What is the Difference Between Quarters, Semesters, and Trimesters?

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By Brianna Burrows

The USA has plentiful choices for advancing your education at an American university. While many schools might offer the same program, some schools may be on different academic calendars, affecting the number of courses you take each session. Schools in America break up the academic year into various lengths of time. The academic calendar systems used in the U.S. are the quarter system, semester system, and trimester system. 


A quarter system divides the academic year into four sessions: fall, winter, spring, and summer. Generally, colleges in the USA do not require a summer session, but you can use it to complete classes that were not offered during the other sessions or complete your degree in advance. With a quarter system, each session lasts approximately ten weeks. Each quarter, you can take three or four classes, depending on how many credits each class is. Generally, the school year for an American university starts at the end of September and finishes in June. Quarter systems are most commonly used at colleges offering associate’s degrees — primarily community college.

As a quarter is only ten weeks long, the intensity of your classes may be higher than if you were to take those same classes over a semester or trimester. Although the difficulty of the coursework and exams you are given may be the same, the amount of work you will have to do will be quite a bit more. Having to fit nearly 15 weeks’ worth of work into ten weeks will require a bit of extra effort on your end. On the bright side, having fewer classes to focus on at one time can alleviate the confusion of juggling multiple tasks at once. 

How to Make The Most of The Quarter System

1. Balance your classes

Have you ever been overwhelmed because you had too much work to do? Quarter systems can provide you with flexibility in the classes you take and make even the most challenging courses more manageable. If you take the most demanding courses all at once, you’ll find yourself stressed, overworked, and overwhelmed by the amount of work you’ll have to do. Combining difficult classes with more manageable electives has proven to be one way of reducing the overall strain that quarter systems may create. This will give you more time to focus on the most critical tasks, and depending on which electives you take (art, sports, etc.), even give you scheduled time to take a break doing something you enjoy. 

2. Make connections

Studying in a quarter system at an American university can provide you with some of the most rewarding networking experiences of your academic journey. In semester systems, in particular, the students you’re placed with will be the same students you will see for the majority of your time at university. As semesters are longer, and the following courses are all meant to be taken one after another, the chances of connecting with new people are much slimmer. Quarters will have you grouped with new students, professors, and faculty every ten weeks on the other end of the spectrum. Factor in the number of electives you will take, and the types of students you’ll come across will span all sorts of different majors and degrees. This is the perfect time for you to build a network of friends, career connections and maybe even score a few recommendations from professors. As important as your classes are, the relationships you make outside of them can be just as rewarding. 

3. Try something new

Have you ever wanted to try your hand at martial arts? There’s an elective for that. Have you ever heard someone play an instrument and thought to yourself, “I wish I could have learned how to play that,” well it’s not too late! Colleges in the USA provide electives for just about everything under the sun. College is a time to learn about yourself and maybe even pick up an extra skill or two. Studying in a quarter system at an American university, you will have plenty of opportunities to experience classes that you may otherwise not have taken. Finding the right balance between work and play can make even the most stressful times a little more enjoyable. 


A semester system divides the academic year into two sessions: fall and spring. Each session is approximately 15 weeks long, with a winter break between the fall and spring sessions and a summer break after the spring session. Each semester you can take four to six classes depending on how many credits each class is. About 90% of colleges in the USA run on the semester system, making it the most common type of academic schedule in higher education. 

Students who thrive in a semester system are those who prefer a slower, less demanding pace. A semester will cover the same amount of material as a quarter but spread out over 15 weeks instead of 10. Many times, classes are split into an alternating schedule. Depending on how you set your schedule up, you could have three classes one day, two the next, and three again the day after. As it’s much easier to get distracted in this setting, building responsible habits and staying on top of your due dates is crucial to your success in an American university.

How to Make the Most of the Semester System

1. Build a structured schedule

It’s easy to lose focus when you’re only required to submit a few assignments a week, and exams seem to be weeks away. With a lot more free time, filling your schedule with activities will ensure you’re staying productive and making the most of your study abroad. Setting aside specific time slots during your time at an American university, whether it be to study for classes, do assignments, or even watch an episode of the newest Netflix show will make sure you’re keeping your priorities in check, and will help you be prepared when things get busy. *We highly recommend getting a calendar or notebook to keep track of everything* 

2. Get involved

The extra free time that semester systems provide can allow you to get involved around campus or in your local communities. Participating in school clubs or attending events can lead to great networking opportunities and ultimately make you a more appealing candidate after graduation. Some of the best universities in the USA generally have a database of all their school’s clubs and organizations. News flash, there’s a lot. Whatever your interests may be, your American university probably has something similar. School clubs can even be an excellent resource for making new friends that share similar interests. 

3. Explore opportunities outside of school 

Depending on the type of student visa you have, you may be eligible to work while you study abroad. Staying busy through work can be a great way to help you stay productive during the slow grind of a long semester — it can also give you a little extra money to hold on to for a rainy day. More importantly, finding internship opportunities while you’re in school can help you gain valuable experience in your industry under the guidance of industry experts. Combining your studies at an American university with real-world experience can set you apart from your peers and give you insights into what you want to do in the future.  


A trimester system divides the academic year into three sessions: fall, winter, and spring. Each trimester is approximately 12-13 weeks long. Each trimester you can take three to four classes depending on how many credits each class is. Many U.S. high school programs using the trimester system offer a summer session which is more closely related to the quarter system. 

In the USA, many middle schools and high schools use the trimester system. In contrast, most higher education institutions use semesters — that’s not to say there aren’t some colleges in the USA that use the trimester system. Studying in a trimester system strikes a happy middle ground between quarters and semesters. You benefit from attending classes frequently, switching classes often (relative to semesters), and more personal instruction from instructors as you would in a quarter system. Not quite the sprint of a quarter, however, trimesters last 2-3 weeks longer than quarters giving you more time to prepare for big assignments or exams.


Understanding each academic calendar can help students better understand what their academic school year will be like in terms of course load. There’s a lot that goes into choosing the calendar system that’s right for you. Understanding how you work best, the opportunities you’d like to pursue, and the lifestyle you want to live can help choose the calendar system that will allow you to be your best. Regardless of which academic calendar your school uses, the end goal is the same: to graduate and receive your degree from an American university. 

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