The semester system: slow and steady wins the race

By Riley Burke

The quarter system: 10 weeks of intense rigor, high stress, late-night cramming the odd mental breakdown. It’s fast paced; it’s high intensity; it’s challenging. And as finals roll around, mere weeks after the midterm season ends, I find myself wondering — why?

I’m a fourth-year student, but it’s my first year at UC Santa Barbara. For the entirety of my academic life up until this point, I have attended schools that use the semester system — the languorous 15-week system the majority of the higher learning institutions in the U.S. use. It’s the one that lets out in early May, the one that does not require the laborious academic sprint through three terms, the one that allows students to delve deeply into course content and develop stronger ties with their instructors — the better one.

There, I said it. Now that I have experienced nearly a full academic year inside the quarter system, I have no choice but to come to the only conclusion that feels right to me: this system sucks.

Its brevity, inconvenient end date and grueling pace together create an experience I can only define as unpleasant.

While I concede that the brevity of our three terms allow us the opportunity to add minors, concentrations or double majors more easily than a semester system would and that when a particular professor is not our favorite we need only spend 10 weeks instead of 15 with them — the brevity also makes things worse.

Opposed to the semester system, assignments come at breakneck speeds.

As soon as my midterms finish, I begin worrying about finals. As soon as one paper is turned in, I begin to worry about the next. I never feel at ease; I never feel that I can rest or focus on any one thing — instead, I frantically memorize whatever course content can fit inside my shriveling brain. The hours of the day never seem to be enough when I have so many things to do at once, when I am perpetually on edge about the next thing and the next thing and the next.

In a semester system, there are weeks between exams and essays.

There were full weeks when I could stop worrying for a moment and instead focus on the information I’m learning or take time to connect with my professor. Here, I feel I never have time to connect with instructors unless I take multiple courses from them. Here, assignments pass by in a hurry and I seem to never find the time to sink deeper into my learning.

And why must it end in June? That a full month and a half should pass between school systems concluding feels obtuse and illogical. Summer internships tend to start in accordance with the ending of the semester system. I missed my boyfriend’s graduation because I had a paper due even though he also attends a public university in California.

Shouldn’t these two term systems at least be uniform in ending within a single state’s public university system? I know scheduling a three-term year is much different than a two term two-term one, but it’s frustrating that so much discrepancy should exist within and between the California State University and University of California systems.

And while it’s clear where my vote lies, it feels nonsensical that these university systems do not have a single term system they utilize. Be it quarter or semester, there really should only be one.

While the quarter system may be a perfect fit for some, it remains a constant battle with burnout for others. As much as I want to like it, to embrace it with open arms, my anxiety levels are simply not letting me. I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

Riley Burke enjoys the occasional free afternoon.

Quarter system: new quarter, new me!
By Amitha Bhat

It’s 9:00 a.m. I’ve just taken a midterm that’s reduced my self-esteem by 30 percent, I’m holding an iced Americano and I’ll eventually leave campus an extensive 12 hours later (not of my own volition). I’m horribly busy, and I love it.

The quarter system makes you feel like a musician releasing three albums in the same year, which is great for cataloging and contextualizing the eras of your life. It may not be to everyone’s liking, but as someone who reinvents themselves every other week, I find it particularly gratifying. Fall quarter? I’m a workaholic, repeatedly listening to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ “In Motion” as I scramble to finish my 10-page paper before 11:59 p.m. I fast-walk across campus in flip-flops, pretending I’m Jesse Eisenberg in “The Social Network.”

Once January hits, I’m melancholic, taking my coveted beach walks at odd hours in the night. If I’m being entirely honest, winter quarter is the worst quarter — however, there are ample opportunities to romanticize the endless proverbial trench that you find yourself lodged inside.

By the time April comes along, I’m back in the swing of things, breaking out the sundresses and glitter. I indulge in all the simple pleasures I neglected during winter: the I.V. band shows, Extravaganza and the delectable spring-themed drinks featured at The Arbor.

Yes, I still have an endless stream of work to do. And yes, I’m enjoying every second.

The only constant is change, which is a lesson that you’ll learn very quickly during your first year at any institution that abides by the quarter system. I take comfort in the notion that my tortuous classes only last three months and the fact that I have a clean slate when a new quarter begins.

I have multiple defined sections in my year to pursue new opportunities: taking a new class that doesn’t necessarily apply to my major, checking out a new club at the quarterly Registered Campus Organization fair or seeing if I can fit another major or minor into my schedule.

When I was conflicted about what to pursue as a freshman, the space of the quarterly academic structure alleviated some of my surrounding anxiety. I credit the quarter system with my ability to take the time to decide what I wanted to double major in, ultimately deciding upon communication and writing & literature.

For me, the semester system bodes more potential for burnout. Taking the same courses for 15 weeks sounds unthinkable when I’m over a class by Week 7. Of course, these preferences largely depend on one’s field of study. Some constraints may simply suit certain disciplines better.

As for which system should dominate all institutions, I concur with Riley: regardless of what the omniscient university lord picks, I’d like for schools across the country to conform to one of the two. It would be nice to see my semester friends every once in a while. It can definitely be rough out here, and I miss them.

For those of you who do enjoy the persistent workload of the quarter system, I’m happy to host you on this side of the debate. And for those of you who don’t, I send you my condolences on behalf of UCSB.

Amitha Bhat enjoys coming home at 9:00 p.m.

A version of this article appeared on p. 10 of the Oct. 5, 2023 print edition of the Daily Nexus.