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Why It's Preferable to Attend a College on the Semester Calendar

Updated: Aug 8, 2019

Photo by Curtis MacNewton, (Unsplash)

When choosing a college to attend, many students fail to consider the academic calendar that they will be obliged to follow. In the United States, the two most common academic schedules higher education institutions use are the semester system and the quarter system.

The semester system is the most common. More than 90% of colleges are on the semester system. Typically this means that the school year starts in late August and ends in early May. (Summer term is often offered with longer class periods in shorter weeks.) In this system, there are two semesters of about 15 weeks in length. Fall semester runs from about August 22 to December 16. Spring semester runs from about January 11 to about May 7. The exact dates depend upon the year, see an example schedule from Iowa State University.

The quarter system is increasingly less common as more colleges are shifting to the semester schedule. Less than 10% of colleges in the United States are on the quarter system. Schools on the quarter system usually start in late September and end in mid June. Not counting summer term, there are typically three quarters of about 10 weeks in length. Fall quarter often runs from about September 25 to December 10. Winter quarter usually runs from about January 6 to March 21. And spring quarter goes from about April 1 to about June 13. Once again the exact dates depend upon the particular year, see an example schedule from the University of Oregon.

While some students like the quarter system because it allows for an increased number of classes to explore, many experts warn that the quarter system possesses some significant disadvantages. A recent Inside Higher Education article notes that many students in the quarter system have a harder time securing summer internships because spring courses extend into June. Moreover, if a student takes classes under a quarter system and then transfers to an institution using the semester system, s/he often finds it takes longer to graduate because quarter credits do not convert easily into the semester system. There are generally more textbooks to purchase. Under the quarter system, a student is also required to register and process financial aid three times per year rather than only two in the semester system.

I completed my undergraduate within a quarter system, and many students continue to be successful on the quarter schedule. Nevertheless, I recommend that my clients seriously consider this issue before deciding on a college to attend. All things being equal, for most students, the semester system holds the advantage. At the very least, I encourage prospective students to research whether a school they are thinking about attending is planning to transition to a new academic schedule in the near future. If it is, it would be wise to skip that institution. Being a student caught within a calendar conversion is not a pleasant experience, as many students within the California State University system have recently experienced.

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