Differences Between Quarter and Semester College Systems

You’re eagerly awaiting to hear back from the colleges you applied to last fall—or perhaps you’re figuring out which ones you want to apply for—and you don’t know how you’re ever going to choose! That’s why you need a game plan: Are you going to go for a school close to home or far? Should you go to a two-year college then transfer out, or go for a four-year university? The possibilities are endless when you’re contemplating college choices, and one of the things you should be thinking about is whether to attend a school on a semester or a quarter system.

But what does that even mean?

Those terms may go over your head right now, but if you’re attending a traditional high school right now, it is most likely running on a semester system, which splits the school year in halves. A quarter system splits a nine-month school year in three parts (the reason it is called “quarter” is because those looking to graduate early can take a summer session, which makes a fourth part). At the end of each semester or quarter in college, you’ll finish up the courses you are enrolled in, and when you start up a new semester or quarter, you’ll be in new ones—a fresh slate. Depending on your study habits, you will likely prefer one to the other, so it’s important to consider a school’s yearly system when you’re making a decision.

So you’ve got the basic idea of what the difference between these two are, but how do they work in practice? Since I have my own biases attending a college on the quarter system (UC San Diego, which is part of the University of California that consists mostly of quarter system colleges), I brought in my friend Dani L., who answered my questions about what it’s like attending a semester university. Thanks a million, Dani!

What is the school year like?

Quarter: The school year is divided into fall, winter, and spring quarters—each lasts ten weeks plus finals week. The fall quarter begins in late September (sometimes even the beginning of October!) and ends for Christmas break; winter quarter begins after Christmas break and ends right before spring break; and spring quarter begins after spring break and ends in mid-June. Though school holidays will differ from college to college, we get extended weekends for Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving, MLK Jr. Day, President’s Day, and Memorial Day.

Semester: At Dani’s college, students “start beginning of September and go through mid-December”. During fall semester, she has a “3-day weekend in the fall” and a 5-day Thanksgiving weekend. She takes a month-long break before heading back for spring quarter on “the week of Martin Luther King Jr. Day then get off mid-May”. In between, she has a 3-day President’s Day weekend, then a week of spring break (usually during Easter).

What are courses like?

Quarter: Most courses at my college are worth about 4 units (the system is a bit different for language courses, though, since those have labs and such and are stretched out through several quarters). Generally, students have to take a minimum of 12 and a maximum of 22 units per quarter; however, most take 12 (three 4-unit courses) and or 16 (four 4-unit courses) per quarter. What’s great about it is that you get to drill your energy into a few courses at a time, test out of them during finals week, and then move onto new material in the next quarter.
Most courses meet either MWF for 50 minutes or Tu/Th for an hour and 20 minutes; there are a few exceptions, like one class I took that met once a week and was scheduled for two hours and 50 minutes (most of the time we got out much earlier, though).

Semester: Regarding her college’s courses, Dani says, “Our minimum full-time student load is 12 units which is usually 3 classes. We can take a max of 18 units per semester…That usually means we can take 3-6 classes in a semester, depending on how many units each of them are.” Most of her classmates take four or five courses each quarter—“People that are trying to graduate early take 5 and the people trying to stay on track take 4!”

Dani’s and my respective colleges are pretty similar as far as meeting times go. At Dani’s school, “[a] regular 4-unit class…either meets MWF for 1 hour 5 minutes or T/TH for 1 hour 45 minutes. Some courses, like the science courses, work a little differently because there’s usually 1 or 2 lectures throughout the week which are short, then a long (2-4 hour) block to do lab work.”

How do professors schedule assignments?

Quarter: Most classes usually have one or two midterms and then a final, though some more writing-based courses (as a literature major, I speak from experience) may forgo midterms and even a final in place of several short writing assignments and/or a slightly longer paper due the last week of the quarter. It might sound overwhelming in the space of ten weeks, but you’ll be given adequate time for each assignment/exam to prepare. However, time management and trying not to procrastinate too much will be essential.

Semester: “Generally I would say teachers give 2-3 exams and 1 essay,” Dani says about her college courses. “The essay is usually due at the end or near the end of the semester and the 2-3 exams usually just cut the material up into halves or thirds so it’s easier to digest and remember. I think the science/math classes…give more exams and quizzes.”

How are school events scheduled?

Quarter: The start of a new quarter almost feels like starting a new school year—so Week 1 always welcomes us back with club and Greek rushes, or new department mixers. Weeks 4 and 7 are generally midterm weeks, so a lot of school events will work around that and won’t be held then. Of course, around that time, as well as during Week 10 and Finals Week, you’re going to see a lot of “exam de-stressing” events (e.g., special breakfasts, MORE therapy puppies)!

Semester: Dani states that at her university, “each club and academic department does them [differently]. For the most part, clubs do one activity a month…The academic departments and the school bodies (like student government or the wellness center) don’t really have consistent events.”

What are some pros and cons about your school’s system?

Quarter: The fast pace of the quarter system is definitely both a plus and a minus: you get to focus all your energy and concentration into a few subjects and make sure you really take the time to understand that material, but sometimes professors go really quickly and try to give you just an overview of the material. It’s crazy how quickly ten weeks go by and then you’re on to a new group of classmates, a new professor with a different syllabus and class rules, and a variety of assignments! I’m personally someone who has trouble remembering little details for an extended amount of time, so the fast pace actually works really well for me. In one school year, you’ll learn not only subjects from earth science to anthropology to music history, but also—and most importantly—time management.

