Here’s How Many Weeks Are in a College Semester

How long is a semester in college? We have the answer(s) as well as the differences in how credits are treated depending on attending a semester vs trimester or quarter college.

Here’s How Many Weeks Are in a College Semester
Christian Lendl

One of the main concerns college students have to deal with is time management. Depending on the college or university you attend, your school could divide your time according to a quarter or semester system, and sometimes, a trimester schedule. This can make answering the question, “how long is a semester in college?” tougher than it appears.

Though how your college breaks up its calendar into either quarters, semesters, and trimesters might seem pretty trivial, it’s actually very important. This is because all the important deadlines and events, like midterms and finals to deadlines for study abroad applications, will be based on the type of calendar the college uses. 

The most common format for college calendars is the semester system. But knowing how long a college semester is or how many weeks are in a college semester is another question. Read on to learn about how many weeks are in a college semester and different types of college calendars.

How Many Weeks in a College Semester?

So, how long is a semester in college? Typically, a college semester is between 15 and 17 weeks long. Most schools divide their year into two semesters, fall and spring, where students take four courses per term. However, schools also tend to build in a summer semester, set aside for summer courses, which are usually around 12 weeks long. Thus, for example, a college that works on a semester system might have an academic year break down as follows:

  • Fall semester: 15 weeks

  • Spring semester: 15 weeks

  • Summer semester: 12 weeks

Or, another way a typically semester college calendar might work is as follows:

  • Fall semester: 17 weeks

  • Spring semester: 17 weeks

  • Summer semester: 8-9 weeks

Commongly, during the fall term, college students will have a couple of days off for Thanksgiving. Some colleges may even feature a Fall Break, which may include an additional week off, and often happens in October. In the spring semester, there is usually the, of course, well-known Spring Break, typically in March. Each fall and spring semester ends with final exams.

Keep Watch on Credit Hours and Semester Milestones

The way most colleges work is that each course is assigned a set amount of credit hours. The amount varies depending on which college you’re attending, naturally. Some colleges give three credits per course, however, more competitive schools may give five credits per course. An important note about credit hours is that the number of credits is connected to the workload that students take on. So, for example, whereas a four-credit course may ask students to complete one book per week, a five-credit course may cover several books per week.

Depending on the degree you’re pursuing, the number of credits a student takes in a typical semester can vary. Although 12 credit hours is typically the minimum to maintain full-time student status, some students may have to take more. A bachelor's degree is generally around 120 credit hours, but some programs require more, especially if you’re pursuing a dual degree or a specialized degree.

Returning to the theme of time management, students need to pay attention to several important milestone moments during the semester. Some of the key milestones during a semester include when midterms are and when finals weeks occur. Another critical milestone during a semester are deadlines involving when you can drop or add courses. Similarly, college students need to take note of other deadlines, such as when to apply to study abroad and when deadlines for joining extracurricular organizations or activities are.

How Long is a College Semester for Summer?

As mentioned above, many colleges that run on a semester system, often include a shortened summer semester. Summer semester terms generally are compressed into shorter periods, which naturally results in classes being run at an accelerated pace. This makes summer semesters usually very intense because the typical number of weeks in a summer semester is 8 to 9 weeks, much faster than a traditional semester of 15 to 17 weeks. 

It’s also not uncommon (as the current author can attest to) for summer semesters to subdivide into four to six week-long courses, so you can technically cover two full semesters in one summer session — albeit, it will be an intense semester. Another difference common with summer semesters at college is that. rather than classes lasting around roughly an hour or less, summer courses are usually longer. The exact length of time each class runs ultimately depends on the length of the summer course (and the college). However, it is common to see colleges and universities holding summer semester courses that comprise classes of  three to four hours long.

How Long is a College Quarter?

Instead of using a semester academic calendar, another common choice is to use the quarter system. In this kind of academic calendar, the academic year is split up into four terms of equal length spanning spring, summer, fall, and winter. Using a quarter-based system, each college term typically lasts around 10 weeks.

Naturally, a school operating on a quarter system also has a different credit system than a college operating on a standard semester system. Colleges that operate on the quarter system usually assign three credit hours to each course. Therefore, a full load for a college student in a quarter is nine hours, while a full load for a student in a semester is approximately 12 to16 hours, with variations, of course, depending on the college or university in question.

Using the quarter system for their academic calendars means that colleges will often count credit hours differently than colleges using standard semesters. Whereas 120 credit hours is typical at many schools to attain a bachelor's degree, at a quarter-based school, 180 credit hours might be required to attain a bachelor’s degree. Although that credit hours figure may seem high, ultimately the workload is similar to students who have to accumulate 120 credits at semester-based colleges. The main difference between semester-based colleges and quarter-based colleges lies primarily in how credits are counted. Students under a quarter system will typically have to take three to four classes per quarter.

Here are some notable colleges and universities that operate on the quarter system:

How Long is a College Trimester?

As the prefix in its name suggests, trimesters usually break the academic calendar up into three sections: fall, winter, and spring. As with standard semester-based colleges, many trimester colleges offer additional summer sessions. College and university trimesters typically last 10 to 12 weeks. What’s more, depending on the way in which courses are structured, students will usually take three or four classes per trimester.

Breaking up the academic calendar into a trimester system offers a nice balance between quarter systems and semester systems. Trimesters can offer benefits like attending classes frequently; changing classes more often, in comparison to semesters; and closer personal instruction from professors than you would experience in a quarter system. Plus, trimesters are not as intensive as quarters, with trimesters lasting two to three weeks longer than quarters.

Here are some notable colleges that operate on a trimester system:

The Bottom Line on How Long is a College Semester

Thus, the general answer to the question, “how long is a semester in college?” is about 15 to 17 weeks. This answer is generally correct for colleges that operate on standard semester-based academic years. Now, these same semester-based colleges may offer a summer semester, but this semester is always shorter than 15 to 17 weeks because there is, simply, not enough weeks in the year to have a summer semester that also lasts 15 to 17 weeks. Hence, the answer to, how long is a college semester for summer session, is typically 8 to 9 weeks. 

Whether you go to a college that bases its academic calendar on semesters or trimesters or quarters, your workload as a student is likely to be comparable across all types of calendars. The main exception to this is if you’re doing a specialized degree, or a dual degree, or other similar intensive college program that adds more weight to your workload per academic period. What’s important to keep track of, whether you’re attending a college based on semesters, trimesters, or quarters, are the deadlines and milestones per period: midterms, finals, deadlines for switching or dropping classes, deadlines for applications to  study abroad, and so forth. Either way, no matter which college you attend, you’ll likely adjust to whatever academic calendar they run on fairly easily.