Not all institutions of higher learning are created equal. While most schools schedule classes by breaking the academic year into two 15-week sessions (Fall & Spring) with a winter break in between (this is known as the semester system), others have opted for the quarter system, which divides the academic year into three nominal 10-week quarters (Fall, Winter, & Spring) with a final summer “quarter” that is designed to give students a chance to take more classes. A typical semester-based academic year stretches from mid-August to early May while its quarter-based counterpart usually begins in late September and wraps up in the first couple weeks of June.
Schools that operate on the quarter system include:
- Dartmouth College
- Northwestern University
- Seattle University
- Stanford University
- The University of California (UC) System (with the exception of UC Berkeley)
- The University of Chicago
- The University of Oregon
- The University of Washington
Although the semester system is far more prevalent among institutions of higher learning, it is by no means definitively better (or worse) than the quarter system. In fact, the quarter system can prove to be a much academically conducive for some individuals. That being said, it is by no means the preferred option for everyone. As such, we here at TP have compiled quick breakdown of the pros and cons of the quarter system so you can decide if it’s a good fit for you!
Flexibility: With three terms in a standard academic year instead of two, the quarter system provides an opportunity to take a larger number of more varied classes. This gives students a nice bit of room to explore their own interests outside of their formal fields of study. This also makes it so that students often find it easier to take classes in, and perhaps eventually add on a major or a minor in a field that they would have been unable to pursue under a semester system.
Shorter, Fast-Paced Classes: Given that each quarter is a mere ten weeks, most professors have their classes hit the ground running. Consequently, academic quarters are notorious for their intensity, but they can be that much more rewarding for it. It may not even be that much of a stretch to say that the quarter system prepares its graduates for a demanding, fast-paced, and deadline-laden position, which is a significant selling point to employers nowadays.
Shorter, Fast-Paced Classes: The fast pace of the quarter system is not for everyone. After the first couple of weeks, midterms start, and depending on one’s schedule, may not stop until finals start rolling out. Moreover, there is a general consensus in academia that ten weeks is simply not enough time for students to learn a class’s material in adequate depth. However, it should be noted that this lack of depth is often rectified in upper level(division) courses, where topics are often much more specific and ten weeks is plenty of time to cover them comprehensively and in much more depth than one could ever want.
Lack of Compatibility: Given that the vast majority of colleges and universities operate on the semester system, the schedules of most internships, fellowships, and study-abroad programs designed for undergraduates are not compatible with the quarter system. For instance, most summer internships run from mid-May, when quarter system students are beset with the prospect of finals, to August. That being said, most firms and organizations accommodate students from institutions that operate under a quarter system as a matter of routine. However, study-abroad programs tend to be less forgiving; foreign institutions of higher learning are often reluctant to adjust their own schedules to accommodate a specific minority of American students when it would be much easier to simply take American students from semester system schools.
In short, the quarter system is a mixed bag of goodies. You’ll see people who love the quarter system and people who hate it; you just have to decide what’s important to you. Because at the end of the day, as with everything else in college, it’s all about you!