Semester: “I like having semesters because I think that having a little longer to learn the material really makes it sink in,” Dani says. “I know it’s been very beneficial for my language classes at least because you get to really learn how to speak the language without having to feel rushed through the material. Also, we have a highlight on doing research within our classes so it would be really difficult to have that research element if classes were so short that we couldn’t make contacts for interviews or do empirical research. It does get tedious though and everyone is ready to move on by the end of the semester!”

**NOTE: The information provided above is based on our personal experiences; each college is different so make sure ask your prospective school(s) about their own academic calendars**

High schoolers, which system do you think you’d prefer and why? College students, which system does your school use and what are some pros and cons of it?

written by
Jacqueline Kim
April 8, 2013

14 Responses to “Differences Between Quarter and Semester College Systems”

  1. Alen
    April 9, 2013 at 2:44 pm #

    At my college, Mt. Sierra College (located in Monrovia, CA), runs by a quarter system all year long. We don’t get a summer vacation, but we do go through the classes much faster. As for our schedules, we meet once a week for four hours per class. This allows the professor to discuss a week’s worth of class in a short amount of time. However, those who do not read the chapter beforehand end up being lost within the lecture. As far as assignment goes, the homework given is very consistent.

  2. Jasmine
    April 9, 2013 at 5:14 pm #

    I love this! Thanks so much, this really helped me decide which college I would prefer more!

    • Jacqueline Kim
      April 25, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

      So glad it helped you out! Good luck with all of your college endeavors! :)

  3. Jarne
    April 10, 2013 at 5:36 pm #

    I don’t like classes that only skim through the material (especially if I want to learn more about it) but I’m a pretty fast paced learner as long as I study ahead of time. I think I’d prefer a quarter system, but I’ll be happy with either!

  4. sueb
    April 25, 2013 at 3:17 pm #

    I have heard it is hard to get internships and summer jobs with the quarter system, as semester students are done earlier. Is this true?

    • Sean
      April 25, 2013 at 4:20 pm #

      It really depends on the scheduling needs of the position you are trying to pursue. If the needs of the employer are better suited for a student that is on a semester schedule, then that’s what they are looking for.

      If you are considering enrolling in a school that runs on the quarter system, considering visiting the school’s Career Center or student services, as they would be knowledgeable about regional organizations that work with students in the quarter system.

    • Jacqueline Kim
      April 25, 2013 at 4:50 pm #

      I second what Sean said. I mean, right now I’m applying for an internship that’s right on campus, so obviously that will be flexible enough with the quarter system. I think any college, regardless of its system, has on-campus internships/jobs that will take your schedule into consideration.

      If you’re applying for an internship/job right now, let your prospective employer know about what your college schedule is looking like. They’ve been in college before, and if they want to hire you, they can accommodate your school life to a job/internship.

      I should note that although semester students are done earlier, they go back to school earlier. Though Dani mentioned that her school starts in September, many semester schools start as early as August, which means that semester students will be free from mid/late-May to August and quarter students from mid-June to late-September/early-October. A prospective employer may look at that and say, “Most students will be gone in August so we’ll be short on staff, but at least there is a student on the quarter system who will be sticking around with us for a month longer.” Just a thought! Hope this helps! :)

  5. Kirino
    April 29, 2013 at 3:13 pm #

    I’d love to have a quarter system, it sounds perfect for me.

  6. Isabel
    July 10, 2014 at 5:36 pm #

    I would definitely prefer a semester system, because that’s what high schools and even middle schools use. College is a huge transition, and I’m already going to have to get used to so many different things. Even the college semester system is different from the high school one, but at least it’s similar.

  7. HimeMarie
    September 20, 2014 at 10:35 am #

    Wow this article help me a lot!
    I actually graduate from my bachelors degree in “trimester” sustem & found this university that has quarter system. I wasnt sure what it meant or if it was just the same as here on P. R. Yet this quater system is going to help me go faster on my MS degree. Thank you for sharing your experiences and good luck with everything^^

  8. Cookie
    October 6, 2014 at 7:01 pm #

    The semester schedule suits my study style where I like to study small chunks of information over a period of time in order to digest the learning material. Plus, I can really get to know professors and classmates some of whom will turn into professional associates after graduation.

  9. Nicolette
    November 22, 2014 at 3:56 am #

    This was really helpful! I’m the type of student who can adjust fast to any learning pace, so both would be good for me. College is going to be hard but fun! I can’t wait(: . That’s my main goal, to graduate from high school. C:

  10. Soeren Walls
    December 1, 2014 at 7:09 pm #

    You can actually avoid this decision altogether! My school (Colorado College) uses the Block Plan, so instead of having 4 to 7 classes all at once for the entire semester, we have intensive classes one at a time for 3.5 weeks each. These classes are called “blocks” and we even get a 5 day break in-between each block! It doesn’t work for everyone, but for someone who works much more efficiently when focused on one task at a time (like myself), it can completely change your life. There are some fun advantages too, like the fact that everyone is in class at the same time (9am to 12pm) every day, so extracurricular activities never interfere directly with studies. It’s definitely worth considering, because like I said, it has completely changed the way I learn and has allowed me the space & time I need to improve myself as a student and a person.


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