There are lots of differences between UK and US universities. If you’re trying to choose which country to study in, or are simply nosy as to how they study across the pond, I’m going to dive into the differences for you. I studied at Cardiff University and took a semester abroad in America, so have experienced the academics of both sides. Without further ado, let’s get straight into the differences between British and American Universities.
College vs University
College vs University. In Britain, they mean very different things. College is where British students study from the ages of 16 through to 18, it is also known as sixth form. Essentially British college is the same as the last two years of high school and is where UK students take their A-Levels. Whilst university is degree-level education. However, in America, these two words are more intertwined and can be used interchangeably for university.
Differences in Applications for British & American Universities
A key difference when it comes to UK and US universities is the application process. Here in the UK, every university place is applied to through UCAS. Through this system, you also have a limit of 5 places you can apply for. The application is £25 (at the time of writing) and that covers all 5 places. You’ll have one application that gets sent to each university so you cannot tailor what you write to the individual institutions. The main body of the UK university is the personal statement, which is a small essay about yourself and why you want to study the subject you’ve applied for.
A very significant difference between UK and US universities is that in America you can apply to as many colleges as you wish. The equivalent of UCAS in the States is the Common Application. You’ll be able to apply for university through this, however, it is separated into different applications for different unis. Each uni will have its own specific questions, and essays that you have to answer. So, whilst you can apply to as many universities as you like in the US, it is far more time-consuming and so it is unrealistic to apply to hundreds. You also do not apply for a specific degree in America as we do in the UK. You’ll also be charged for each individual place you apply for so there is a financial limit on how many places to apply to.
Once you’ve sent off your application to UCAS or to your chosen American Universities of choice, you’ll be waiting to hear back. Again these are slightly different processes between the UK and the US. In the UK, when you hear back you’ll either be given a conditional offer (this is based on your A-Level results), an unconditional offer (this means you’ll be admitted no matter your end grades), or rejected. In the US, you’ll be rejected, accepted, or put on a waitlist (this means that there’s a chance you may be admitted if other people don’t accept their spaces).
How Long Do You Spend at University in America and the UK
When you compare time spent at university between America and the United Kingdom, you may instantly think it’s just down to America having an extra year for undergraduate. However, in my experience, American university students spend more time in the classroom too – at least for my subjects of English Literature and Philosophy. Whilst I had days off from uni at Cardiff, I had classes every single day in Los Angeles.
American vs British Terms
In addition to the extra year, American universities also have different terms to British ones. Whilst in the UK you often start university toward the end of September or even the beginning of October, in America you start in the middle of August. There also aren’t reading weeks in the US, although you do get some odd holiday days and thanksgiving is a longer break before Christmas.
Course Structure of American & British Universities
In the UK we start on a specific course e.g. History, Bioscience, or Theology, whilst in the US you have the opportunity to build up your course over time. With the American university structure, you can start without having a clear focus in mind, you can test different subjects and then focus on the one you enjoy the most. In some UK courses, you may also be able to do the odd module in a different subject, you will most likely be limited to modules that are specific to your course.
Lectures vs Classes
Another difference between UK and US universities is how courses are delivered. In the UK, your modules tend to be delivered in lecture and seminar form, as well as labs for STEM courses. Lectures are usually given in large lecture halls and can have any number of students in them. At Cardiff, I had lectures that perhaps had 15 people in, and others where there were 200 students. For the most part, in lectures, you’ll sit and listen to the lecturer (this is what we call the teachers in UK unis) and take notes. Whilst seminars are separate classes for the same modules but with smaller groups. Seminars are designed for open discussion, questions, and a more in-depth look at the topic you’re studying that week.
In America, you tend to just have ‘classes’ and again labs if you study STEM subjects. Classes are more like what you’ll be used to at school – about 30 students sat in a room, each with individual desks. The professor (this is what the US calls uni teachers) will speak, teach, ask questions, and engage with the class.
American Dorms vs British Halls
A major difference between UK and US universities is in accommodation. If you’re going into an American dorm you can expect to be sharing a room with at least one other person – but don’t worry most colleges will get you to take a quiz to pair you up with someone similar! American dorms also have RAs (resident assistants), who are older students that live in the dorms with you (in their own room) and who put on activities and offer support. The majority of dorms won’t have cooking facilities, although you can often have a microwave, kettle, and fridge.
