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Understanding the College Trimester System

written by: Ellie Walker•edited by: Wendy Finn•updated: 8/19/2013

Learn about the different aspects of the college trimester system, including scheduling, graduation dates, tuition, and the main pros and cons.

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    Two or Three Semesters?

    While most schools operate on the semester system, schools that incorporate trimesters into their curricular structure feature three College academic sessions during the school year, rather than two. Many of these schools also refer to this setup as the quarter system, as there is a fourth optional academic session during the summer. Generally, schools with trimesters start later in the year--around mid-September--and end later in the year towards the middle of June. The two main breaks, winter break and spring break, occur just before the winter and spring trimesters. Students who plan on graduating early have more options for graduation times, as they can graduate either after the fall trimester or after the winter trimester.

    Students on the college trimester schedule usually take one fewer class per session than those on the standard semester-based schedule. Often this means that full-time students will take either three or four classes at a time, as opposed to the four or five classes usually required of semester students. This will result in an average of 12 courses per year, compared to the average of 10 courses per year for semester systems.

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    Tuition and Fees

    Colleges with trimesters and quarters generally do not cost more per year than those with semesters. Each trimester will cost less than each semester, but the total tuition for the full year will be about equivalent. Sometimes the cost of books can be slightly greater for students taking trimester-long courses, as they will have to buy new books three times during the year instead of twice. The trimester system also offers opportunities to save money, however, as students graduating after the winter trimester will pay less tuition for their senior year.

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    Main Advantages and Disadvantages

    Some of the main advantages of the college trimester system include flexibility, diversity of available classes and the structure of year-long classes. Students generally have more flexibility in the classes that they take, since there are more open slots for new classes during the year when compared with the semester-based setup. With 12 available slots, students have more opportunities to take a more diverse range of classes than they otherwise would. This not only enables them to take more classes in subjects they love, but it also means that unpleasant classes or difficult general education requirements are shorter in length. Additionally, year-long classes are broken up into three segments, rather than two, which places less pressure on students during midterms and finals.

    The main disadvantages of the trimester and quarter schedules are course load, academic pressure, and start and end times. Some students feel like their course load is too heavy with a trimester or quarter setup, as they are required to learn material at a faster pace. Midterms and finals occur back-to-back, and it can be difficult to find time to catch up on the material if a student gets behind. Similarly, the wide range of available courses can place more academic pressure on some students, who feel more obligated to double major, take on an extra minor, or participate in demanding certificate programs. Last, colleges on this schedule start and end later in the year, which can make summer internships, vacations, or time spent visiting friends at other colleges much more difficult to coordinate.

    Overall, students should weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the college trimester schedule to see what learning style works best with their individual preferences.

    Source: author’s own experience

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