As a young dreamer growing up in the Southern United States, I had a pretty good picture in my head of what college was going to look like. It had a lot to do with professors and endless assignments, lousy food in good company at the dining hall, girl-talk with friends in a messy dorm room, and the occasional scattered array of red dixie cups. A load of twists and turns later, I ended up in Wales for college. I love my life and I love my uni, but I was surprised that next to none of the college experiences I imagined exist here. While both systems offer an excellent education and a bachelor’s degree at the end of the road, the experience getting to that degree is vastly different.
For Americans considering study abroad in the UK, Brits looking to study in America, or the curious onlooker, I thought I would sit down and set straight what exactly the differences are. You might be surprised!
Finding your School
The first and arguably most important, difference between the two systems is how you get accepted in the first place. In America, high school students send standardised test results and entrance essays to individual universities. They can apply to as many schools as their heart desires, but will have to pay an application fee to each one. In the United Kingdom, all applications go through a centralised UCAS system. Students create one profile and one personal statement that they send to up to five courses that they wish to apply for.
In the UK, students apply directly to specific course, whereas in the US students apply to be accepted into a university as a whole. For example, an American student would apply to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, a UK applicant would be applying to the psychology course within Cardiff University.
That changes a lot about how students prepare their application. For one thing, UK students are required to know their major before they even start the application process. Their application must demonstrate that they have researched the field and have the necessary skills to begin taking classes within their course. American students, on the other hand, are not required to declare their major until the beginning of their third year.
Students in both countries write a short essay to accompany their application, but the focus is very different. American students tell a story to express themselves, it can be about anything from the time they made cookies with their grandma to the time they won the state soccer championship. The point is that they need to demonstrate who they are as unique, well-rounded, and self-motivated individuals that can add something to the student body of the school they are applying to.
In the UK, the personal statement is much more direct and based on facts versus a story. You must demonstrate how you have prepared yourself and why you are qualified for the specific course you chose. You show why you want to be accepted and why you will succeed in your particular course.
Most degrees in the UK last three years unless you take a year to study abroad. The reason for this is that your course is much more focused on your degree choice than in the US. Whereas American students often fill the first two years of their college career taking general ed classes that have nothing to do with their intended course of study, in the UK students jump into their course classes during the first semester. They do not have the freedom to take electives or explore courses outside their intended major. Consequently, it is much more difficult to change majors in the middle of a degree program.
Academic culture in the United Kingdom highly values intellectualism and theory over practical handles and technical skills. The result being that classes focus on training your brain and developing research skills instead of giving you practical skills for a career. The idea is that university is a time to train yourself academically, whereas job skills can easily be learned on the job. Thus, disciplines that in the US are considered impractical like history and philosophy are highly respected in the UK.
Here is a sample from Matt Hershberger of Matador network to highlight his:
After two months of studying only theory in my master’s classes, I went to my professor and asked when we were going to start learning some real-world skills.
“Never,” she said.
“How are we supposed to learn career skills then?” I asked.
“You’re supposed to learn them on the job,” she responded. “We’re more interested in giving you a theoretical groundwork. The practical stuff is for the practical world, not a university.”
The UK system emphasises a deep understanding of a few topics, whereas the US emphasises taking classes and gaining knowledge in a wide variety of subjects.
Passing your classes
School in the United Kingdom is much more independent than in the US. Professors give one or two lectures a week and then students are mostly on their own to read, research, and work on major projects. They must learn to be self-motived and to divide their time to be able to finish big projects at the end of the year.
US students grades are based on attendance, constant homework, group projects, and quizzes whereas UK students typically only have one or two big projects per a year. The bulk of their final grade comes from the final exam at year-end, making exam period a bit more stressful.
The grading system in the US is based on letter grades and a grade point average (GPA) score. In the United Kingdom degrees are divided into three major categories, plus two degrees of failure. The highest possible score is usually in the mid-80s.
Taking a Break
Timing for degrees in the United Kingdom is less standardised than in the U.S., so break time depends on the school you apply to. In general American universities start and end earlier than in the UK. Classes in the UK tend to start in late September and October. Exams don’t finish officially until mid-June, making for a slightly longer school year. To make up for that, the breaks are a tad more substantial.
British schools generally have a sizeable break around Christmas and Easter. Many schools use the U.S. semester system, however, unlike the U.S., most classes run yearlong, so you do not change classes in the middle of year.
While British first-year students are all offered university sponsored student accommodation (or what Americans would call dorms), many students prefer to live off campus. By second year most students have rented a flat or a house with a few of their mates. Univeristy sponsored catering exists, but a surprising number of British students opt to cook for themselves, while in the US freshman are often required to buy a meal plan (for dining hall food).
Sports tend to take a more central role in the US than in the UK. In the US school spirit revolves around the football team. Star athletes come to university on scholarships and play competitively so as to make it into pro-teams upon graduation. Sports teams in the UK are also highly competitive, but almost all sports are intra-mural and athletic scholarships barely exist.
A lot of student culture in the United Kingdom centres around alcohol. As the legal drinking age is 18, students are not limited to secret house parties and sneaking booze. Many universities in the UK have cheap bars near campus frequented by students every night of the week.
Both the US and the UK support student organisations called (respectively) clubs or societies. These are loose organisations of students dedicated to a particular cause or hobby. Getting involved in extra-curricular activities is a fun and rewarding part of the uni experience no matter which continent you attend school on!
A huge difference to note is that the American sorority and fraternity culture does not exist in the UK in any form.
America is generally considered to be one of the most expensive countries to attend college. The UK has high international fees as well, but since degrees are finished in three years instead of four+, overall cost is still comparable or even cheaper than out-of-state tuition to a public college in the US. For local students, the UK government offers generous maintenance grants and zero-interest loans to help with fees.
Another place where you save is that the UK does not generally require you to buy any textbooks, zero… nada! Can you believe that? In the U.S. textbooks create new editions regularly so that students are forced to spend up to $300 on a single textbook (highway robbery!). Those fees add up.
At the end of the day, even the things that are the same are spoken of differently. It took me a while to figure out what all the new words and terms referred to, in fact, I think I’m still figuring it out. Here is a bit of a crash course in British vs American English vocab to get you started:
University/Uni – College (in the UK college means the last two years of high school and ‘school’ always refers to primary school)
Revise – Study
Society – Club (student led organisations for social/extra-curricular activities from literature reading, rock climbing, to tea drinking)
Recess – Break (spring break and winter break are not terms used in the UK, but they know what I mean when I slip)
Lecturer – Professor (in the US every lecturer is a professor, in the UK ‘professor’ is an honoured title given to senior lecturers who have published successful books or otherwise made a name for themselves)
Module – Class
Exam – Test (in the US students have more frequent tests and quizzes whereas in the UK the majority of your grade comes from one or two exams at the end of the year)
Read a subject – Major in a subject
Sit an exam – Take a test
Term – Semester
Fresher/First year – Freshman
Second year – Sophomore/Junior
Third year – Senior
Joint Honours – Double Major
Mark – Grade
Coursemate – Classmate
Housemate – Roommate (in the UK it is more common to have your own room. After the first year most students rent a house with a group of friends rather than take student accommodation)
Flat – Dorm
If you are still curious, here is an infographic I created to sum up the results: