The entire higher education system in the US is very different – primarily, more flexible – than systems that we are used to. One key point of difference is in intake: the vast majority of US universities allow candidates to join at two different times of year: one in fall, and one in spring. In this detailed guide, Jamboree discusses everything you need to know about these Admission Seasons: we cover the facts briefly, and then break down the key differences, and try to put you in a place where you can make an informed choice between Fall and Spring.
Fall and Spring: What do they mean? Fast facts
Like everywhere else in the world, universities in the US have two major semesters: one in the latter half of the year (called the Fall Semester) and one in the first half of the year (called the Spring Semester). Where they differ is in intake: US universities admit students to start in both the Fall Semester as well as the Spring Semester. This added flexibility – such that students do not have to wait up to a year in case they miss the first deadline – is a key feature of the US admission seasons, in almost every university.
The timelines of application are, of course, the major difference between Fall and Spring semesters. Here are key indicative timelines (deadlines for each university will, of course, vary):
- Typical application deadlines: Late November / early to mid-December of Year 0 (the application year)
- Final decision on admission: April to May of Year 1 (the year of admission)
- Start date of classes: Late August / early September of Year 1 (the year of admission)
- Typical application deadlines: September – November of Year 0 (the application year)
- Final decision on admission: By December in Year 0 (the application year)
- Start date of classes: January in Year 1 (the year of admission)
At a very high level, without going into details at all, one can make the generalization that the Fall semester is that which most people who have the advantage of time and planning apply for, and the Spring semester is very convenient for people who have a limited time window / are starting the application process late. Here are a few more details on how they could make a difference to your prospects of success:
Here are the top 5 points of comparison between Fall and Spring intakes for Master’s programs in the US. They are not the only differences, but most of the questions we get asked centre around these five.
Every university in the US
~80% of US universities
|Number of courses
More students; more courses
Fewer students; fewer courses
|Chances of getting in
More seats open, but more competition as well
Fewer seats; fewer applications
|Very good options
Aid from university same as Spring, but more TA / RA positions open up in fall
|Internships and work in Summer
Minimum time spent in course for summer internships might be 6-9 months; ideal for Fall joinees
Which is better for me?
The answer to this question is always the same: it depends. However, to make the decision easier for you, we have provided a set of conditional answers, depending on what situation you might be in:
If you are deciding well in advance, and you have adequate time to prepare your application:
You should go for the Fall intake. Given that a majority of entrants choose this option, the systems in US universities are optimized for it, and the whole process will be a little easier. Therefore, it is extremely important to make an early decision, if you have the luxury of time. The Spring semester is almost always a choice made for schedule convenience, as the following case studies will show.
If you’ve decided very recently that the time is right to go abroad:
And if you have no pressing reason to wait 6-9 months longer (that is, your scores are good, you’re confident of getting aid, etc.) the spring semester might be a good choice, so that you waste as little time as possible. The Spring Semester is often the friend of those making last minute choices.
If you applied ambitiously for the Fall semester:
And did not buffer your application with an adequate number of ‘safe’ colleges, the spring semester could be a good safety net, where you get accepts from programs that you are very likely to get into, based on your application profile.
If you are 100% sure of what you want to do post your Master’s degree, and you cannot join in the nearest Fall semester:
You should look at the Spring intake immediately following the nearest Fall semester. Since you are sure of your next step, you should waste as little time as possible, and the Spring intake could save a precious 6-9 month period for you.
Having said this, we will reiterate that there are hundreds of different situations an applicant might be in. If you do not fall in any of the four broad categories above (and even if you do) you should discuss your choice of application season in detail with your Admissions Consultant, so that you end up making the choice that is best for you.
Other important points of difference: Frequently Asked Questions
Post the quick primer above, you might have further doubts. To help solve these, we have put down the questions that we are commonly asked about these Admission Seasons:
Ques: Is it easier to get student visas for either the Fall or the Spring semester?
Ans: Perhaps the biggest misconception about the difference between applying for the Fall and Spring intake is that either confers an advantage with respect to visa applications. The award of a visa depend only on the profile of a given applicant, and time of year definitely does not play a role in strengthening or weakening the visa profile.
Ques: If I apply for a degree starting in the Spring Semester, will I be able to graduate along with those who started in the Fall Semester previous to me (will I be able to graduate in three semesters)?
Ans: Since the requirement for graduation with a Master’s degree in most US universities is linked to number of credits completed, and the successful defence of a thesis, it is definitely possible to graduate in three semesters and, every year, there are multiple examples of this happening. However, this will necessitate juggling a lot of different pieces of work, and will make an already intrinsically hectic Master’s program a little more busy. However, with careful time management, and with a lot of hard work, you can essentially save 6-9 months, and graduate with those who joined a semester earlier than you did.
Ques: How do extra curricular activities on campus differ for those joining in Fall and for those joining in Spring?
Ans: Most societies on any US university campus follow a cycle that starts in fall: starting from the orientations to the major initial activities, the default setting seems to be one that starts in September. However, this does not mean that these activities are closed to people in the Spring intake, just that students joining in Spring will need to work a little harder to figure out their interests outside the classroom, and to get on board with their ideal society of interest.
Ques: Are there any summer internships where students who joined in the Spring Semester have roughly equal chances as those who joined in Fall?
Ans: This always depends on the candidate: candidates who have extensive experience in a particular professional area (e.g. through a successful internship, ideally with a big name company, during their undergrad days) have no real disadvantage while applying for summer internships during their MS (even if they joined in Spring, given that their experience can bypass the minimum enrolled months’ requirement). Some companies do have a strict criterion that students must have completed at least two semesters of a US Master’s degree before joining them for an internship, but most companies do bend the rule for someone with extensive experience: it helps that the off campus application ecosystem is much more developed in the US, and that not everything is in the hands of a rule bound placement cell.
In addition, most internships in a non-core area do not differentiate between those who have 3-4 months of MS experience (as of summer; hence, Spring intake students) and those who joined the previous fall. These will often require relevant experience, however, so it completely depends on the individual’s profile.
Ques: If I join in the Spring Semester, will it be as easy for me to get an on campus, part time job, as it will be if I joined in Fall?
Ans: Like most other systemic things, on campus jobs follow a Fall cycle in US universities, which means that most of these jobs fall vacant, and are filled, around September every year. There are, therefore, fewer on campus jobs that open up in the Spring, but this is offset by the fact that there are fewer students who join in the Spring. Overall, however, finding your ideal on campus job will take more time in the Spring than in the Fall.
Ques: What could be a factor in choosing Fall over Spring, that seems completely unimportant at first glance?
Ans: Believe it or not, weather! If you are coming from a place with a high average yearly temperature (25oC or higher most of the year), and are going to a city in the US where the majority of winter sees sub-zero temperatures, joining in spring is slightly easier than joining in the fall, given that you can adjust to the colder climate slowly. However, this plays a role only if all other things are equal; the weather is not among the top five things you consider while choosing when you want to start the most important degree of your life..
Ques: Are there semesters other than Fall and Spring?
Ans: Yes, a slight majority (50-60%) of US universities run a short summer semester, that usually starts in June,and runs for 8-10 weeks. However, this is not as popular as Fall and Spring, and is mainly used by students to earn extra credits, or for the university to increase utilization of its resources for greater income (e.g. via summer schools). To all intents and purposes, you need only choose between Fall and Spring.
Overall, it should be fairly clear that, all things being equal, if there is a sufficiently long time runway, you should choose the Fall Semester. Similarly, if your schedule is such that you cannot make the Fall Semester, and are looking to utilize time optimally, you should apply to be part of the Spring intake in your US universities of choice. All the best!