Can I Take More Than 20 Units in a Quarter?

While we recommend staying below the unit enrollment cap, under certain circumstances, you 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 (both on Academic Advising’s end and on the Registrar’s end), 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.

The Rules

  • Only 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 starting in Week 2 of the quarter, and can be submitted up through the Add/Drop Deadline in Week 3.

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 is, by federal mandate, 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 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.

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(s) you want to add are activity courses (as identified by the ACT notation in Explore Courses), then you might be eligible for an online request. This online process is activated each quarter the day before classes start. You will find it in your Student Center on Axess. Look for the “Other Academic” drop down menu and select “Petitions and Forms.” Once there, click “Override Max Units” fill out the required information and hit submit. Do not use the online request for non-ACT units! Your request will not be processed!

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 meeting with your Academic Advisor, filling out a request form, and writing a personal statement.

Download the request form here and read the instructions carefully.

Obtain an instructor signature or an email statement from your instructor if your course is limited enrollment, or if there is a chance the course may fill up before your request is processed.

You will also be expected to write a request statement that covers:

  • The courses you want to take (note the chart requested on the form).
  • Why you want to take them (detail how these courses fit into your academic plans).
  • Why you are relatively confident of success (mention past triumphs, explain past struggles).
  • What you will do if the demands become too much (detail your contingency plans).

Once you have completed your form and statement, meet with your Academic Advisor to finalize your request. They will read over your statement with you and ask clarifying questions before submitting your request to the main office.

Form to Request an Exception to Exceed Max Units

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 1 week. You’ll be notified by email from advising@stanford.edu when this is done.

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.