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Semester vs Quarter: Pros and Cons

When deciding upon a college, students have many things to consider. Some factors include location, financial aid, and whether their major is available or not. A lesser known, but still important to consider, is whether one’s school is on a semester vs a quarter schedule. This answer influences a student’s college experience more than they may realize.

To find out whether the semester or quarter system might work better for you, keep on reading!

What is a semester system?

The semester system is undeniably the most common system in the U.S. Semester systems split the school year into two 15-week-long terms. One term takes place in the Fall and one in the Spring. The Fall Semester typically starts in late August and ends in early December. Meanwhile, the Spring semester normally begins in mid-January and ends in early May. While these may sound very long, the two terms are split up by breaks. A month-long winter break typically follows the Fall term, while a months-long summer break comes after the Spring term.

And, although it depends on how many credits one’s university typically allocates per course, full-time students will often take 4-5 classes a semester. Those attending schools with semester systems generally also have the option to enroll in an optional summer semester. In summer, they can take courses for fun, get a head start on accumulating credits, or even retake classes.

During the course of a normal school year (excluding summer), students in a semester system will typically accumulate 30 credits (15 per semester). So, by the time they graduate, this should make up for a total of around 120 credits.

That’s all for the semester system, though. What about the quarter system?

What is a quarter system?

Quarter system terms are shorter than that of a semester system, with each term generally taking 10-11 weeks from start to finish. As a result of each term being a few weeks shorter than a semester system, and as indicated by the name (“quarter” system), there are four quarters in a school year. Coinciding with the seasons, the four terms occur in Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer. 

The greater number of quarters allows students to take more classes per school year than those in a semester system, despite the shorter length of each term. While full-time students in a quarter system will normally take 3-4 classes per term, enrolling in 3 of these terms during the course of a normal school year results in students taking around a total of 9-12 classes per school year (excluding summer). 

Students are generally given breaks at the end of each quarter, with those following the Winter and Spring term being the longest. Here are the typical start and end dates for each term of the quarter system:

  • Fall: Mid-September through early December
  • Winter: Early January through late March
  • Spring: Mid-April through early June
  • Summer (optional): Mid-June through late August

During each of these quarters, full-time students will typically accumulate 15 credit hours per semester. This adds up to around 45 credit hours a school year, and 180 credit hours by graduation (four years of college).

Semester vs Quarter system: advantages and disadvantages

You now know the basics of both the semester and quarter system, but is one better than the other? Well, not necessarily – it all depends on what you prefer. If you prefer taking more classes and having shorter terms, then you might lean towards the quarter system. On the other hand, if you prefer having more time in the same classes and starting summer break earlier, a semester system might suit you better. To help you decide whether the quarter or semester system would be a better fit for you, we’ve accumulated a list of advantages and disadvantages for each system. Let’s check them out!

Semester system advantages

The semester system is so common in the U.S. for a reason – its many advantages! For now, let’s take a look at some of the major ones.

More time to absorb material

A definite upside to a semester system is having a greater amount of time to spend in the same classes (per term). Having 15 weeks dedicated to one subject will allow you to better understand the material and learn at your own pace. This way, you will not only absorb the material, but hopefully even retain that knowledge for future classes.

Shorter class periods

Although class periods will certainly vary by the specific university and class, courses taken in the semester system tend to be shorter than those in the quarter system. While semester system classes will typically take around 50-75 minutes per section, those in a quarter system may take between 90-120 minutes. Having shorter classes will not only help students make room for extracurriculars and other classes, but will also help maintain students’ attention spans during lectures (which have been shown to decline greatly after 10-15 minutes!).

More time to get to know professors 

Much like having more time to absorb the class material, having classes that occur over a greater amount of time allows students to create stronger relationships with their professors. The extra time to ask them questions, attend their office hours, and even simply converse with them over the course of the semester will help you better get to know each other than you’d be able to over the course of a quarter. This is extremely beneficial, not only to get help in your classes, but also to get professional references when you’re applying to internship or job opportunities later on in life.

Semester system disadvantages

Although there are many great advantages to a semester system, there are a few disadvantages as well. Before students decide whether a semester system would be the best choice for them or not, they should take these into consideration. 

Harder to raise GPA

Although taking fewer classes over the course of a school year may be appealing, a large downside of doing so is that it makes it harder for students to raise their GPAs. This is because each one will hold more weight when it comes to your GPA, making it harder to bring your GPA back up than if you were taking more classes (as in a quarter system).

