There are so many decisions that go into choosing a college. Big school or small school? Rural or urban campus? One significant factor in your life as a college student often goes overlooked – the academic calendar. While it may not be as exciting as flicking through course catalogues or gazing at pictures of study abroad programs, the academic calendar will impact the entirety of your college experience.

Dartmouth College has an academic calendar called the D-Plan, which operates on a quarter system. Dartmouth is not alone in having a quarter, rather than semester-based, academic calendar. Schools like U Chicago, University of Denver, and some of the schools in the University of California system have similar schedules, segmenting the school year into quarters rather than halves. Dartmouth’s D-Plan is particularly unique in that it allows students to select which terms they are on campus.

How it works

To graduate from Dartmouth, you must complete 35 classes over 12 terms, meaning students typically take three classes per term. Dartmouth offers full-fledged course selection in the fall, winter, spring, and summer terms. Freshman year, students are enrolled for the fall, winter, and spring terms, but beginning the summer following freshman year, Dartmouth students are allowed to opt in and out of each term, provided they complete the requisite number of classes over their four years.

The D-Plan originated from the 1970s, when Dartmouth was the last of the Ivy League to go co-ed. Dartmouth expanded the size of their incoming, newly co-ed freshman class, causing a housing crunch. In order to ensure they had enough space in the dorms for their larger freshman class, they added a summer term, allowing some upperclassmen to enroll in classes for the summer and then take off the fall term. This has evolved into a beloved tradition at Dartmouth, and “sophomore summer” is now a graduation requirement, although can also be met through certain summer study abroad terms or by taking classes during one’s freshman, junior, or senior summer.

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Advantages of the D-Plan

The flexibility of the D-Plan allows for broad internship and travel opportunities. Dartmouth offers study abroad opportunities during all four terms, and it’s not uncommon for Dartmouth students to study abroad multiple times in their time as an undergraduate. As a study abroad term only takes you away from Hanover for ten weeks, it’s a much easier decision than embarking on a semester or year-long abroad program. Further, the flexibility of the D-Plan provides access to internship opportunities that students in semester schools couldn’t participate in without delaying their graduation. Dartmouth students are able to take the fall term off to organize for a political campaign, take two terms off in a row to participate in a six-month long internship, or spend a term training for elite athletics.

As the fall term concludes prior to Thanksgiving and the winter term begins after the New Year, the six-week period between these courses, known colloquially as “winterim,” also provides opportunity for Dartmouth students to work, travel, or just to relax and enjoy the holiday season. This also allows for students like me, who live far from New England, to be able to go home for Thanksgiving, rather than having to stay put on campus.

Photographer: Kyle Gregory Devaras | Source: Unsplash

My sister is a student at Washington University in St. Louis, which operates on a more traditional semester system. She takes an average of 15 credits (usually 4-6 classes at a time), and semesters last around 15 weeks. Courses move through material at a more reasonable pace on the semester system, but you are juggling five subject areas at once, rather than three at Dartmouth. While Dartmouth students experience three different finals weeks between September and June, semester schools like WashU only have two – but, a Dartmouth finals week contains three examinations where semester schools could have twice that!

Challenges to prepare for

However, there are downsides to the ten week term. Introductory courses, especially, delve through a lot of material extremely quickly. Reading-heavy courses may assign hundreds of pages for each class meeting, with a book a week not an uncommon assignment. Midterms can at times consume the majority of a term, starting as early as week three and sometimes not concluding until week seven.

Since each class at Dartmouth counts as a single credit, lab-heavy majors like chemistry and biology spend more hours physically in class completing labs than social science and humanities majors do. At WashU, a biology lab with more hours dedicated to the course would be allotted more credits than a history lecture class, but at Dartmouth, all courses are deemed equal.

Further, with different people taking off different terms, you may go for terms without seeing some of your friends or classmates. The upside to this is that every term presents new people on campus – in your classes, in your dorm, and in the dining hall. With around 1000 per class, Dartmouth is small enough that you’ll always know someone in every setting that you’ll find yourself in, but large enough that you’re always meeting new people.

I loved Dartmouth, and I couldn’t have asked for a better college experience. I appreciated the variety of opportunities that the D-Plan offered, and my study abroad term, winter-term internship, and sophomore summer were all integral parts of my time at Dartmouth. The D-Plan was not a major factor in my decision to attend Dartmouth. I knew it existed, but I didn’t consider that an academic calendar would have a significant bearing on my life as a college student. It wasn’t until I was at Dartmouth that I was able to realize how valuable the flexibility of the D-Plan was. Dartmouth taught me so much in my four years and I hope that everyone is able to end up at a school where they’re able to spend every day learning, having fun, and growing up.

Regardless of where you decide to go to college, do some research into the academic calendar and make sure you’ll be able to take full advantage of the opportunities available at your school! College only lasts four years, so you’ve got to make the most of it.

This informational essay was written by Tara Burchmore, Dartmouth College ‘19. If you want to get help writing your application essays from Tara or other Admissions advisors, click here.