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Master the College Quarter System

DormEssentials February 8, 2019
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Despite the transformative opportunities that await you in college, there seems to be a looming anxiety with beginning college coursework. Especially when you’re in a college quarter system instead of a semester system, you may feel even more anxious. You will have little guidance from instructors, students will enter the course with varying backgrounds, and little fuss is made if you fall behind or even choose not to attend class. You have to decide your own schedule of courses, and the instructor you take a given course with may make a dramatic difference in how the material is presented, how you are graded, and your overall experience with the subject. On top of this, the academic calendar may be unfamiliar depending on your university and how your grade school was structured. So how can you master the college quarter system?

Many universities prescribe to an academic calendar known as the quarter system, where courses roughly follow the seasons—there is a fall, winter, spring, and summer quarter each academic year. This is a bit confusing, because the semester system generally has a fall, a spring, and a summer term, so perhaps “semester” is a misnomer and should rather be thought of as a “trimester.” But this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Discounting summer, the quarter system roughly maps the fall, winter, and spring quarter to the fall and spring semesters of the semester system (how your school handles summers is quite university specific—many offer two summer terms and have very different daily class schedules, like three hour long classes five days a week). This essentially means that one year of coursework is divided differently depending on the academic calendar. For instance, one year of organic chemistry will be three quarters or two semesters.

A common misconception about the quarter system is that it is “faster.” Well, this isn’t entirely true. It is “faster” in that you only have about 12 weeks before receiving a final grade, but, for a year-long course, you are being presented the material at the same rate. It is not that you are learning the same amount of material in less time. In fact, the quarter system offers great advantages—you are given a final grade per 12 weeks of material instead of every 16 weeks, as in the semester system (so, your final covers less material!). You also more frequently have the opportunity to learn from different instructors, and, especially when it comes to electives, you may take more courses overall.

That being said, the quarter system has less room for falling behind and catching up later. Your first day in class is probably going to include a brief introduction, then an actual substantive lecture. The class after an exam is going to be new material. But, on the upshot, there are very limited variations of course structure in the quarter system. Most will have one or two midterms, then a final. That means three weeks of lecture, exam 1, four weeks of lecture, exam 2, then 3 weeks of lecture, and the final exam.

How can you take advantage of the quarter system? Know what courses you are going to take each term and enroll as early as possible. The priority registration game is different per school, but figure yours out as soon as possible. Be informed. Timing, particularly in the quarter system, can make a big difference. The first week at some schools is thought to be like “shopping,” where you try out different courses and decide which ones you want to stay in and which ones you want to drop. This is not very doable in the quarter system. If your course has the exam/exam/final structure as above, by the end of the second week lecture has already covered half the material for the first exam. Enter each class with intention. Even if you are waitlisted, put forth the effort like you are enrolled.

Once you know which courses you will enroll in, get your syllabus early and plan. If possible, find the syllabus from last year’s course taught by the same instructor in the same quarter. The schedule and books are likely going to be similar. What chapters in the textbook are going to be covered? Word to the wise, have your textbook in advance. The semester system may be more lenient about this, but the quarter system is unforgiving. Remember the format above—order your textbook (or get the PDF) on the second week of class, and, even with Prime, it arrives at the end of the second week. This means you have about one week to study before your first exam. Don’t do this to yourself!

If you know your course schedule, be strategic and disciplined. Peruse the material before class so that you follow lecture and use the time to solidify your knowledge. This will make preparation for exams much easier when you have learned the material gradually instead of trying to cram it in the nights before your test when you have several other course exams around the same time. Attend supplementary sections and office hours as needed, especially prior to exams when instructors and teaching assistants reveal those gems of what material in particular they think will be presented on the exam. Finally, work hard and play hard. Be disciplined in your preparation and execution on an exam, then go party and celebrate, then come right back to it. This is the key to the quarter system—learn how to do both well, and you will prosper. One can not proceed very far without the other. It is on some very ancient yin and yang stuff.

In sum, there are definite advantages to the quarter system, like less material per class, more selection of instructors and electives, and more predictable course formats. What’s more, it requires much less stamina to be on for the duration of a quarter than a semester, so learn to take advantage of it earlier. Plan your schedule ahead, enroll in your courses and get your syllabus and course materials as early as possible. Stay disciplined in both grinding and partying hard, and find the stride that enables you to become master of the quarter system.

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