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Quarter vs. Semester System: Pros and Cons

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What do the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Dartmouth College, Northwestern University, and Stanford University have in common? The obvious answer is that they’re all highly prestigious, extremely selective institutions. But they share another important commonality: they’re all on the quarter system. 


The vast majority of colleges and universities in the United States use the semester system. As of 2012, just 14.7 percent of colleges used the quarter system. But that doesn’t mean the two calendars don’t both have their merits.


What is the Quarter System?


The quarter system divides the academic year into four terms, each lasting around 10 weeks: Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer. Students are expected to attend three out of four of these terms. While some colleges, such as Dartmouth, allow students to choose their terms, others designate the fourth, free term, usually Summer. In between the terms, students have short breaks.


The calendar usually looks something like this:


Fall quarter: late September–December

Winter quarter: early January–late March/early April

Spring quarter: early-mid April–early June

Summer quarter: late June/early July–late August


Both prestigious private schools and public universities use the quarter system. In fact, the entire UC system has a calendar based on quarters.


What is the Semester System?


The more traditional semester system consists of two 15-week semesters, usually termed Fall and Spring. In between the semesters, students have long breaks. 


The calendar typically looks like this:


Fall Semester: September–late December

Winter Break: late December–late January

Spring Semester: late January–late May

Summer Break: late May–September


Main Differences Between the Quarter and Semester Systems




Because semesters last longer than those in quarters, instructors can usually go more in-depth with the material. Meanwhile, students taking courses in a quarter system can sometimes feel like the classes are rushed.


On the other hand, because quarter-length courses are shorter, students will be able to take more classes and explore different interests than they can under the semester system. Moreover, they won’t have to waste too much time on classes they don’t like.

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Changing Majors


Changing majors is usually easier in the quarter system since classes don’t last as long as they do in the semester system. Students won’t have invested as much time and can catch up more easily, since there are more opportunities to take the classes they need for their discipline.




Because most colleges and universities are on the semester system, transferring can be logistically difficult for those starting out at schools on the quarter system. For example, because credits may not be equivalent, transfers may risk losing credits and having to repeat certain courses.




When you’re at a school on the quarter system, you’ll have the opportunity to take more classes — and therefore meet different faculty. Building relationships with faculty will be useful for your current and future opportunities, such as internships and recommendations for jobs and graduate school.


However, more exposure to different faculty won’t always mean that you’ll be able to get to know them. In the semester system, you’ll spend more time with instructors, which can sometimes lead to stronger connections.




When your school follows a semester schedule, each grade will have a bigger impact on your overall GPA, given that there are fewer courses, each amounting to more credits apiece. This means your GPA could take a hit if you earn one poor grade. This is less of a risk when you’re on a quarter schedule because each grade is less impactful.


But, the semester system also gives you time to adjust to your courses and catch up. You won’t have as much room to get used to the material and expectations in the quarter system, since the term is considerably shorter.


Job Opportunities


Students who attend schools that follow the quarter system end up graduating slightly later than their peers who attend semester-system schools, which means they could be at a disadvantage when it comes to applying for jobs right out of college. (Don’t be too worried, though — usually, it won’t make too much of a difference in your job search.)


It may also be a bit more challenging to find summer opportunities that have a set schedule and start in early June, when quarter system schools are still in-session.


How to Decide Which College is Best for You


The type of system, quarter or semester, probably won’t affect your college decision too much. Still, it’s one consideration out of many. 


To find best-fit colleges, use CollegeVine’s free school search tool. You can filter your search by important factors like size, location, programs available, and much more.


We also have a free admissions calculator that will let you know your chances of acceptance at hundreds of colleges in the U.S., plus give you tips to improve your profile.


Short Bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Slackjaw, Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket, and Funny-ish. View her work and get in touch at: www.lauraberlinskyschine.com.