The Semester vs. Quarter System in College
Which System Is Better for Students?
- 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.
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
The Pros and Cons of the Quarter System
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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