University Semesters: A Student’s Guide

In University by Think Student Editor1 Comment

When it comes to universities, there are so many new terms for you to get your head around. One of these are “semesters”. When hearing the term “semester”, you may think about how they are always mentioned in films, particularly American ones.

However, semesters are real things that are also used in the UK, particularly at universities. Due to this, you might be wondering what a “semester” actually is and why they’re important. This article will answer all your burning questions on semesters and more.

Continue reading this article to learn what a university semester actually is in the UK and how it’s different from a “term” as well as more detail about what is involved in a semester.

What is a university semester in the UK?

In the UK, the majority of undergraduate university degrees last either 3 or 4 years, with some exceptions, such as with Medicine degrees. However, this doesn’t mean that students are constantly at university for the entire duration of these 3 or 4 years.

Instead, the 3 or 4 year-long university degree will be split into the separate academic years and then even these academic years can be further broken down into periods known as “semesters”. These semesters are the periods in which students are taught. Within these semesters, students will take modules, with these often only lasting for one semester but some lasting for the entire academic year.

To learn more about what a semester actually is, check out this page by Loughborough University. For the exact meaning of a semester, you can check out this definition by Cambridge Dictionary.

In the UK, the length of the semester will likely depend on what university you go to, although this will be covered more later on in the article. However, by comparing a few different universities, it would seem that most have about 16 weeks in each semester but as stated, this could be more or less. For more information about this, please refer to this page by the University of York and this page by Edge Hill University.

How many university semesters are there in the UK academic year?

The term “semester” originates from the Latin word “semestris” and literally refers to half a year or six months. Due to this, there are 2 semesters in each year for undergraduate study at university.

To learn more about the literal meaning of “semester”, check out this page on the Merriam Webster Dictionary website. You can also look at this page by Newcastle University to learn more about the number of semesters in each year.

However, as mentioned above, the length of a semester may be 16 weeks long or possibly even less. While this is clearly not half of an actual year, it is half of the university academic year, especially as it is not including the breaks in between. If you would like to learn more about academic years at university in the UK, check out this page by the University of Sheffield.

Also, some universities may technically have 3 semesters due to their postgraduate courses. This is because taught postgraduate degrees can operate at slightly different times to undergraduate degrees and so there may need to be a 3rd semester in order to account for this. For more information about this, check out this page by Loughborough University.

What is the difference between a term and a semester in the UK?

While we’ve established what a semester is, it is important to not get “semester” mixed up with similar words, such as a “term”. As many students use these words interchangeably, it can often be difficult to understand if there even is a difference between these two words and what that difference is.

Simply put, the main difference between a semester and a term is that there are two semesters for each academic year but 3 terms in the UK. In this way, a “term” may also be referred to as a “trimester” although this word isn’t commonly used in the UK. To learn more about this, check out this page by Newcastle University.

Other than this, an important difference between semesters and terms is what they actually mean for students. In the UK, the semester is how the academic year at university is broken down based on how the course is taught.

Whereas a term is how the academic year is broken down based on when students are actually on campus. Due to this, the difference between a semester and a term is arguably clearest due to the main holidays in the UK. For example, Christmas/winter break will end the first term for the university year but the first semester will often resume after this break and end at a different time.

To learn more about this, check out this page on Loughborough University’s website.

What happens in between semesters and terms?

Most universities have holidays that split up terms and semesters. These breaks include Christmas, Easter, and the summer holiday. During this period, most students return to their home address to spend time with family and friends, as well as continue their revision for any upcoming exams.

Most (if not all) universities also have ‘reading week’. This may also be seen as a holiday to some as there are usually no lectures, however, the point of this week is to provide a ‘breather’ within the university timetable to allow time to catch up with any work, chase up a lecturer if you need help, read ahead for the upcoming semester or just rest. 

To get a full breakdown of university holidays check out this Think Student article.

Are the dates for semester 1 different depending on which university you got to in the UK?

As each university sets its own dates for starting, yes, semester dates are different depending on the university you go to. For the 1st semester universities will start either in September or in early October. For more information about when universities start, check out this Think Student article.

When the 1st semester ends can vary a little bit more. However, universities often seem to end the 1st semester within mid to late January. For example, check out this page from the University of Manchester, this page by the University of Westminster, this page by the University of Southampton and this page from Cardiff University.

However, some universities, such as Glasgow University may end their 1st semester with the winter break. You can learn more about this by clicking on this page to their website.

To see a comparison of the University of Manchester, the University of Westminster, Cardiff University and Glasgow University dates for semester 1 of the 2022/23 academic year, look at the following table.

