarter frosh, you may be able to add the course yourself on Axess. Simple Enroll will now allow undergraduates looking to exceed the 20-unit cap to do so if they are adding an ACT course on their study list. Students who are adding a final ACT course can exceed to 21 or 22 units depending if the final course is 1-2 units. The final course added must be the ACT course.

Adding a non-activity course

If the final units you are seeking to add are not activity (ACT) units, then you will need to submit a more detailed request for exception. This will include: 1) meeting with your Academic Advisor, 2) filling out a request form, and 3) writing a personal statement.  If you are missing any of these steps, your request will not be approved.

  • Undergraduates: Access the request form via the eForms portal, choose "Browse Available Forms," and search for "Request for Exception to Exceed Maximum Units (Undergraduates)."  Please read the instructions carefully.  Note that this form will only be available on Axess from Week 1 through Week 3 of the relevant quarter. Students may begin the form in Week 1, but are asked to attend a full week of their course plan prior to scheduling a finalization meeting.
  • Coterminal Students in the Undergrad Tuition Group: Access the request form via the eForms portal, choose "Browse Available Forms," and search for "Request for Exception to Exceed Maximum Units (Coterm)."  Please read the instructions carefully.  Coterms may be able to enroll themselves in more than 20 units on Axess without permission, but must still submit a request to take 21, 22, or 23 units.  Coterminal students in the undergraduate tuition group who exceed max units without a request will have an enrollment hold placed on their account.

If your desired course is limited enrollment, or if there is a chance the course may fill up before your request is processed, speak to your instructor before submitting your request to check whether you may still join the class.

You will also be expected to submit a personal statement that describes:

  • All the courses you plan to take this quarter (including the number of units for each class).
  • Why you want to take each one of these courses (detail how they fit into your academic plans).
  • Why you are relatively confident of success (mention past triumphs, explain any past struggles, present supports in place for the current quarter).
  • What you will do if the demands become too much (detail your contingency plans: would you drop a class and/or reduce other commitments, would you change grading bases, etc.).

You might consider including a table with each class (not just the one you are adding), its units, and the reason you hope to take it. Though make sure to present this information in prose form in your written statement as well.

Once you have written your statement and attended a full week of your proposed courses, you will need to meet with your Academic Advisor to finalize your request. They will read over your statement with you and ask clarifying questions before your request is evaluated by Academic Advising.

After Submission

Your request for an exception to enroll in more than 20 units will be carefully considered. Not all requests are approved.

If your request is approved, first Academic Advising will need to process the request. This may take up to one week.

Depending on the timing of your submission, you may then receive follow-up instructions on how to complete your request. Please check your email and take any requested steps in a timely manner.

In other cases, the Registrar may need to add the course to your study list manually. This process can take 2-3 weeks. Continue attending class and let your instructor know that your request has been approved, but that it may take some time for the Registrar to add the course to your study list.

Once you are enrolled in more than 20 units, you may have difficulty making further changes to your course enrollment through Axess. If that happens, contact the Student Services Center for assistance.

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