How Many Semesters in a Year [2021 Guide]

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When you’re planning out what your college experience will look like, it’s strategic to know how many semesters are in a year. The answer to that question can vary depending on what term system your college uses.

How Many Semesters in a Year

Understanding more about the different academic calendars and how each one works can help you prepare to jump into your college studies.

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You can read on to learn more about semesters, trimesters, quarters, and other academic terms used in college settings.

How Many Semesters Are in a Year?

The most common academic term used in American universities is the semester. With this academic calendar, each school year is divided into two semesters.

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With this college system, each semester:

  • Starts in the fall or spring
  • Lasts 14 to 20 weeks
  • May include 4 to 6 classes for full-time enrollment

There are also breaks provided between each semester. Students who enroll full-time for a bachelor’s degree may finish their coursework in 4 years, which is 8 semesters.

Fall Semester

Fall Semester

The school year begins with the fall semester. It often starts in late August and runs through mid-December.

A full-time student may take four, five, or six courses during the fall semester. This usually earns the student 12 to 18 credits. On the college semester system, you attend the same classes each week from the beginning of the school year until the end of the semester. This gives you about 16 weeks to explore the subjects that you’re studying.

At the end of the fall semester, there’s usually a winter break that lasts several weeks. This respite is followed by the start of the spring semester.

Spring Semester

Spring Semester

January usually brings a return to the classroom. The spring semester tends to start in early January and ends in mid-May.

As with the fall semester, full-time students usually take four to six classes. These courses can be quite different than the ones taken in the fall. That’s not always the case, though. Sometimes, you may take an introductory-level course in the fall and move on to a more advanced level in the spring.

The spring semester is followed by a summer break, which is usually several months long.

Summer Semester

Summer Semester

Some students enjoy the long stretch of time that they have off during the summer. Others want to use that time to take more classes.

Some colleges offer a short summer term between the spring and fall semesters. Students can use this optional session to take one or two courses. Since it’s a shortened term, the work is concentrated, and class sessions may last for several hours each day.

Taking summer courses may help you graduate early, or it can allow you to take lighter loads during the main semesters.

How Long Is a Semester?

Academic Calendar Systems

Academic Calendar Systems

Colleges have a good deal of leeway when it comes to setting their academic calendars, so not every school structures its schedule in the same way.

The majority of colleges rely on the semester system. Others opt for alternative approaches, though. In addition to semesters, you may hear of colleges that use trimesters, quarters, or 4-1-4 calendars.

  • What Is a Semester? The semester system divides the school year in half. There are 2 main terms, one in the fall and one in the spring. Each term lasts around 16 weeks, and there’s a winter break between them. During a school semester, full-time students usually take 4 to 6 classes at the same time. You may have the option to take extra courses during the summer term, or you may get a long break from school between the spring and fall semesters.
  • What Is a Trimester? Colleges with trimester calendars divide the main school year into 3 terms: fall, winter, and spring. Each trimester is 10 weeks to 13 weeks long. Full-time students may take 3 or 4 classes per college term. Often, trimester students who carry full course loads are able to finish school more quickly than their semester counterparts. Some trimester colleges offer accelerated summer terms as well, which can also speed up the path to graduation.
  • What Is a Quarter? The college quarter system is quite similar to the trimester system. The difference is that the summer term may be more equivalent in length to all the other terms, and there may be more emphasis placed on it. Even still, the summer term is usually optional. Quarters are usually around 10 weeks to 12 weeks long. Similar to the trimester schedule, the quarter system is typically designed for students to take 3 or 4 classes at a time. Those who take advantage of the summer term may shave around a year off of their studies compared to students at a semester-based college.
  • 4-1-4 or 4-4-1 Calendar. The numbers in this calendar system stand for approximately how many months each term lasts. These systems are similar to semester schedules, but there’s also an emphasis placed on accelerated terms that are held at some point in the year. A 4-1-4 calendar has a fall semester, a month-long January term, and a spring semester. The January session may be called the “J-term.” A 4-4-1 school saves the accelerated term for after the spring semester. Some people refer to this as a “Maymester.” These short terms allow students to concentrate on one or two subjects over the course of a month. They can also be prime opportunities for students to participate in short study abroad trips or internships.

No matter which calendar your college uses, you’re likely to learn a comparable amount of material and do a similar amount of work by the time you graduate.

Some arrangements are more conducive than others to graduating early. Even still, how long it takes you to complete a degree will depend largely on how many courses you take per term.

How Many Weeks in a Semester?

The length of a semester varies from one school to the next. In general, though, a semester is usually between 14 to 20 weeks long. On average, most schools have semesters that are 16 weeks each.

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The first semester, held in the fall, typically begins around August and ends partway through December. The second semester, known as the spring term, usually runs from January to May.

Quarter vs. Semester Pros and Cons

Quarter vs. Semester Pros and Cons

Should you choose a college that uses semesters or seek out one with the quarter system? It’s largely up to you and your preferences, but there are some pros and cons to each approach.

Understanding how each academic calendar system lines up with your personal learning style may help you decide which schedule would be the better fit for you.

