Breaking Down the Academic Calendar

Not all academic years are the same. Many colleges and universities operate on different calendar systems with varying term lengths, such as semesters, trimesters, and quarters.

Here’s a brief breakdown:

Breakdown of Academic Calendar Systems

Academic Term
Academic Term Semester
Two terms, each lasting 14 to 20 weeks
Academic Term Trimester
Three terms, each lasting 10 to 12 weeks, not including summer
Academic Term Quarter
Four terms, each lasting 9 to 11 weeks, including summer
Academic Term 4-1-4 or 4-4-1
Two terms, each lasting about 14 weeks, with a one-month mini-term in January or May
Academic Term Continuous
There are no breaks. Students start the next course right after the term ends.

Semester Schools

In a semester system, an academic year is typically broken into two terms (usually fall and spring semesters).

Semesters are typically broken into two terms: fall and spring

Semesters can vary from traditional to block plans. In a traditional semester system, students take a variety of classes simultaneously over the course of a 14- to 20-week term, whereas the block system allows students to focus on one course at a time (OCAAT) for a three-and-a-half-week mini-session before moving on to the next class. The OCAAT schools are more of a rare breed. Schools that utilize this system include Colorado College and Cornell College. Just because it’s one class at a time doesn’t mean it’s easier, though. Three-week classes can be intense, and before you know it, you’re moving on to the next one.

Trimester Schools

Trimesters are academic years divided into three, 10- or 11-week terms.

The trimester system was derived from the semester system, with an academic year divided into three terms of about 10-11 weeks each. A key feature of the trimester system is the possibility of being able to graduate faster, as soon as three years at some schools. However, it may often mean going to school in the summer, so if you’re hoping to do summer internships, this format may not necessarily be for you (check in with the school to find out more info on this).

Quarter Schools

Quarters are kind of like trimesters, only with summer terms

The quarter system has three primary terms, each hovering around 10 to 12 weeks in length, with a summer term—so four terms in a year is why this system is called “quarter.” Typically, quarter system start dates are more delayed than other schools, beginning as late as mid-September.

4-1-4 or 4-4-1 Plans

Another variation on the academic calendar includes 4-1-4 or 4-4-1 plans, which have two terms lasting about four months each with a short mini-session either between terms or after the end of the spring term.

4-1-4 includes two, four-month terms and a mini-session in between

When it comes to the 4-1-4 plan, these short terms may be called J Terms, since they most often occur in January. In the 4-4-1 plan, the short term is often referred to as “Maymester,” a combination of “May” and “semester.”

Since these short terms only last one month, typically there’s a smaller course load that you can focus on, and many schools also give students the option to study abroad during this month, so your term could take place at a more exotic location. Some schools also give students the option to do a month-long internship in lieu of class, so you’re not necessarily locked into the format.
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Author: Niche

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Breaking Down the Academic Calendar