Potential for unnecessary or “filler” classes

Semester systems often require students to take a certain number of classes to retain full-time status in order to maintain their eligibility for scholarships and other types of financial aid. This may lead to students taking “filler” classes they don’t necessarily want to take or care about as they are simply trying to accumulate more credits. On the bright side, however, taking extra classes may potentially help students explore their other interests and possible paths while in college.

Quarter system advantages

Despite being less common than the semester system in the U.S., there are certainly many benefits to a quarter system. Let’s find out what they are!

Smaller workload

Arguably, the biggest advantage of having less classes is the smaller workload that comes along with it! Less exams, homework, and classwork frees up time for students to do extracurriculars, other classwork, or just spend more time doing what they enjoy. This will benefit students’ mental health, something that should be of utmost importance throughout college (and life in general!).

Greater course flexibility

Having more terms to take classes allows students greater course flexibility. What exactly does this mean, though? Well, greater course flexibility means a number of things. Namely, it means that you have more time (terms) to choose when you would like to take a particular course. Besides this, though, it also means that you can try out more courses (even those outside your major), retake failed classes, and get a more well-rounded education than those in a semester system. 

Less time in classes you don’t enjoy

Realistically, we’ve all had those classes that we didn’t particularly like. This seems to happen to every student at some point in their college career. Attending a school with a quarter system can lessen the blow a little bit. Considering that terms in the quarter system only last around 10-11 weeks (compared to 15 for a semester), students will be able to sooner finish off and leave the classes that they don’t enjoy if in a quarter system.

Shorter breaks

Although some may view this as a disadvantage, having shorter breaks between terms allows students to better retain the information they learned the previous quarter. This way, you will be less likely to experience the “brain drain” that may occur over a long break and be better prepared for upcoming classes.

Quarter system disadvantages

Just like the semester system, there are a few disadvantages to the quarter system that students should be aware of.

Harder to secure internships

A major disadvantage of the quarter system is the difficulty that students may face while trying to find internships. Now, this is not any fault of the students themselves. The vast majority of internships operate on the semester schedule. Thus, those in a quarter system may face difficulties securing internships. They may even have to decide between completing classes or an internship in a given quarter.

Also see: How to write a cover letter for an internship

Less study abroad options

Students in a quarter system may also find it more difficult to find study abroad opportunities that fit their schedule. This is because many study abroad programs run on a semester schedule. While it’s certainly not impossible to study abroad on a quarter system, it will likely require students to do more research and find the programs themselves.

Fast-paced classes

The last disadvantage that we’ll go over for the quarter system is the relatively faster-paced classes than what you’d experience in a semester system. Compared to 15 weeks, having only 10-11 weeks to cover all the content in any given course is very quick and can be difficult for students (especially in more difficult classes). 

And with that, we’re done going over the advantages and disadvantages of each system. We hope that these have helped you figure out which system would work better for you. Ultimately, however, if there’s a school you really like (and that fits all your other criteria for colleges), whether your school is on the quarter or semester system truly won’t seem like a big deal.

See Also: How to choose a college

Transferring semester and quarter credits

On that note, what if you end up wanting to transfer to another school and aren’t sure how your credits will transfer (especially if they were on the opposite system)? Well, luckily for you, we’re here to help you out! 

The general rule is that three quarters are equivalent to two semesters, or a 3:2 ratio. Simplified, this can be expressed as 1.5 quarters = 1 semester. So, to convert semester to quarter credits (or the other way around), it’s a simple multiplication (or division) problem. To help you visualize what this would look like, we’ve created some handy equations for you. Let’s take a look!

Converting quarter credits to semester credits

To convert quarter credits to semester credits, divide your amount of quarter credits by 1.5. In equation form this would look like: Quarter Credits ÷ 1.5 = Semester Credits. 

For example:

  • 15 quarter credits ÷ 1.5 = 10 semester credits
  • 12 quarter credits ÷ 1.5 = 8 semester credits
  • 9 quarter credits ÷ 1.5 = 6 semester credits

Now that you’ve gotten the hang of that, let’s see how semester credits convert into quarter credits!

Converting semester credits to quarter credits

Converting semester credits into quarter credits is also pretty straightforward. To do so, simply multiply your amount of semester credits by 1.5. This looks like: Semester Credits x 1.5 = Quarter Credits.

For example:

  • 15 semester credits x 1.5 = 22.5 quarter credits
  • 12 semester credits x 1.5 = 18 quarter credits
  • 9 semester credits x 1.5 = 13.5 quarter credits

And that’s it! You now know how to convert your credits from one system into the other. Before you go, if you’re interested in transferring, make sure to check out these helpful “how to” guides:

With that, we’re done – and we wish you good luck in college! We hope you love it (no matter which system your school uses!).