How Long Is a College Semester? Semester Lengths & Academic Calendar Systems

How Long Is a College Semester? Semester Lengths & Academic Calendar Systems
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

In spite of the lockdowns and quarantines brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) indicates an unwavering trend in college enrollment statistics in the United States. Going in the same direction are forecasts for coming years (Digest of Education Statistics, 2020).

The reasons may have to do with findings that higher education helps you land jobs with higher salaries and better benefits. And in these tough times, the most essential benefit may not even be in the form of money.

This article will help high school graduates and college students understand the different options before them—in terms of academic calendar year systems—and the reasons behind these options. Secondly, it will challenge them to identify their goals for taking the road to higher education and to assess how much time they are willing to invest in these goals. Finally, readers are challenged to decide which semestral option is best for them based on their personal goals.

College Semester Table of Contents

  1. Why Enrollment Matters
  2. Academic Calendar Systems: What is a semester in college?
  3. Academic Credit Systems: What is in a semester?
  4. How long is an academic year?
  5. Degrees: What is a semester for?

COVID has not dampened the demand for higher learning. In fact, as these figures show, the negative growth from 2017 to 2019 was reversed by positive growth from 2019 to 2021. And the projected growth rates per year thereon are all positive.

The history of e-learning may not be as extensive as traditional schooling but it has certainly made an impact in employment trends and the behavior of students towards pursuing a college education. After all, in a job marketplace where people can get hired even without degrees, why do more people want to go to school and get formal education these days?

The answer might actually be simpler than we would over-analyze it to be.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), January 2021

Why Enrollment Matters

According to a 2020 paper by The Learning Agency, “Economists have demonstrated how education leads directly to major economic returns in salary and GDP. Education additionally plays a vital role in many countries’ economies, as well as the general health of labor markets and overall employment. Indeed, employment tends to go in lockstep with increasing education standards.” (Stokes, 2020)

Meanwhile, in a landmark study by the Economic Policy Institute, the American economic think tank attacked inter-state competition for investors—that cut state taxes at the expense of their educational budgets. “The previous section established the link between education and productivity, and productivity and wages. We can further test the assumed link between education (and, alternatively, tax rates) and wages by reviewing correlations between certain characteristics and high-wage state economies. . . .”

It further contends that “Investing in education is a core contribution states can make to the well-being of their residents and the national economy overall” because “higher rates of education are strongly predictive of higher median wages across states.” (Berger and Fisher, 2013)

In plain English, good education makes you earn well.

Applying all these promising findings to the individual worker, an educational degree translates to over a trillion dollars’ increase in wages for the American economy.

And in what history would probably brand as “the COVID era,” there are other much vied-after benefits of higher education that go beyond salaries these days.

“Work from home” is an employee benefit many would like to enjoy—in the interest of keeping themselves from exposure to the virus in public spaces, at the office, and protecting their loved ones at home. And this is just one area where well-qualified employees who hold degrees have an advantage over, say, high school graduates (only 12% of whom enjoy work-from-home benefits). And if investing some time to earn a college degree will earn this privilege to spend more time at home, then many believe the return-on-investment is worth it.

Academic Calendar Systems: What is a semester in college?

Before going into the complicated discussion on college semester length, there is a more basic definition that needs to be addressed: What is a semester in college?

There are several academic calendar systems used in different schools. The more common ones in the United States are:

  1. Semester System
  2. Trimester System
  3. Quarter System

Semester System

A semester is the basic unit of time by which an academic year is divided under a “semester system.” An academic year is typically divided into two such semesters—consisting of a total of 15 weeks each.

There are two basic semesters

  • Fall semester – first semester of the year, when enrollment begins. It starts in August/September and typically covers 15 weeks.
  • Spring semester – second semester, with fewer enrollments. It typically starts in January and also lasts 15 weeks.

As the names suggest, these are the semesters that occur within those seasons of the year. These are what are considered the regular semester schedules.

In addition to these two main semesters, a third semester can be taken by a student. It may be required in some academic calendars and may be optional in some.

