US vs. UK Universities (a.ka. Colleges) – Five Things You Need to Know

Today’s teenagers are undoubtedly spoiled for choice when it comes to top-tier education destinations. But despite the proliferation of options, the UK and US remain the perpetual countries of choice for the best and the brightest students that I meet. Both countries are home to some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning, and thus it is no surprise that globally they attract the highest numbers of overseas students to their universities each year.
While both are excellent options for students, UK and US universities could not be more different. As students make crucial decisions about the future, it is important to consider the following distinctions between higher education institutions in the two countries:

1. Flexibility vs. focus

In the UK, students apply to their chosen university for a particular subject and spend three years studying that subject almost exclusively. There are “combined honors” degrees for those who want to take up two subjects, but on the whole, the British system truly emphasizes in-depth study of a particular discipline. In the US, meanwhile, students usually enroll with an undecided major, explore any number of subject areas, and have until the end of their second year to select a course of study. In an American liberal arts program, all students must fulfill certain distribution requirements in core subjects like literature, philosophy, natural science and foreign language.

What does this mean for me?

The US is a better option if you are not entirely sure what you want to study or if you know that you want to explore a breadth of different subjects. For students with laser-like focus in a single discipline, and especially those who are put off by the idea of being forced to study subjects in which they have no interest, there is nothing like the depth of study that British universities offer.

2. Length of program

In general, it takes four years to obtain an undergraduate degree in the US and three years in the UK. In the UK, however, many students opt for a four-year “sandwich” course degree in order to study abroad or complete a yearlong work placement. While in the US, students can study abroad as part of a normal four-year degree, participating in a “coop”, as semester-long internships are called, usually increases program length to five years. The difference in length might be down to the fact that American universities require students to fulfill several general education requirements to graduate, while in the UK, you just dive right into your chosen field.

What does this mean for me?

If you’ve got years of graduate school or doctoral study ahead of you – the additional year in the US might be a deal breaker.

3. Assignments and grades

At UK universities, assessment is primarily based on exams, while in the US there are a number of graded assignments spread out throughout the semester. In the UK, modules are largely lecture-based, though students may also be required to attend tutorials, which facilitate discussion of the course material in a smaller group setting. Professors will generally assign readings at the beginning of term, but after that, they assume students will follow the syllabus and grasp material independently. Frequently, there will be no required assignments and 100% of a student’s grade will be based on a single final exam. American colleges, on the other had, have a more constant workload, with graded essays, problem sets and quizzes taking place frequently throughout the semester. While introductory classes are often lecture-based, advanced courses are usually intimate and discussion-focused.

The cumulative workload is certainly higher in the US, but it means that a single assignment may only be worth 10%-15% of a student’s final grade.

What does this mean for me?

The American system of continuous assessment greatly eases the pressure of final exams, which could be a vital consideration for students who don’t enjoy (or fare particularly well in) high-stakes test taking.

4. Campus life

Campus life is markedly different in the UK and US, not least because when students first enroll at British universities, they are generally of legal age to drink alcohol! While this is a relatively minor point, it might speak to the broader fact that in the UK university students are considered adults and expected to be independent. In general, UK universities take less interest in students’ lives beyond the classroom. Since they are all state-funded institutions, they devote their often limited funds to academic facilities and high quality professors rather than student activities and athletics. American universities, on the other hand, are actively involved in managing and catering to the social needs of their students and consider the student experience extremely important. They pride themselves on their stunning campuses, state-of-the art facilities, and pseudo-professional athletic teams.

In both the US and UK, universities provide students with housing, in the form of residence halls. At least in the first year, American colleges expect students to share their rooms with a roommate, while in the UK students can usually have their own rooms from the outset. In the UK, accommodation, more often than not, is “self-catered,” meaning that students are responsible for their own meals. In the US, meanwhile, there are on-campus cafeterias, many of which are open late into the night, to keep students nourished round the clock.

What does this mean for me?

Overall, the UK offers students an experience that more closely mimics real life, emphasizing academic and social independence, while the US is a more quintessential student experience, offering greater pastoral care and support.

5. Cost

Higher education does not come cheap in either country, but a four-year undergraduate degree in the US generally costs more than in the UK. For domestic students and citizens of the EU, UK universities cost approximately £9,000 per year. However, international student fees are typically in the region of £15,000 for the 2015/2016 academic year, and even higher for science, engineering and clinical degree courses. In the US, meanwhile, there are differences in tuition fees based on whether an institution is public (state-funded) or private. At public universities, in-state residents receive vastly discounted tuition, typically less than $10,000 per year. Out-of-state tuition at public universities and private university tuition, however, hovers above the $50,000 mark.

What does this mean for me?

Despite the high up-front cost of education in the US, it is important to note that private institutions have significant financial resources at their disposal. This enables them to offer the best and brightest (as well as the athletically gifted) generous scholarships and financial aid packages, which are not available in the UK.

Hopefully, this makes your decision on where to attend university much clearer. But deciding where you want to go is only half the battle! As you can imagine, such dissimilar educational systems have wildly different expectations of applicants to their institutions, which students must bear in mind when preparing their applications. As such, my next post will be all about the differences between UK and US university/college applications – with tips on how to succeed in both systems.