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Semester vs. Trimester College Calendars: Pros and Cons

Have you considered a school's academic calendar during your college search? Learn some of the biggest pros and cons about semester and trimester systems here.

Just like high schools, colleges vary in the academic calendar they follow. While the vast majority of colleges (over 70%) use the traditional fall/spring semester system, there are many colleges that follow the trimester system, quite a few on the quarter system, and some that do their own totally different thing. And each type of calendar clearly has its own pros and cons. If you're thinking about your college choices, take a moment to read up on these different common academic calendars and think about which one you may prefer for your college life.

Colleges with semester schedules

You're probably familiar with the idea of “semesters” since most high schools operate on this system too. Colleges with a semester system divide their school year into two semesters: one in the fall, which usually runs from August to December, and another in the spring, which starts in January and ends in May. The two terms, of course, are divided by one or two weeks of lovely finals. Each semester lasts about 15 weeks, and students take four to five classes per semester on average. Now that the technical details have been covered, let’s focus on the advantages and less-than-advantageous aspects of colleges that function on the semester calendar.

Potential pros

  • In-depth instruction: Classes span over a lengthy period of 15 weeks, so you'll have more time to absorb and expand your thoughts on challenging college material. You'll learn new ideas and be encouraged to develop various skills since your professors will incorporate lessons in creative assignments and projects.
  • Greater collaboration between students and faculty: It never hurts to know your professors on a personal basis, and the ample time allotted by the semester system gives you time to get to know your instructors better and vice versa. The more time you spend interacting with your professors, the stronger your bonds become, and the brighter your future will be!
  • Smoother transition from high school to college: Semester calendars allows students who are fresh out of high school more time to adjust to rigorous college courses. And even if you start off the year on the wrong foot, you'll still have enough time to improve your academic performance throughout the semester.

Potential cons

  • Fear of new classes: You may be less likely to explore classes in new subjects since you might be afraid of the half-year commitment. As a result, you could miss out on the chance to discover any dormant interests or expand on your existing ones by signing up for various college courses.
  • Shorter summer term with longer hours: Many colleges also offer summer courses, and since the summer session is significantly shorter than the fall and spring semesters, the same amount of information must be taught in a much shorter time. As a result, summer classes may not offer the same quality of learning as the classes during the year—not to mention the classes themselves tend to be super long.

Related: The Experts' Choice: Colleges With Unique Calendars

Colleges with trimester schedules

As its name suggests, the trimester calendar divides the school year into three segments; the catch here is that the trimester system is often called the quarter system because they are exactly the same schedule, except that the quarter calendar includes summer as its fourth term. Colleges with these calendars generally begin in mid-September and end in the middle of June, which is considerably later than schools that function on semesters. Since there are more terms in a year, each fall, winter, and spring trimester is only 10 weeks long.

Potential pros

  • Only three classes per term: More terms per year means more opportunities to take classes, so on average students take only three classes per session. The obvious perks are that you can better focus on your classes since you'll have less to worry about and that testing seasons won’t be as stressful with fewer assessments to clear.
  • Don’t like a class? No worries: Remember how each term is only 10 weeks long? Well, that means if you happen to stumble into an extremely unpleasant class with an evil professor who likes to torture his pupils with his impossible tests, you aren’t stuck in that class for a very long time. The pain will be over soon! On a more serious note, this shorter commitment allows students to explore various subjects and classes without feeling like they have to be devoted for half a year.
  • Never too late to raise your GPA: The freedom to take many classes throughout the year provides you with golden opportunities to raise your GPA. One or two bad grades do not affect your average as much because you've taken (or can take) several classes and receive good (cushioning) grades.
  • Two graduation dates: With this type of calendar, students can graduate after either the fall or the winter trimester. For those who are struggling to earn the last few units needed for a diploma, this can be a huge plus since you technically have a “second chance” to graduate within the same year.

Potential cons

  • Textbook costs: Although the academic calendar doesn't affect tuition in general, it can be more costly to attend schools on the trimester system because you'll need to purchase new textbooks not two but three times a year. And of course, textbooks are pricey, so this expense can become a major burden for some students.
  • Faster paced learning: The rigor and amount of information taught in a trimester class is equivalent to those of a semester class. In exchange for taking fewer classes per term, you really have to gear up and brace yourself for the intense pace of your classes—or else you can easily fall behind, even in the short 10-week period.
  • Greater academic pressure: The freedom to take numerous courses can become a burden, especially on academically competitive campuses. You may even feel obligated to double-major or take on a (extra) minor because that’s what everyone around you seems to be doing. Even if everyone isn't actually an overachiever, the pressure to go that extra mile can become quite stressful.
  • Schedule conflicts: This is considered the greatest downside of the trimester system. Starting and ending the school year unconventionally late can create some issues with scheduling internships, study abroad programs, family vacations, and other summer plans.

Related: Colleges on a Trimester System 

Before making your final college decision, be sure to investigate about a school's academic calendar. You may find a semester schedule works better for you than a trimester or vice versa, but finding out before you're knee-deep in coursework is always preferable. Best of luck in your search!

Find schools with your preferred academic calendar using our College Search tool.

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About Dan Bi Han

Hello! I’m Dan Bi, and I am currently a high school student in Torrance, California. Oftentimes, people mistake me for a guy and call me Dan, but my name actually reads “Dahn-Bee,” which means "sweet rain." My hobbies include drawing, reading, and writing—they are the most effective mediums through which I can express my thoughts and feelings. My writing usually ranges anywhere from rants to short stories, but I particularly enjoy exploring the field of journalism. Need I say more? I love writing for CollegeXpress. :)


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