How Long Is a Semester in College? A Comprehensive Guide for Students

Last updated March 13, 2024

Going from high school to college can be difficult, especially if you move away from home. As a college student, you may feel overwhelmed while managing many tasks. With classes, assignments, extracurricular activities and a part-time job — not to mention social activities — you need more hours in the day. But mastering time management is crucial for your success and well-being as a student and in the future.

Understanding your college’s academic calendar is essential for managing your time effectively, including knowing the length of a college semester and when your exams and vacations are scheduled throughout the academic year. Incorporating this information into your study plan allows you to optimize your time more efficiently. In the U.S., the academic year is split into semesters or quarters, depending on the college. 

Semesters and quarters determine the number of classes, exam schedules and breaks. Knowing the length of the semester and its different types is essential. Unsure of where to start or how to plan for a college semester? Keep on reading.

What defines a college semester?

So what is a semester? The word “semester” comes from the Latin word “semestris,” which means “of six months.” Later, it was adopted in academic calendars to indicate a half-year or approximately a six-month division of the academic year.

How many semesters are there in a year?

During a typical academic year, there are two formal semesters — the fall and spring semesters. The academic year starts in the fall semester and runs from August or September to December, with various breaks such as fall break, Thanksgiving break and winter break. For example, the fall semester at Furman University lasts from late August to early December.

  • Number of semesters in a year: 2
  • Duration of each semester: 15 – 17 weeks
  • You must take at least four three-credit classes to be considered a full-time student

How long is a college semester?

A college semester usually lasts 15 to 17 weeks, with the final week of the semester usually reserved for final exams. Students are expected to attend lectures and seminars, complete assignments and study for their exams during this period. 

Condensed semesters

Some schools may have shorter, more condensed semesters of eight to 10 weeks, depending on the university. The different semester lengths sometimes have to do with the trade being taught and the location of the college, among other factors.

The quarter system

The quarter system is an alternative to the semester academic calendar at some schools. This academic calendar follows a format of four equal-length terms spanning spring, summer, fall and winter. Each term lasts about 10 weeks, and colleges that follow the quarter system may count credit hours differently than those that follow traditional semesters. While 120 credit hours are standard for a bachelor’s degree at most schools, those that follow the quarter system may require up to 180 credit hours. If you plan to study under the quarter system, you can take three to four classes per quarter.

How many classes should you take per semester?

During a typical semester, students take four to five courses, each lasting 50 to 75 minutes. This class length provides in-depth learning and a comprehensive understanding of each subject. It is important to consult with your academic advisor to make sure you stay on track for graduation.

Maximum credit hours

Universities typically allow students to enroll in up to six three-credit courses per semester, for a maximum of 18 credits. However, it’s important to remember that in order to be considered a full-time student, you must take at least 12 credits per semester. This status is often necessary to meet financial aid requirements.

Summer classes

If you want to complete your degree faster or need to catch up on credits, you can enroll in additional courses during the summer. Many schools offer four- to 10-week sessions during this time. Though the course catalog may be limited, these sessions are often intense and require more extended hours. If you want to take this route, leave some time to relax and avoid burning out.

When are spring and fall breaks? What about holiday breaks?

Most universities include holidays in the fall and spring semester schedules. During the fall semester, a Thanksgiving break is observed, while in the spring semester there is usually a week-long spring break. Some universities may also have time off for seasonal holidays such as Easter and shorter breaks like fall and winter break. These breaks provide an excellent opportunity to recharge mentally, travel with friends, spend time with family and catch up on tasks before the semester ends.

Most universities will list their scheduled breaks on their university calendar.

Taking time off: Semester breaks and gap years

As a student, you can choose not to enroll in an upcoming semester if you let your academic counselor and registrar know beforehand. Why would you take a semester off? There are many reasons — family, internship or work experience, health, financial struggles, etc. However, before you make this decision, you need to consider a few factors:

  • Academic delays. Taking a semester off may delay the completion of your degree, and there might be a gap in knowledge or skills related to coursework. You may find it challenging to pick up where you left off or need extra effort to catch up.
  • Financial implications. You may lose out on financial aid or scholarships tied to continuous enrollment if you have any scholarships or grants. Losing those may lead to more high-interest loans in the future. 

A gap year is another option if you’re considering taking a break from the traditional academic path. During a gap year, you can explore your interests, travel, gain practical experience, and develop new skills. A gap year can provide valuable exposure to life outside of college and help you rethink your career strategy. It’s important to remember that taking a whole year off differs from taking a single semester. Open communication with academic advisors and proper planning for your return can help mitigate challenges you may encounter jumping back into coursework after.

Set yourself up for success by semester schedule

As a new college student, having a solid understanding of the academic calendar is essential to set yourself up for success. You can effectively plan your schedule and stay organized by being familiar with the key dates, such as the start and end of semesters, exam periods and breaks. This will help you meet assignment deadlines, prepare for exams and make the most of your learning experience — while also having a great college social experience by making time for friends and extracurriculars. 

With a clear grasp of the academic calendar, you can align your study plans with the curriculum, giving you the best chance to stay on top of things, take care of your mental health and prepare for graduation.

The perspectives and thoughts shared in the Furman Blog belong solely to the author and may not align with the official stance or policies of Furman University. All referenced sources were accurate as of the date of publication.