Other Calendar Systems

It’s a very important thing to note, even as our discussion is mainly about the “semester”—that academic years are not created equal. There are other systems of reckoning the passage of time in an institution of learning, and different basic units of dividing an academic year. Among these are:

Trimester System

A smaller number of schools in the U.S. and in different parts of the world divide the academic year into “trimesters.” Under the trimester system in the U.S., for instance, the academic year is divided into three sessions: fall, winter, and spring. Each trimester is shorter than the regular semester and just about as long as the summer semester—lasting from 12 to 13 weeks.

There are still ongoing academic discussions on whether the semester or the trimester system is the better system—for the students as well as for the school. A K Dev and M G Bentley take up the boons and banes of these two systems and propose alternative trimester systems in a conference paper presented at the “Education & Professional Development of Engineers in the Maritime Industry” conference in the United Kingdom.

In a trimester system (three trimesters in a year) comprising 12-13 weeks, there are more course-related elements for the students without a long summer break but also much less time for academics to undertake useful research. This fundamental change in a university calendar creates some genuine difficulties (challenges) but may also bring some benefits (opportunities). . . . (Dev and Bentley, 2018)

Quarter System

As the term suggests, a quarter system divides the academic year into four sessions: fall, winter, spring, and summer (U.S.). A quarter covers approximately just 10 weeks.


In today’s fast-paced learning ecosystem, and with the advent of online learning, more schools are offering courses that make use of condensed modules. These “accelerated” semesters could take just eight weeks. There are also accelerated degree programs—that screen applicants based on stringent academic standards since the condensed schedule will challenge the time management skills and mental tenacity of enrollees.

The Summer Session: A Time to Catch Up or Advance

A summer session may be offered under both the semester and trimester systems. It is, as the name implies, usually held during the summer (vacation) months, commencing in June (U.S.).  And how long is a college semester? It’s shorter than the regular semesters, typically covering just 12 weeks.

You can think of it as the ‘golden buzzer’ on America’s Got Talent. It’s a great opportunity all-around. For some, it’s a time to catch up and get back on track if you’re lagging behind. And for some who want to complete their degrees ahead of schedule, it can be a time to get ahead. For all students in general, it’s a time to take advantage of the lesser number of students competing for slots in a course that’s in-demand during regular semesters. Students who get bored with having the same subject matter for an entire semester or year also love summer sessions because they can move on/forward just after a few weeks.


The Intersession period, meanwhile, compresses a semester and school year even further. It’s a mini-term that’s sandwiched between two regular terms. When this was a novel idea in the early 80’s, you would have 16-week courses being compressed into a three-week session.

There are two ways of looking at intersessions.

  1. A short break in-between the main events; offering unique, experimental, and lighter courses
  2.  A short, intensive streak to cover a lot of ground and get ahead

At Johns Hopkins University, they offer courses not offered during the rest of the year during intersession. Courses like: Academic Exploration, Leading Social Change, Career Development, and Personal Enrichment. At Washington and Jefferson College, intersession courses include those on interesting topics like Emerging Diseases (Biology Department); Corporate Failures, Frauds, and Scandals (Business Department); Vampires and Other Bloodsuckers (English Department); Holocaust Survivor Narratives (German Department); and Alternative Radio (Communications Department).

At the Virginia Commonwealth University, on the other hand, intersession professors and students cover a semester’s worth of content in 11 days. The school offers 36 different intersession classes.

Source: Virginia Commonwealth University, 2013

A total of 36,000 students enroll in these courses during intersession period at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Daphne Rankin, associate vice provost for Learning Innovation and Student Success, and the primary administrator of intersession in their university, warns that enrollees “can expect an intense amount of work.”

The main challenge for lecturers is to have the level of critical and academic discussion characteristic of a normally 15-week course, and make this happen within a really cramped period of time.

Another challenge is for instructors to keep student attention for long hours. They need to be creative in their approach to each and every class meeting, which usually takes five hours.

But to everyone’s surprise, intersession courses are getting quite a following. There are dynamics involved that produce a ‘community’/’we’re all-in-this-together’ atmosphere. Since class sizes are smaller and students can take just one course during this time, there’s also a sense of focus and a consistent, day-by-day knowledge growth—something that can’t be found in normally once-or-twice-a-week classes when held during regular semesters. And, yes, students attest to getting better grades.

There’s also an unwritten perk that lecturers and students alike really appreciate: lots of parking space.