British Halls are significantly different, in most halls you’ll have your own room and often your own en-suite. Instead of entire floors, halls tend to have flats of anywhere from 3 to even 16 people! You’ll share a kitchen and sometimes a common room. There are no supervisors, but cleaners come to clean common areas about once a week and security is only a short call away. There definitely feels like more freedom in UK university halls compared to US dorms, but both have their advantages and disadvantages.
Differences in Food
As I stated, American dorms don’t tend to have kitchens which means you have to rely on university cafeterias. Most US colleges have what is known as a ‘meal plan’ and there are different levels of these. The meal plan equates to a certain amount of money on your student card to spend in university food outlets. At LMU we could even spend ours at the campus Starbucks and local dominoes! One thing I did find studying abroad in America was that my meal plan was far too large, even though I opted for the cheapest version.
In the UK you’ll be able to cook for yourself in most halls. Although some do come catered for those who want hot meals provided throughout the day. One reason to study abroad is getting to try new food, for instance at LMU there were lots of different food options available (including a sushi stand where I tried both teriyaki salmon and poke bowls for the first time). However, you may find yourself missing the food from your home country – I certainly missed proper British Cadburys. Although when looking at the differences between UK and US universities, I definitely think food is low on the priority list of deciding where is right for you to study. And if you do choose to study abroad, you can always get friends and family to send you food packages from home!
Grading at UK & US Universities
Exams are very often similar between countries – you sit in a room and write the answers to some questions on paper. However, testing can be very different between the US and UK. Your overall grade in the US is based on a number of things: exams, homework, essays, and class participation. That’s right, if you don’t participate you could be marked down – however, I found that my professors were quite lenient with this and understood if you didn’t like speaking in class. Rather, they’d only mark you down if you missed a certain number of classes. You’ll also have pop quizzes, normally around 10 questions that part of your grade will be based on. In the UK you’ll find your grade is based on exams and summative essays. This means you can skip lectures without it directly impacting your grade – although I definitely wouldn’t recommend this because if you don’t do the learning you won’t get good results!
The actual grading system in universities in the UK and US also differs. In the UK each piece of work is graded out of 100 and those equate to a 1st, a 2:1, a second, or a third-class degree. In the US everything is marked in A, A+, A-, and so on. So it’s a little different!
In the UK you can wave goodbye to homework when you leave sixth form – don’t get me wrong you’ll still have reading to do, but it’s not quite the same. However, if you study in America you can expect homework from every class pretty much every week. I had to do weekly essays for multiple classes, so the work seems a lot more intense in the States.
Expenses for American & British Universities
Another element that differs between UK and US universities is the price, and they are difficult to compare due to their nature. In the UK university costs roughly £9,000 a year, and this can be borrowed as a loan from the UK government if you’re a British student. American universities tend to be a lot more expensive, although there are loans, scholarships, and grants available in the States too. Each US uni differs so you’ll need to compare the individual institution you want to go to.
Social Life & Student Life
In the UK, uni life is often perceived as having a very strong drinking culture (although this doesn’t have to be the case and you can have just as much, if not more fun without touching alcohol at uni). The majority of undergraduates start at 18, and they suddenly have a lot more freedom and also have the ability to go out and drink legally. However, I’m the States the drinking age is much higher at 21, and so for three years of university, it’s illegal to purchase alcohol. This leads to one aspect of student life being very different between the two countries. However, the US has underage club nights where you can go and enjoy a good time with your friends dancing without the bar!
Another factor that differs between US and UK universities is sororities and fraternities. These really aren’t a thing in the UK but are a large part of the American University experience. A sorority or fraternity is a campus organisation that aims to provide a community, often these groups will live in the same house. At British universities, we tend to stick to clubs, societies, and student media. There are so many reasons to join a university society and there’s one for everyone. From Taylor Swift societies to course-based societies, and sports clubs – you’ll find one with people interested in similar things to you! Each society will be a member of your university’s student union, which most likely will also have a pub and club of its own specifically for students of your uni.
How to Choose Between UK and US Universities
Choosing which university to attend can be a tricky decision, especially if you’re applying to more than one country. Hopefully, the differences I have outlined here can help make your choice a little more informed. At the end of the day, every university is very different, whether they’re in the same country or not, and it’s all about finding the right fit for you.
I’d love to hear any more differences between US and UK universities that you think I’ve missed off this list in the comments below!
About Katie May
I am a digital marketer who has a passion for travel, beauty, books, and more. Here on my blog I talk about all the things I love, from the best things to do in Cardiff, to the best things to do in LA, and whether makeup brands, such as Glossier are worth their price tags.