With thousands of colleges in the U.S., the sprawling landscape of higher education means a multitude of options for prospective students. Academic calendars are among the many variables that they may want to consider.
Just like there’s no one-size-fits-all option for colleges, the same is true for how college semesters are structured. While many schools adhere to traditional semesters that last around 16 weeks — though that number can also vary — others have quarterly academic calendars, trimesters or uncommon offerings that break from academic norms.
Unsure of where to start or how to plan for a college semester? Read on for a breakdown of academic calendars.
How Long a Standard College Semester Lasts
“Semesters are generally 15-17 weeks, including a period for final exams,” explains Catherine M. Paden, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire. “This length doesn’t often vary, as the amount of class time required to earn credits is generally determined by accrediting organizations.”
Students should pay attention to several milestone moments throughout the semester. Experts encourage students to identify midterms and finals weeks as major points on the academic calendar.
“Other periods that are built into a semester that students want to pay attention to are the timelines around the beginning of the semester when you can drop or add courses,” says Amber N. Douglas, who serves in multiple roles at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, including as a psychology professor and dean of studies.
She also encourages students to note other deadlines of interest, such as when to apply to study abroad.
Breaks are typically built into spring and fall. Students also have major holidays off, though experts note that which holidays are observed may vary by school. Likewise, colleges with a religious affiliation may offer days off that secular institutions do not observe, such as breaks around Good Friday, Easter or other holidays.
How many credits a student takes in a standard semester may vary by degree program. While 12 credit hours is generally the minimum for full-time student status, some students may need to take more. A bachelor’s degree is generally around 120 credit hours, but some programs require more, experts note.
Ultimately, that may mean more credit hours packed into each semester for students who intend to graduate on time in four years. STEM degrees — those focused on science, technology, engineering and math — may require more credit hours, experts note.
[Read: A Guide to STEM Majors.]
Outside of the spring and fall terms, many colleges offer summer semesters of varying length. Such terms typically are compressed into shorter periods, meaning that classes are conducted at an accelerated pace.
“Summer is normally very intense because eight to nine weeks is 50% faster than a traditional semester,” says Jessica Ha Bittner, director of First Year Experience at Florida Institute of Technology. She adds that some schools offer summer classes that are four to six weeks long, which she refers to as “an intense mini-semester.”
Instead of common class lengths hovering around an hour or less, summer courses are typically longer. Just how long depends on the length of the course, Bittner says, but it isn’t uncommon to see three- or four-hour classes.
How Long Quarter Terms Last
The quarter system is another type of academic calendar in higher education. This format is broken down into four terms of equal length spanning spring, summer, fall and winter. Each term generally lasts around 10 weeks.
“The number of credits that you would be enrolled in for those kinds of different scheduling systems would be , of course, very different than our traditional 16-week semesters,” Bittner says.
Colleges using a quarter system often count credit hours differently than colleges with traditional semesters. While 120 credit hours is common at many schools for a bachelor’s degree, 180 may be required for schools using the quarter system. That number may sound high, but prospective students should know that it’s a workload similar to 120 credits. The difference is largely how credits are counted.
Students under a quarter system generally take three to four classes per quarter, experts note.
How Long College Trimesters Last
Trimesters tend to break the academic calendar down into three portions: fall, winter and spring, though some schools may also offer additional summer sessions. Academic trimesters generally last 10 to 12 weeks.
Depending on how the courses are structured, students generally take three or four classes per trimester.
As with all semester structures, students should check with individual colleges to see how and when financial aid will be disbursed. According to the Federal Student Aid website, colleges typically “must pay at least once per term (semester, trimester, or quarter). Schools that don’t use traditional terms such as semesters or quarters usually must pay at least twice per academic year.”
What to Know About Uncommon Academic Calendars
Some colleges have unconventional academic calendars beyond the semester structures listed above. One example is Colorado College, where each course lasts three-and-a-half weeks. Rather than taking multiple classes throughout the semester, the block plan at Colorado College focuses on one class for those weeks.
“Even though most classes meet every weekday from 9 a.m. to noon for three and a half weeks, they vary tremendously in their set-up and delivery,” L. Song Richardson, president of Colorado College, wrote in an email. “Many classes meet in a classroom daily for three hours with a mix of lectures, group work, videos, discussion, etc. Students are assessed with exams, quizzes, presentations, and papers throughout the block.”
Eight blocks of three-and-a-half weeks, or 18 days, are offered each academic year. According to Richardson, the credits earned in each block are “equal to four semester hours or six quarter hours.”
Students must earn 32 units of credit for a bachelor’s degree, which may sound like a significantly lower workload than 120 or 180 hours, but it all comes down to how it’s counted. In the end, a similar amount of work is required.
Richardson notes the block plan has been in place since 1974, and she plugs the flexibility it offers to get students out of the classroom for certain subjects, such as geology, where much of the instruction is delivered off campus.
There are numerous other institutions with uncommon semester formats. While these schools tend to fall into the minority of institutions outside the more traditional calendars, students should be aware of how the school year works, which is information that can generally be found on the college’s website.
“There’s going to be pros and cons to all different kinds of scheduling systems,” says Bittner, who encourages students to reach out to a college with questions about the academic calendar if anything is unclear.
Regardless of the structure, Douglas says planning and time management are key. She offers four general tips to navigate any academic calendar: Make a plan, map the semester out, pace yourself and seek out help if needed.
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