The Earth and Planetary Sciences Department offers courses across a wide range of topics, allowing students to tailor the curriculum to their interests. Courses are comprised of not only classroom lectures, but frequently field trips, laboratories, and computer exercises are involved. Many related courses are offered by other departments such as Ocean Sciences, Microbiology and Environmental Toxicology, Environmental Studies, Biological Sciences, Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Astronomy and Astrophysics. The university capstone requirement is often fulfilled by attending the departmental field camp,or by completing a senior research thesis, but other choices are also possible.

UC Santa Cruz operates on the quarter system, with most courses being offered during the Fall, Winter, or Spring (academic) quarters. Course offerings during summer quarter are much more limited.

Most UCSC courses carry five units of credit, and the normal full-time course load for undergraduate students is 15 units (or three courses) per quarter.