The Pros and Cons of the Quarter System

Northwestern, UCLA, University of Chicago, Stanford--what do these schools all have in common? You guessed it: the quarter system.

So you’re deciding whether or not to go to a school that operates on the quarter system. That means, rather than semesters, these institutions have four terms per year lasting 11-12 weeks each, as opposed to semesters, which last 15-16 weeks. (Not to get confused with the block plan of Colorado College, which has a unique thing).

It’s more than just having a few more classes per year and a slightly different schedule than the rest of your friends. Quarter system schools tend to begin in late September and let out in late June, while semester schools start in late August or after Labor Day and let out in May. It’s just a few weeks difference….right? Kind of. We’ll break it down for you.

The Ups of the Quarter System

  1. You’ll never get bored. The quarter system moves at a ruthless pace, making your time in each class shorter than if you were on the semester system. Enrolled in your mandatory Organic Chemistry course and hating it? Good news: you only have a few weeks left until it’s over. In the semester system, your torturous pre-req classes last for months.

  2. More time to specialize. More quarters means more classes. This means you have more time: more time to explore your major, more opportunities to take classes outside your major, and more time to take classes with professors you love. You get to learn more about yourself and what you’d want to study without feeling as rush in making a decision. In the semester system, a good chunk of your time is used to fill requirements, whether it’s core curriculum, or for your major.

  3. Longer winter break. Schools on the quarter system have almost double the time off--usually four full weeks during winter break.  (Northwestern’s break between fall and winter quarters is December 10 through January 9th, for example.) Some semester schools only get a scant 10-14 days (we’re looking at you, Michigan). Going to a school on the quarter system means more time to unwind after the whirlwind of final exams.

Of course, there cannot be pros without some requisite cons. Here is the flip side of the more advantageous aspects (scheduling, pacing, etc.) of schools that run on the quarter schedule:

The Downsides of the Quarter System

  1. You’re constantly in mid-terms. The fast pace of the quarter is all well and good until you realize you started class two weeks ago and your first midterm is next week. Woops. It certainly keeps you on your toes, but that ruthless pace we mentioned before is not for those prone to procrastination.
  2. The rest of the world operates on the assumption of semesters. Study abroad, summer internships and jobs--these are mostly structured around the assumption that the participants are in semester institutions. Most internships programs begin the first week of June, and quarter system schools don’t even let out until June 28th. Of course, this doesn’t mean you’ll never have the opportunity to have an internship ( exceptions do get made), but it does add a hurdle to an already stressful process.
  3. You’re stuck at home...all alone. A longer winter break is cool and all, but what about the second week of September when you’re still home with your parents and all your friends left for college three weeks ago and you’re little sister keeps barging into your room and you just really, really need to go to college already.

Of course, these ups and downs pale in comparison to the ultimate decision, which is choosing a school based on what’s right for you. Scheduling and pace may be taken into consideration, but whatever the pros and cons quarter system vs. semester, make sure you’re looking at the whole picture. 

If you need any help making this decision, we're here. Reach out