One of the most overlooked factors when deciding about the right schools to apply and commit to is choosing between the quarter and semester system.
On the most basic level, the main differences are:
Yet there’s a lot of intangibles about the differences between the two systems that can’t just be explained as simply as breaking it down to variations in academic term lengths. As somebody who has had the unique opportunity during my four years of college to experience both the quarter and semester systems first-hand as a UCSB student and eventually as a UC Berkeley transfer student, I wanted to share with you all not only the surface level differences between the two systems, but also my actual experiences living and breathing through the academic and social differences. Culture fit, courseload, and even professional aspirations are all affected depending on which school system you end up choosing.
When I started at UCSB, I thought the things that I had heard about a 10-week academic period being very rough to adapt to were overblown. How much more work could it be? If anything, 5 less weeks would hypothetically make studying for finals easier… right? Right?!
How naïve I was. What a lot of people don’t consider is that even though in theory you’re learning “less” material, the number of midterms per class doesn’t change. If you’re taking a full 4-course schedule and all of your classes have 2 midterms (like I did in my spring quarter of freshman year), you could very feasibly be taking midterms every week from week 3 all the way to week 10. For somebody like me who can’t really relax until exams are over, it felt like a never-ending cycle of stress. Of course, this is an extreme example and course load will obviously differ person-to-person depending on major, professor, etc, but these are experiences many of my friends at UCSB experienced as well. When I transferred to Berkeley, my favorite semester-system related change was that I had so much more time in between my exams, which meant more time to relax and explore personal interests. While it did feel like professors tried to compensate for that extra time with more problem sets, it was a trade-off that I was happy to take.
The quarter system was pretty difficult for me, but it absolutely has its advantages compared to the semester system as well. Having three separate academic terms rather than two meant that I was able to take way more classes than my semester-system peers were taking. That meant that I could explore interesting classes outside of my major much more freely, and had more chances to improve my GPA if I hadn’t done so well in a previous quarter. Having more terms was great in that I had more “fresh starts” -- the beginning of each quarter felt like an invitation to reflect on mistakes that I may have made in the previous one and improve myself.
Social culture is something that is dependent more on other factors like location, history, etc when it comes to colleges, but there are definitely things that the school system will affect with regards to the “culture” at a school.
From personal experience, it feels like colleges on the semester system have more of a social culture based around student-run organizations. Many people will make their friends through these organizations, and spend a large portion of their time in college dedicating time to them. I think this is because the longer nature of the semester system allows organizations to spend more time to integrate members, go on retreats, and host socials before end-of-term finals. 15 weeks also gives more time for professional organizations to spend on their deliverables or professional events, which means that members spend way more time working together on club-related activities. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t incredible student organizations you can join at quarter-system schools, but the 10 week schedule of the quarter system just doesn’t allow for as much flexibility when it comes to club-related activities as the semester system allows.
The downside to a social culture so centered around student organizations is that orgs are way more competitive to get into since the social and professional incentives are so high. At least at Berkeley, nearly every professional club requires a two-part interviewing process, a social hour, and a written application. It can honestly be overkill.
This is probably the least “important” consideration since, like social culture, I think professional differences between universities relate way more to the schools themselves rather than whether they’re semester vs. quarter, but I thought I would share a couple of things that I noticed as someone who has worked internships during the summers during my time at both UCSB and Berkeley.
When you go into an internship as a quarter system student, more often than not you’re starting “late” compared to others on your work team since semester school students end school earlier. I thought it was pretty nice since I was able to come in and ask the semester-school interns for advice as they had already had a couple of weeks to adjust and get started on their projects. What wasn’t so fun was when the semester school students had to go back to school… the office just felt super empty.
The timing of when internships start for semester vs quarter system can definitely be advantageous to quarter system students when it comes to recruiting. Since quarter system schools have a month or so of school “more” before their summers start, that means a *little* more time to recruit for internships if you’re still looking towards the end of the year.
Hopefully this helps to answer any questions you may have had about the differences between the two systems! Obviously both have their advantages and disadvantages, and I don’t regret having the chance to experience both of them. Please do reach out if you have any further questions about anything I may have shared, more than happy to talk!
David is a Consultant on the Study Hall Consulting team. David is currently a fourth-year student at UC Berkeley studying Economics and minoring in Data Science. Going into his junior year of college (Fall 2019), David transferred from UC Santa Barbara to UC Berkeley. For more application and essay tips, check out our Study Hall College Consulting website at: shcollegeconsulting.com.