(This discussion on other academic calendar systems is meant to merely contextualize our discussion of the semester and how it compares to alternative systems.)

Source: InfoPlease (2020)

Academic Credit Systems: What is in a semester?

Going back to our main discussion, a semester, or time spent within the walls of a classroom or college, is not an end in itself. A semester represents a certain number of academic credits that a student can acquire. A course or subject can represent, say, three hours of academic credit (this also means you take the class for three hours a week).

When you really think about it, a semester is just a period. But what counts towards a student’s earning his way to his degree is “academic credits.”

Systems in Different Parts of the World

And there are different ‘credit systems’ all over the world. It is worth knowing these, especially in these times when cross-country education is becoming more and more commonplace.

The United States uses the Semester Credit Hours (SCH). Under this system, a full-time study load earns 30 credits per year. One U.S. credit usually consists of a total of three hours’ in-class and outside-of-class work for the duration of one semester. One credit, therefore, represents between 45 and 50 hours of classwork, with at least 15 hours of this being contact/in-class hours.

Europe uses the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS). Unlike in the US SCH, a full-time study load for one year would earn 60 EC or ECTS. One EC or ECTS consists of 25 to 30 hours of classwork. Comparing this to the U.S. credit, the EC, therefore, carries a “lighter” weight and represents fewer academic hours.

In the U.K., most universities use the Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS). A full workload for one year (two semesters) gains 120 CATS points (or units). A CATS unit, in effect, represents only half the amount of hours compared to an EC/ECTS.

Comparing all three systems:

  • For a full-time year, 30 U.S. credits: 60 ECTS: 120 CATS.
  • The general rule of thumb accepted by most universities the world over is: 1 U.S. credit = 2ECTS=4 CATS.
  • However, other universities also use the following conversion: 3 U.S. credits=5 ECTS=10 CATS.

At the end of the day, each university can come up with its own valuation of these different credit systems and decide on its own conversion rate.

Why do these matter? Because these different units of academic credit, and the amount of school hours they represent will determine how soon you can get to your goal of completing your chosen degree.

How long is an academic year?

Related to the question of “how long is a college semester” is the question of “how long is the academic year?” Because it’s the total number of school days that will, of course, be divided into semesters or trimesters. And the answer to this question will give you an idea of how different the academic year can look like in different parts of the world.

Source: Infoplease (2020)

The numbers here, affected by factors such as weather (i.e. typhoons) and number of national holidays, tell a tale of their own that’s beyond the scope of this article.

Degrees: What is a semester for?

By the way, now would be a good time to recall why you want to spend time in college—whether in a semester, trimester, accelerated, or any other system. Because this, for you, would be what a semester’s for.

Different students are in different life stages and therefore have different educational goals. Which is yours?

An undergraduate degree

It is the first level of post-secondary education a student can pursue. This might be a Bachelor of Arts (BA) a Bachelor of Science (BS), or an associate degree. Bachelor’s degrees require the completion of 120 academic credits while associate degrees would require 60 academic credits.

A post-graduate degree

It is the second-level post-secondary education a student can take. This can be taken by students who already hold an undergraduate degree.  There are two types of post-graduate degrees:

  • Masteral – requires 36 to 54 academic credits and the submission of a thesis
  • Doctoral – requires from  90 to 120 academic credits and the submission of a dissertation

Thoughtfully and carefully consider what you want to invest your college semesters in.

So how long is a semester?

Too long! Might be the quick and short answer of some regardless of what academic calendar system their school is using. The long answer is: a semester can be as short as you want it to be or as long as you need it to be. “Which kind of degree does one want?” and “What school offers a degree in the field that one is interested in?” aren’t the only questions that prospective college students or current enrollees must know the answer to.

They need to do their homework. Different learning institutions choose to adopt different calendars and systems for a variety of reasons. And because of this, knowing the answers to the following questions are equally important:

    • “How does one want to spend one’s college life?”
    • How much time and money does one have to invest in a college education?”
    • “What kind of study-life balance does one want on the way to getting a degree?”
    • “What are some of the top easy degrees out there?”

Your answer will be a sound basis for deciding which academic calendar system will help you meet your personal goals best, so you can chart your own course for the kind of college journey you want for yourself.



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