Breaking down the quarter system
    Graphic by Ricki Harris

    Aside from the brutal cold and insanely unpredictable football team, one thing that sets Northwestern apart from other universities is the quarter system. We’re continuously answering questions about trimesters and why we’re never home at the same time as our friends from high school. So what’s the deal with this quarter system? Are we in school for fewer or more days than everyone else? And is there really such a difference between quarters and trimesters? To answer these questions once and for all, we’ve decided to break down the quarter system and compare it so some other schools.

    People are constantly under the impression that because we are not on a semester system, we must be on trimesters. Correcting this misperception can be incredibly difficult – especially when you have no idea what the difference between trimesters and quarters are. Let’s try to clear this up. The major difference is that a quarter system counts the summer as a term, while semester and trimester systems do not.

    Another feature of most trimester schools that is not found in NU’s academic calendar is the break between fall and winter terms, which extends from Thanksgiving all the way until the new year. Unless you’re a Weinberg student who has masterfully crafted a fall quarter schedule that does not involve any final exams, you’ll be back here for at least a few days before beginning your winter break. Union College, for example, operates on trimesters and has winter break from Nov. 25 until Jan. 5.

    Everyone’s favorite basis of comparison, The University of Chicago, which is also on a quarter system, has a calendar almost identical to our own. The only discrepancy is when the schools start – whereas UChicago began on Sept. 29, we began a week earlier on Sept. 23 (these extra few days in class are probably why we’re significantly smarter). Other than that, our academic calendars for winter and spring quarters are the same.

    Dartmouth University also runs on quarters, but has this same, relatively long winter break characteristic of trimester schools. So, are we in school longer? Only by a few days. Though they don’t have to return after Thanksgiving for reading week and final exams, they began their fall quarter earlier than we do, on Sept. 15. Their winter and spring quarters are, however, a few days shorter than ours.

    Of course, our analysis would not be complete without looking at the standard semester system that most schools opperate on. The University of Michigan began their fall semester on Sept. 2, and they do not finish their exams until Dec. 19. Their second semester begins around the same time as ours, on Jan. 7. They finish their second semester on Apr. 30 and, unless they choose to take summer classes, their summer vacation begins on the first day of May. Needless to say, though they start a few weeks earlier than us, their year is significantly shorter than ours.

    So, in a nutshell, we’re in class for a pretty long time. Those last weeks of summer, when everyone else has returned to school, can make it feel as though we’re away from Evanston for far too long. But, in reality, we spend more time here than most people do on other campuses. Granted, the difference is usually a matter of days, and depending on final exams schedules this is not always the case. Now that registration for winter quarter is in full swing, you may want to consider taking a second look at that shopping cart and what your exam schedule will be. The quarter system undoubtedly has its advantages, but being in class for a few more days than everyone else definitely is not one of them. 


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