Your Guide to Understanding a College Term

Carolina Jacobs

Jan 10, 2022
Your Guide to Understanding a College Term

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Just what is a college term? A college term, or academic term, is the primary timeframe in a school year. In America, the academic term begins in the fall and ends in the spring. The actual date the term starts and how long it lasts depends on how the university has decided to organize itself.

It’s essential to understand the complexities of college terms before choosing a college because there are benefits and drawbacks to each model that warrant consideration. Continue reading this guide to learn more about the various options available in higher education and find the best fit for you.

How Academic Terms Are Generally Divided

At most universities in the United States, you’ll frequently encounter college terms broken up in groupings called semesters, quarters, or trimesters. Note some institutions offer classes continuously throughout the year, often in an online format. However, this guide will not detail those schools since they don’t technically offer terms.

1.   Semesters

Semester schools are often broken into two terms, the fall and spring semesters. It depends on the college, but the semesters are typically 15 weeks long. The fall semester will start in August and end in December. At the same time, the spring semester will begin in January and end in May.

2.   Quarters

A college that uses a quarter system divides time into four terms, three of which are primary and optional. Each term typically goes 10-12 weeks. Quarter terms often begin in mid-September and end at the beginning of June. The fourth quarter occurs during the summer and allows students to complete classes to graduate early or double major.

3.   Trimester

Depending on your school, the trimester terms are broken into three modules of 11 to 12-week increments. Like the semester system, the first-trimester period begins in the fall, and the second starts in the spring. The third term starts in the summer, allowing you to take classes quicker and graduate sooner or double major. 

4.   January Term or May Term

Some colleges and universities may opt to include short-term courses within their more extensive semester calendars. Typically these are called J-Terms or Maymesters because the terms happen during January and May.

The terms are often only four weeks in length, and a student would only take one class during the period. Sometimes the classes are offered abroad, providing opportunities for service learning. The courses can also be customizable – students can gain valuable internship experience rather than take another class. 

The Best College Term for You

Out of these standard methods colleges and universities divide terms, you’ll most frequently see semesters and quarters used in higher education. So, what’s the best fit for you?



Because the semester term is 15 weeks long, you’re more likely to go in-depth on the topic of your class and understand it fully. The length of the period gives you a chance to bond with your classmates and get to know your professors. When you form relationships with your professors, you can build a professional network within your industry. Networking is a crucial tool for you to develop as you move forward in your career.

Because the semester system is one of the most common in the country, it’s most likely your high school also used semesters. Coming from that system could help ease your academic transition into college.

Class periods are typically a bit shorter than the quarter system within the semester system, running on average 50-75 minutes—welcome news for students’ faltering attention spans.


Since the quarter lasts for just 10 to 12 weeks, this term offers a degree of flexibility with academic courses. Because of this freedom, students can try out different classes based on interests. If they want to double up on classes to graduate early, they can choose to do so. Or they can pursue a double major.

Students within the quarter system take fewer classes, usually just three, during a term. Focusing on fewer topics helps students not to spread themselves too thin academically. It also allows students to dig deeper and invest in what they’re learning.

Another perk of having a shorter term is if a student finds a subject particularly challenging for some reason, they only have to deal with it for ten weeks. The same goes for if a student is having a difficult time connecting with a professor or classmates.



Within the semester system, it can be a challenge to switch your major. Often you end up paying for courses you didn’t need to take and wasting time and effort because of the limited flexibility of the system. This can be a frustrating and expensive experience for many students.

Additionally, some students have noticed that raising their GPA within the semester system can be more challenging. Grades carry a higher weight in the system, so if you do poorly in one course and try to make up for it in another, you might find yourself struggling to do so.


It could be difficult for students who attend a college within the quarter system to study abroad. Many study abroad programs seem to run on a semester schedule.  Additionally, students could face difficulty finding internships for the same reason, as many businesses and organizations often set up their program dates around a semester schedule.

Finding the Best College Term for You

Will you consider quarters? Or will you select semesters? Now that you have the knowledge about college terms and have a better understanding of some of the benefits and drawbacks of both options, it’s up to you to determine which is the best fit.

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