The Semester vs. Quarter System in College
- Most U.S. colleges and universities follow either the quarter or semester system.
- The semester system gives students more time to learn and build a rapport with professors.
- The quarter system offers ample flexibility and smaller course loads each term.
- Transferring semester and quarter credits can pose some challenges.
U.S. colleges and universities use different academic calendars to organize courses, terms, and campus events. The two most common calendars are the semester system and the quarter system.
As a professor, I have taught under both systems, so I am keenly aware of the pros and cons of each — for students and professors alike. In this guide, we'll go over the differences between the quarter and semester systems before looking at the advantages and drawbacks of both.
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Quarter System vs. Semester: How Do They Differ?
A semester system generally consists of two 15-week terms: one in the fall (followed by a winter break) and one in the spring (followed by a summer break). The average full-time student takes 4-5 courses per term, or roughly 15 credits.
A semester school year typically starts in late August and concludes in early May. About 95% of U.S. institutions of higher education operate on a semester calendar.
A semester system generally consists of two 15-week terms, while a quarter system consists of four 10-week sessions.
A quarter system consists of four 10-week sessions in the fall, winter, spring, and summer. The average full-time student takes 3-4 courses per term, or 9-12 credits.
An academic year on the quarter system normally runs from mid-September through early June. The summer quarter is optional and allows students to take more classes and possibly graduate early.
Some examples of popular quarter-system colleges are the University of Chicago, Stanford University, the University of California system, and the University of Washington.
The Pros and Cons of the Semester System
More Time to Study: Students who take semesterlong courses get more time to learn and digest new material, as well as to create and complete assignments. This extra time may be especially helpful for graduate students, who are often required to complete lengthy and rigorous assignments.
Easier Transition: Since the semester system closely aligns with most high school and community college schedules, it allows traditional college students to adjust more easily to the novelty of university life.
Shorter Class Periods: Class periods on the semester system are usually shorter than those on the quarter system, lasting around 50-75 minutes and accommodating most college students' attention spans.
Stronger Faculty Connections: Longer classes on a semester calendar means more opportunities for student-faculty interaction and relationship-building, which can come in handy when it comes to asking for recommendations for jobs and internships.
Switching Majors Can Be Costly: Students who want to switch majors may end up taking and paying for courses they don't need to graduate, often up to 15 credits, which can add up to thousands of dollars in tuition.
Harder to Raise GPA: A student on a semester calendar who fared poorly in a course may have a harder time improving their GPA since each term carries a larger weight as compared to quarter terms.
The Pros and Cons of the Quarter System
Lots of Flexibility: Students on the quarter system get to experience more courses and interact with more faculty members. By graduation, students take roughly six more courses (or 18 credits) than those on the semester system. Having more options permits students to try out different majors, attempt a double major, and register for elective courses they may not otherwise pursue.
Smaller Course Loads: Full-time students on the quarter system take fewer classes at once (usually 3-4). As a result, they may find it easier to focus and succeed in their coursework.
Less Fretting Time: Shorter terms mean students don't have to spend as much time in a class they don't particularly enjoy (such as a mandatory general education class) or with a professor they don't get along with.
Shorter Breaks Prevent Distraction: Having shorter breaks between quarters (as opposed to one long winter break and one long summer break between semesters) can help students stay focused on their studies and may make it easier for them to recall prerequisite material.
Internships Can Be Tricky: Students on the quarter system may have a hard time landing internships, as businesses and organizations generally set internship program dates around a semester schedule.
Lack of Study Abroad Options: Quarter-system students may be ineligible for study abroad programs, which often run on a semester schedule.
Transferring Semester and Quarter Credits in College
Whereas colleges on a semester system award semester credits, those on a quarter system award quarter credits. If you're considering transferring from a school with a semester system to one with a quarter system (or vice versa), credits can pose problems. How can you transfer successfully from one academic calendar to the other?
Quarter-system colleges convert incoming semester credits to quarter credits. Generally, academic advisors are instructed to multiply any transferred credits by 1.5. At the University of Washington, for example, "a student who earns 30 credits in an institution on a semester calendar would have earned 45 quarter credits at the UW."
Quarter Credits to Semester Credits
Number of Quarter Credits / 1.5 =
Number of Semester Credits
Semester Credits to Quarter Credits
Number of Semester Credits * 1.5 =
Number of Quarter Credits
Similarly, students transferring quarter credits to semester credits would need to divide quarter credits by 1.5. For instance, if a UW student transferred into a program at Walla Walla Community College with 5 quarter credits under their belt, they'd now have 3.3 semester credits.
Many schools allow only a certain number of transfer credits — usually up to 60. If you're considering transferring to a university that uses a different academic calendar than what your current school uses, use this quarter-to-semester-credit conversion calculator to help you determine how your credits will convert.
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