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When Choosing a College, Consider its Academic Calendar

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High school seniors who are unsure of which college to attend are really beginning to sweat the decision about now. For most, deposits are due May 1 to secure a place at a school that's accepted them.

Know any students who can't pull the trigger? Suggest they also factor a college's academic calendar into their decision. While the vast majority of U.S. colleges operate on a semester system with two terms of roughly 16 weeks each, about 15 percent of colleges offer classes on the quarter system (four quarters of about 10 weeks each). A handful of schools even teach one course at a time.

These differing calendars aren't just a bureaucratic detail—they can significantly impact the academic experience and how well a student performs.

Students who attend Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., for example, will find themselves on a trimester system with three academic terms lasting about 10 weeks each. (It's basically the quarter system without a summer quarter.) They take three courses a trimester rather than the four or five courses students on a semester-based schedule typically take. Other colleges on the quarter or trimester system include Stanford University, the University of California at Los Angeles, Northwestern University, and Kalamazoo College.

There are advantages to having shorter terms, Louis E. Newman, the director of advising at Carleton and associate dean of the college, told me. "You're only juggling three subjects at a time," he said. Carleton students can fit in nine courses a year versus eight for students who take four classes per semester at other colleges, which allows students to explore their interests a little more. "And if you get into a class that turns out not to be what you expected, it's over in 10 weeks," he noted.

But a more compressed term also means students must be able to hit the ground running and stay on top of their work. There's less time to get inspired—or procrastinate—as midterms and final papers are always just around the corner. "The pace is very quick. If you're sick for a week, it's really hard to catch up," Newman said. "If you're a student who's struggling, it can be harder to recover from a slow start or a bad paper early in the term."

Humanities professors tend to assign shorter papers, since there is less time for students to come up with ideas, do research, and revise papers. (Quarter- and trimester-based schools usually also offer some opportunities to write longer papers over several terms or through a series of connected courses.)

Students who prefer letting their ideas percolate and building relationships with professors and classmates over a longer period of time may do better at a semester-based school.

Easily distracted students might benefit from the forced focus of a block schedule, offered at Colorado College, Cornell College in Iowa, and the University of Montana-Western, plus a small number of other colleges. On this schedule, students take one course at a time. Typically each course lasts three and a half weeks, and the class meets for several hours every day.

For more information, check out this list of colleges on the quarter and block systems and this article I wrote for The New York Times a few years ago on the pros and cons of different college calendars.

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