What the Trimester System Is Really Like

The spring trimester is about to begin for students on the trimester system.

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Most colleges operate on a semester system, meaning that the school year is divided into two halves, one running from August to December and the other from January to May. A short winter break and a longer summer break separate the two semesters. Large universities and community colleges may offer short, expedited terms during the summer to students who wish to take extra courses or finish their degree requirements quickly so that they can graduate early. The semester system is how many elementary, middle, and high schools are set up as well. But what happens if all of a sudden you leave the familiar territory of the semester system and venture into the trimester system for college? That’s what I did.

Trimesters are exactly what they sound like. Instead of attending college in two parts each year, you attend it in three. Each time you start a new trimester, you start new classes, which means that a lot of learning is crammed into each one. At Carleton College, our trimesters were each ten weeks long, including built-in study days and final exam days. I started school in September and the first trimester was over by Thanksgiving. The second trimester started back up in January and went through March, after which we had a couple of weeks off for spring break. The final trimester lasted from March or April until June.

To make a long story short: I loved the trimester system. Having six weeks off for winter break meant that there was plenty of time to travel home, pick up a seasonal position, and work until after the holidays. I got to spend both Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family and enjoy being home instead of rushing around between the homes of relatives and friends trying to see everyone during a two-week winter break. I got to actually use my time wisely while I was at home, making money in a seasonal position and picking up babysitting jobs when they were offered. Having a long spring break was nice too. I didn’t feel rushed when I went home to visit my family; I could actually unpack my suitcase and settle in for a while. As for summer, it never felt any shorter to me than normal; there was still plenty of time to find work, travel, and subsequently get bored enough to want to go back to school.

The downside to the timing of the trimester system is that not that many schools use it. If your college is on trimesters, get used to being the last one home in the summer and the last one to leave when it comes time to head back to school in the fall. If you have a lot of friends who are still living year round where you’ll be spending your breaks, that’s great! Otherwise, get really friendly with your family and your coworkers because you’ll definitely be itching to go back to school once all of your high school friends have started their semesters. I suggest finding a summer job that doesn’t end mid-August. I worked for the local baseball stadium, meaning that my evenings were full through the beginning of September, provided that the team was playing at home. And I got paid to watch baseball, which was pretty cool.

When it comes to academics, though, you need to be ready to step it up a notch. You may not have to take as many classes as your friends who are on the semester system, but that depends on your school. I only had to take three academic classes each term, but a friend at the California Institute of Technology, which is on the quarter system (similar to the trimester system but there is an optional summer term) took five. Students on the semester system generally take four classes per semester, which means that over the course of a year, you get more chances to take classes and explore new topics when you’re on trimesters. Classes are extremely fast-paced though since you have to fit the same amount of material as would be taught in a semester-long course into a shorter period of time. Be ready to spend plenty of time in the library.

I asked a few friends and classmates what their opinions of the trimester system were, and this is what I heard back:

  • “You never had to do any [school] work over any breaks, [but] lots of my friends on semester systems did [over] Thanksgiving or spring breaks because they were in the middle of their terms.”
  • “I liked the breaks because I was from far away. I didn’t have to go home often, which was financially easier. I would only go back and forth during the beginning and end of the [academic] year and [at] winter break. [There was] no going home for Thanksgiving and coming back [to school] and going home [again] at Christmas, etc.”
    • Since the timing of trimester breaks is off from the timing of semester breaks, you may also find that you are able to find cheaper plane tickets home since you’re less likely to be flying at peak times.
  • “[It was] harder to do a semester abroad.”
    • This may be true, depending on your institution and when you choose to study abroad. For students on trimesters, it is easier to do fall semester abroad if you’re going through a program outside of your college; you simply start earlier and finish before the winter holidays and then complete two trimesters when you return. If your school hosts its own study abroad programs, though, the timing becomes less of an issue.
  • “Christmas break allowed work and/or travel. I went to New Orleans with a class.”
  • “It made making summer plans harder because most internships and research projects started at the end of May and we didn’t finish until mid-June, but being able to work into mid-September was a bit of a trade off.”
  • “Overall I was so much happier at a trimester school. Around week eight [of ten], if I was unhappy with a class, I only had to tough it out two more weeks as opposed to seven.” Or, as another friend succinctly put it: “The suffering was over sooner.”

When it comes down to it, you should pick where you go to college based on whether the school is a good fit for you, not whether the school is on a semester or trimester system. Look at the programs, the student body, the extracurricular offerings, your financial aid package, and the location before you take into account scheduling. Whatever school you pick, you’ll get used to the schedule, and shortly thereafter, you won’t be able to imagine it any other way.

About Megan Clendenon

Megan C. is obsessed with Cincinnati-style chili, Louisville basketball, and Scandinavian crime fiction. She has lived in six different states and held 12 different jobs since beginning her undergraduate degree at Carleton College in 2008. The wanderlust abated somewhat in recent years, as Megan settled in Texas from 2013 to 2016 to finish a master’s degree in geosciences, write a thesis on the future horrors that stem from climate change, and get married. During her free time, you will find Megan sitting on the couch, cheering for her Louisville Cardinals, planning future adventures abroad, and snuggling with her dog, Tiger. She currently lives outside of Washington D.C.

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