Quarter Semester
  • Concentrated study on a few topics each term
  • Easier to graduate early
  • Less summer slide since breaks are shorter
  • More flexibility to explore new subjects
  • Quick movement through courses
  • More opportunities to build relationships with classmates and teachers
  • More time to engage with the material
  • More time to complete major assignments
  • Shorter class periods each day
  • Substantial breaks between terms
  • Favorite classes are over quickly
  • Fewer weeks to complete major assignments
  • Harder to fit in internships
  • Longer class periods each day
  • May not be compatible with studying abroad
  • Changing majors may cost more time and money
  • Fewer opportunities for early graduation
  • Greater chance of falling behind in GPA or credit requirements
  • Less variety during the school year
  • Longer time spent in disliked classes

Of course, term length is not your only determining factor when it comes to selecting a college. If your preferred school is practically perfect in every way except term length, you may consider enrolling anyway. You may discover that a system that didn’t appeal to you on paper ends up working out just fine.

Semester or Trimester, Which Is Better?

Some students like the traditional approach that’s offered by a semester-based calendar. Others do well with the trimester schedule. The chart below may help you figure out which style is best for you.

Semester Trimester
  • 14 to 20 weeks long
  • 4 to 5 classes per term for full-time load
  • More time to complete the coursework for each class
  • Two main terms per school year
  • Longer breaks between terms
  • May have an optional summer term
  • May have less flexibility for taking extra courses, changing majors, or graduating early
  • Academic calendar used by most higher education institutions in the U.S.
  • 10 to 13 weeks long
  • 3 to 4 classes per term for full-time load
  • Shorter timeframe in which to study course materials and complete projects
  • Three main terms per school year
  • Shorter breaks between terms
  • May have an optional summer term
  • May offer opportunities to explore additional areas, take a double major, or finish quickly
  • May be harder to schedule internships or overseas studying

Students have found success with both college semesters and trimesters. You may discover that either one could be a good fit for you as well.

What Is an Academic Year?

An academic year is the main timeframe when students are in school each year. It usually begins around August and ends around May. That’s different from the calendar year, which includes 52 weeks and runs from January through December.

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At a college with two semesters per year, there may be 30 to 32 weeks in a school year plus several weeks off for breaks between the two terms. For colleges that hold classes year-round, it may be more accurate to say that the academic year runs from one August to the following August.

Is a Term a Semester?

A college semester is one type of academic term. The word “term” is a general description that can be used for any period of an academic calendar. While a semester is the most common type of term in the U.S. school system, quarters and trimesters are terms also.

If you go to a school that uses a semester calendar, you can assume that someone who mentions a term is referring to a semester. In the same way, at a school that uses quarters, a term will generally refer to a quarter.

How Many Semesters Are in a Term?

Semesters in a Term

A semester is generally the same thing as a term. At a school on a semester calendar, one semester is equal to one term. A traditional semester lasts around 16 weeks.

There are 2 semesters in an academic year. At such a school, you could also say that there are 2 terms in a year. Not all schools have semester-long terms. For example, other schools’ terms are quarters. Each quarter lasts around 3 months. At a school with the quarter system, one term would be equal to one quarter.

How Long Is 4 Semesters in College?

The standard semester length lasts anywhere from 14 to 20 weeks, depending on the school. Many colleges have 15 week or 16 week semesters. There’s typically a short winter break and a long summer break between these terms.

Semesters in College

It takes just under 2 calendar years to complete 4 college semesters. You could start the first semester in August and the second in January. The following August, you’d enroll for your third semester. The final semester would begin the next January and wrap up around May.

How Many Semesters Are in 2 Years of College?

At a college that’s on the semester system, you can typically complete 4 semesters in 2 years. During your first academic year, you can enroll for the fall term and then the spring term. You can do the same thing during your second year.

Some colleges offer accelerated terms during school breaks. Sessions held in January or May might last only 2 to 4 weeks each. Summer terms are usually a bit longer. In any case, these extra sessions are often optional, but they may help you graduate sooner, reduce your workload during the regular semester, or explore areas of interest.

How Many Semesters Are in 4 Years?

pursuing undergraduate degrees

Students pursuing undergraduate degrees often spend 4 years in college. During that time, their coursework is divided up over 8 semesters.

Each school year contains a fall semester and a spring semester. These commonly last 15 to 16 weeks each, and you receive breaks between the terms. Not every college has a semester-based schedule. Some offer 3 trimesters per year. In four years, you’d have 12 trimesters.

Other schools use the quarter system—which consists of 4 quarters per year. In that case, you might enroll in 16 different terms during your 4 years of college.

Getting Your College Degree Online

Getting Your College Degree Online

Colleges come in all different varieties. Some use semester systems, and others use quarter systems. Some have classes year-round, and others only go from August through May.

In addition, while many colleges offer on-campus courses, a growing number of schools also offer an online approach. Online study can offer busy individuals a flexible path toward a college degree.

So, if you find that you have a lot of college credits but no degree, digital courses may help you balance school, work, and family. Like on-campus programs, accredited online colleges are rigorous and reputable.

There are online universities that use semesters, trimesters, quarters, and other academic schedules. You can start searching for accredited online programs today to find the calendar and coursework options that are right for you.

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Jordan Meeks
Jordan Meeks
Jordan is pursuing a Ph.D. in Public Policy and earned her Master of Business Administration in Strategic Management and her Bachelor's in Business Administration. Jordan's research focuses on adults returning to college and online degree programs.