By Danny DeBare ‘22
When looking for a college that fits well, many prospective students choose to focus on specific fields of study. After all, we are talking about college, a place you go to study a subject matter. When deciphering what size and style of university (liberal arts, research university, vocational school, community college, etc.) fits best with a desired area of study, it makes sense to evaluate different facets of the classroom process. However, one under-appreciated distinction plays a large role in everyone’s college experience: the all-important semester vs. quarter debate.
Here at Pomona, we operate on the semester system. Let me break that down: we spend fifteen weeks in the classroom, with a finals week tacked on to the end. Our two semesters mirror each other to create an even fall and spring academic experience. The ebb and flow of each semester is remarkably similar. The average student here takes four classes, with a decent number of students both overloading—often on partial credit classes like P.E. and music lessons—or taking a lighter load.
The semester system creates a thorough and immersive classroom experience. With more fixed time spent on a single subject, semesters allow classes to dive deeper into material. Even if the physical time spent in the classroom aligns across different learning structures, the extended semester creates more opportunities for students to ruminate on topics over weekends, and dedicate extra time to classes on their own time. Also, the semester allows students more flexibility when shopping for classes since the add/drop deadline can be later. Oh, did I mention we only have two finals weeks instead of three?
Last semester, I wrote a research paper comparing the movements in Chile and Argentina to reclaim the lives of the desaparecidos after the respective dictatorships concluded. Through The Claremont Colleges’ library-sharing system, I got my hands on this incredible primary source scrapbook three weeks into the project. Not only would that book have arrived too late if I didn’t have a si- week process to work through this paper, but my topic evolved thanks to literally sleeping on it for that extended time period. At the end of the year, the average student completes eight (vs. nine) courses in a semester system. Pomona students happily trade that extra class for a deeper dive into each class.
Arguably just as important, the semester system creates a standard vacation schedule that fits well with the US summer schedule. First, your winter break aligns with your friends’ break. Quarter system schools that start earlier are usually off from Thanksgiving to the Monday after New Year’s, while quarter schools that start in late September (like most of the University of California system) only have a two-week long winter break. Semester schools usually have a month off from mid-December until mid-January. For semester schools, summer begins in early-mid May and lasts until early September, allowing students to have a full summer that aligns with many summer working opportunities. Summer internships often start before June, and, while they accommodate quarter schools, most are geared toward semester schools. In the spring semester, I am traveling to South Korea with a class to conduct research about organic farms. Because finals end on May 15th, I am able to commit to this two-week trip with full confidence that my schedule won’t inhibit me from receiving a summer internship. I am able to partake in this amazing educational experience without sacrificing my summer job prospects. (Note: due to the coronavirus epidemic, my travel plans were put on hold.)
When considering colleges, I didn’t fully realize the difference between semester and quarter systems. However, now that I’ve experienced the benefits of Pomona’s academic structure, I feel quite lucky that I ended up at a semester school.