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How Many Weeks in a Semester of College?

If you’re about to start college, you might be wondering how many weeks are in a semester of college? And what a good question. Most colleges and universities run their classes in either semesters or quarters.

In this blog post, we will cover the difference between the two, what makes up a semester, and the typical college schedule. Different colleges use different academic calendars that vary. Their summer classes, spring break, thanksgiving break, fall break, and summer break can vary too.

You might also see differences in between four year universities and community college as well. Some colleges have optional summer semesters and varying end dates across the academic year, so you’ll want to make sure you check with your specific school before making any plans outside of your school schedule.

New students might now know what to expect so hopefully this post will provide you with some clarity! Degree programs and online courses may vary, so please check with your school!

Colleges That Go By Semesters

According to bestcolleges.com, about 95% of colleges follow the semester format and semester schedule during academic terms.

This means their academic calendar consists of two 15 week sets of instructional time, the first semester, also known as the fall semester, usually starts in August and ends in December. The spring semester starts in January and wraps up in May. The last day of classes will depend on your school following final exams.

Pros

There are a lot of benefits to the semester system, besides it being the norm for most colleges and universities. Here are three of those benefits.

  • You’ll have more time to learn the material: Since the term length is longer you’ll have more time to learn the material. This gives you a great chance to improve your grades if you are struggling with assignments and tests. 
  • There is an easier transition: College can be intimidating, because everything is so new to you. The semester system helps ease the transition a little. You’re already used to that format because that is how high schools operate their school years.
  • You’re more likely to have the ability to get involved in the campus life more: With less credit hours needed and longer time on campus you’ll have many great opportunities to get involved. Things like clubs, sports, volunteering, and special events are a big part of the college experience. The semester system gives you more time on campus to participate in the fun.
  • You get a longer winter break: A winter recess can be a welcome reprieve for a full-time student. While many students love college life, typical college semesters can be quite rigorous and draining. It is nice to have time off before starting new classes.

Cons

With the pros also comes a few cons. Everything in life has things you are not going to like/prefer. The key is to determine how big of a deal these cons are to you. Do they feel more important than the pros, or are they not that big of a deal? With that in mind, here are a few cons of the semester format.

  • You lose more money if you switch majors: Since there are less credit hours it is harder to have wiggle room for changes to your degree completion plan. If you decide to switch majors you’ll be losing more money here than you would in a quarter format. 
  • Your grades are weighted heavier on GPA: Because you are spending more time in class your grades are weighted heavier. This means that a bad grade in a class can do some damage to your GPA.
  • It’s more stressful: While you have less credit hours in a semester format, you also have more classes per term. This can be stressful during times like midterms and final examinations. You’ll have to be productivity-focused and have excellent time management skills during these high-stress times in the semester.
Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash

Colleges That Go By Quarters

The quarter system can vary from school to school. The quarter system divides the school year into four time periods of 10-11 week session. Some of the schools that follow this format are the University of Chicago, Stanford University, and the University of Washington. Online Schools Report states that the average academic year starts in the fall and follows this calendar. 

  • Fall quarter: early September through early December
  • Winter quarter: early January through end of March
  • Spring quarter: mid-April through early June
  • Summer quarter: mid-June through end of August

Pros

Even though the quarter system isn’t as popular, there are some great benefits to consider when making your choice. Here are three  pros of the quarter academic year.

  • You have more time to explore interests: You have to complete more credit hours in a quarter format, so you have greater flexibility  to take an extra class or two that interests you. Who knows, you may discover you want to minor in a second subject.
  • It’s easier to enroll faster if you miss the fall start date: If you miss enrolling during the fall quarter you have three more chances to enroll the following quarter. This will get you in and out of school faster and gives you more flexibility.
  • There are fewer classes each term: You are only taking a few classes each quarter. This makes high-stress times like midterms and finals a little easier to manage.  You’ll have more time to study the material since you won’t have to divide your time as much as you have to when studying in a semester term.

Cons

Like I said above, everything in life comes with cons as well. Take a look at these three cons of a quarter academic year system and see how they compare to the pros. 

  • Classes have a higher intensity: As we have seen, the quarter format has less weeks than the semester format does. This means you don’t have a ton of time to learn and absorb the material. My best advice here is to ask for help sooner rather than later. If you are struggling to understand what you are learning in class, visit your professor during his/her office hours. This will save you a ton of stress. 
  • There are shorter breaks: Since you are going back to school four times, instead of two, there is less time for breaks between quarters. However, the summer session is usually optional. By taking the summer term though you may be able to graduate earlier. So if that is important to you I would enroll in summer terms.
  • It can be hard to transfer: The quarter system isn’t as widely used as a semester format. If you decide to switch schools, odds are the new school will have semester terms. This makes it hard for transfer students, but it is possible.

College That Use a Trimester System

The trimester system is a mix of the semester and quarter system. The school year is divided into three time periods with each lasting about 12-14 weeks. This academic calendar is used at schools such as Carnegie Mellon University, Boston University, and Ohio State University.

Fall term: late August through mid-December

Winter term: early January through early April

Spring term: late April through late August

Pros

Here are the three pros of a trimester system.

  • You have more time for each class: With fewer classes per term, you’ll have more time to focus on each individual class. This can be beneficial if you feel like you need more one-on-one time with your professor.
  • It’s a shorter academic year: A shorter academic year can be great for students who want to get in and out of college quickly. It can also benefit students who want to take a break between school years.
  • You have more opportunities for internships: With three terms, you have more chances to land an internship. You can do a summer internship, winter internship, and fall internship which will give you a well-rounded experience.

Cons

There are also some cons associated with the trimester system. Here are three to consider.

  • It’s a fast pace: The trimester system is known for being a fast pace. This can be beneficial for some students, but if you like to take your time learning the material it may not be the best fit for you.
  • You have less time for each class: Even though you have fewer classes per term, you still have less time for each individual class. This can make it difficult to understand the material and do well on exams.
  • There are shorter breaks: With three terms, you have shorter breaks between each term. This can make it difficult to relax and recharge your batteries before the next term starts.
Photo by javier trueba on Unsplash

The Key Differences

There is no “right or wrong” academic calendar format. Whichever one your school follows, you are still getting a great education. Just remember to weigh the key differences between them.

Those differences are the credit hours needed, the class load and class intensity. Figure out what is important to you, and what will help you excel in your education, and that is where your choice is. To help you decide, I created a chart for you comparing the two.

The information from this chart comes from Online School Report:

SemesterQuarter
Credit hours120 hours180 hours
Class loadAbout 53-4
Class intensityHigher intensity (less time to learn)Lower intensity( more time to learn)

Now you know what to expect for when you start, or continue college. You can now plan out this next academic year of college and get ready to make great memories. 

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