University Semester starts Semester ends
Cardiff University 3rd October 2022 29th January 2023
Glasgow University 19th September 2022 16th December 2022
University of Manchester 26th September 2022 29th January 2023
University of Southampton 26th September 2022 28th January 2023
University of Westminster 26th September 2022 22nd January 2023

Are the dates for semester 2 different depending on which university you got to in the UK?

Once again, each university will set their own dates for when they want their semesters to start and end. For semester 2, this can be even more apparent due to the fact that when semester 2 starts is fully dependent on when semester 1 ended. This means that if a university finished the 1st semester quite early that the 2nd semester would also start quite early and vice versa.

Despite this, from comparing several universities’ dates, it would seem that semester 2 will typically begin in January. This may be at the start of January, directly following the winter break or it could be in the middle or at the end of January after the 1st semester resumed following the break.

The 2nd semester will end at the end of the university’s academic year. Once again, this can vary greatly between universities, but it will typically be in the summer months of either May or June.

To see a comparison of some different UK university semester 2 dates for the 2022/23 academic year, please look at the following table.

University Semester starts Semester ends
Cardiff University 30th January 2023 16th June 2023
Glasgow University 9th January 2023 26th May 2023
University of Manchester 30th January 2023 9th June 2023
University of Southampton 30th January 2023 17th June 2023
University of Westminster 23rd January 2023 27th May 2023

To learn more about these semester dates, click on the respective university’s link from the following: Cardiff University, Glasgow University, University of Manchester, University of Southampton and University of Westminster.

Do Oxbridge universities have shorter semesters?

Both the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge are notorious for having shorter, more intense terms and semesters than other universities. While neither of the Oxbridge universities explicitly set out their 2 semesters, they both set out their 3 terms.

For both the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge, each term has 8 weeks. In total, this would mean that the entire academic year would take place within 24 weeks of teaching time. This in turn would mean that a semester being half of this would be 12 weeks.

To learn more about how long the semesters are for the University of Oxford, look at this page on their website. For more information about the semester lengths for the University of Cambridge, check out this page on their website.

To put this into perspective, for the average university, each term is between 10 and 12 weeks long. Also, as mentioned above, for most universities, a semester is about 16 weeks long, this would make the entire academic year about 32 weeks long more or less. To learn more about the average term length at university, check out this Think Student article.

Therefore, within the whole academic year, Oxbridge students would end up having 8 weeks less of term time. This is likely done to make the course more intense as much more has to be fit into much less time. If you would like to learn more about just how intense Oxbridge is, check out this article on the Medium website to see a student’s personal account.

How is the academic year split up at university in the UK?

As already mentioned, the university academic year is split up rather than being just one block of constant teaching. We’ve already looked at the main ways that the academic year is split up, semesters and terms, and how these different from each other.

Despite this, there are still a few other ways that the academic year can be broken down. Other than breaking down the academic year into time periods, such as with semesters and terms, it can also be broken down academically.

In this case, I am referring to modules and credits that are important in both how the university academic year is structured as well as in rating your performance and success in your degree. To learn more about these, check out the following sections.

What are modules at university in the UK?

In general terms, a module is a unit or a part of a whole. To learn more about this and other definitions of “module”, please refer to this page by the Merriam Webster Dictionary.

When referring to university study in the UK, a module is also a unit or part of your course as a whole. More specifically, a module for university study is a component of your degree, where you will be taught and then assessed in some form.

While the academic year can be broken down into modules, they are very unlike semesters or terms. This is because modules can take different amounts of time. One module may run for only a single semester, while a different module may run for the whole academic year.

To learn more about modules, check out this guide by Ulster University.

What are credits at university in the UK?

In the UK, a credit is a value that is attributed to the modules that you take. Each module will tend to have around 15 to 60 credits each, although it may be slightly more or slightly less depending on your course.

From these smaller credit values, students will need to gain a total of 120 credits each university year for undergraduate study by completing their modules successfully. This is 360 credits in total for the majority of undergraduate degrees that last 3 years.

In doing this, students will be able to progress with their course. Therefore, while it is clear that the academic year can be broken down into these credits that they are still very different from semesters as they have a direct impact on a student’s performance and their progression with their course.

Credits are also given a time value as each credit is worth about 10 hours of the course. This would mean that in an academic year, students would do 1,200 hours’ worth of study in order to gain their 120 credits.

To learn more about credits and how the academic year is broken down into them, check out this Think Student article.

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1 year ago

You are talking nonsense. The clue is in the name. A Semester comes from the Latin sēmestris. Which means half yearly. To suggest there are three semesters in a year is ridiculous. What you are describing is a Trimester.