6 Differences Between Student Life in the UK and in the USA

Of the top ten universities in the world, all but one are in the USA or UK.

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Five are in the USA and four are in the UK. For an international student wanting to study in an English-speaking country, there are other options (Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) but by number of places alone, most will be choosing between the USA and the UK.
If you’re in this situation, you might find yourself making your decision based on which is easiest to get to from your home country, where you’ll find it easier to get a student visa or which has lower fees for people from your country. Alternatively, you might base your decision on which country you prefer as a place to live in. We’ve already written about the differences between US and UK university applications, if that’s a factor. In this article, we take a look at something else you might wish to consider: the differences between US and UK student life and experiences.

1. The breadth of subjects studied

image shows a butterfly
At a UK university, subjects go into such depth that it wouldn’t be unusual for a biology student to spend an entire term studying nothing but the life cycle of a specific type of butterfly.

A UK university education focuses on depth, not breadth. While students can choose to study two subjects (called “joint honours”), most will choose to study only one – say, Biology. In first year (or “freshman year”, in US terms), this will cover pretty much everything under the umbrella of Biology, but by second year, students have to choose among a range of topics within Biology, and by third year this will be narrowed down to the point of something approaching a specialism – say, Zoology, or Genetics.
Our hypothetical Biology student might share a module or two with Chemistry or Maths students, but they won’t be expected to study anything else, not even something as generalised as writing skills. And if you don’t know which subject you’d like to study ahead of going to university, tough. You either have to take a year out in order to make up your mind, or take a chance on a subject you’re unsure about and hope the university will allow you to transfer if it turns out there’s a different subject you might like better.
In the USA, however, while it is possible to start out by choosing just one subject (or major), it’s as usual to enter university on a much more general course, such as a liberal arts degree. To someone used to the British education system, the topics covered on a liberal arts degree seem impossibly broad, including arts, languages, literature, mathematics, natural sciences, social sciences and philosophy. British students typically stop covering such a broad range of subjects at the age of 16. Even in a single-subject degree, students in the USA may be required to take some courses from outside their major for breadth, which is very seldom required in British universities, and then only to encourage students to learn a foreign language.

2. The style of tuition

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By comparison, US universities could be seen to give an excessive helping hand to their students. UK students are very much more on their own, although help can be found if you manage pin your tutor down during their office hours (and your tutor is willing to help you).

In the USA, professors act quite a lot like secondary school teachers. It is their job to ensure your grades are as good as they possibly can be, and they will try to make your studies as effective as possible. This means tuition that’s quite a lot like school teaching, including regular set homework (which counts towards a final grade), quizzes to check on your progress and checking in with you regularly to make sure you’re keeping up with the work and are fulfilling your potential. US professors will even offer to grade a first draft of an assignment, so that you can take it back, rework it along the lines of their feedback, and resubmit for a better grade.
In the UK, professors feel no particular responsibility for your academic success or failure. Students are treated very much as adults with responsibility for their own academic success. While there might be occasional quizzes, they aren’t set for your professor to keep track of your progress – they’re for your own information, and if you fail and choose not to do anything about it, that’s your own problem. If your study style is unconventional, then British universities will leave you in peace to work in whatever way is best for you; it’s ideal if school study left you feeling patronised or molly-coddled. However, if you need a bit of chivvying and hand-holding in order to succeed, then you’d be better off in the US.

Image is a button that reads "Browse all Student Life articles."3. Accommodation and food

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“Goodbye, Mum and Dad, I’m off to Cambridge University!”

University accommodation in both the UK and the USA varies considerably, so these can only be generalisations. However, there are some absolutes: for instance, you are very, very unlikely to meet a British student with a puppy on campus. Very few university campuses or private landlords renting to students will be prepared to allow any pet larger than a hamster (and even hamsters are usually hidden in a wardrobe when room inspections roll around). These are not new rules – when the poet Lord Byron went to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1805, he was disappointed by rules barring him from bringing his beloved dog, Boatswain, with him. In response, he brought a tame bear instead – which the college rules did not expressly prohibit. In the USA, while it’s not entirely usual to bring a pet, it’s seldom forbidden either.
This is only one of many differences. In the UK, while some university halls are catered, it’s more usual for students to have to fend for themselves, leading to the stereotype of undergraduates living off beans on toast for weeks at a time. In the US, food is usually included in accommodation costs, and highly subsidised even if not.
Another big difference is sharing rooms. In the US, it’s normal to have a roommate, and only the wealthiest students will choose to pay the extra for a single room; even then, they might choose not to, as sharing a room is part of the college experience. In the UK, it’s the other way round: only students who don’t have the financial means to afford a single room will choose to share.

4. The value of extra-curricular activities

Extra-curricular activities aren’t all that important for British university applications (unlike super-curricular activities, which are vital). But being a master of several extra-curriculars across sport, music and other fields is important for applying to university in the USA.
Part of this is due to – as covered above – the greater importance placed on depth in the UK versus breadth in the USA. But part of it is also that applications are tailored to choose the right people for the culture of the university, and extra-curriculars play a much more significant role in US universities than they do in UK universities. No one gets into a top British university on the basis of sporting prowess (and if they did, it would cause a scandal). However, sports scholarships are an important part of US university life.

In the USA, it is possible to get into a highly academic university based on sporting talent alone.
In the USA, it is possible to get into a highly academic university based on sporting talent alone.

The same is true for other extra-curriculars. British university campuses might have a large number of lively, active societies, some of which – like the Oxford and Cambridge debating societies – might come to take on an importance of their own. But for the most part, student societies are treated as an afterthought; a distraction (albeit sometimes a positive one) from the real business of academia.
That’s not how extra-curriculars are perceived in the USA. A thriving American university campus is in some ways a greater heir to the monastic tradition that the first British colleges were derived from. A monastery was a little centre of civilisation in its own right: not just existing to glorify God and further religious scholarship, but also to provide services and support to its community and to society more generally. Similarly, universities in the USA see non-academic extra-curriculars as integral to their mission and purpose, and that’s why they require their students to prioritise them too.

5. Teaching to a career

UK universities have an odd relationship with teaching career skills (at least, career skills that are explicitly identified as such). Historically, tertiary education was divided into universities and polytechnics; universities were more academic and harder to get into, whereas polytechnics were easier to get into and specifically prepared people for technical fields (hence the name). All polytechnics have now been turned into universities, but to say that a university is a “former polytechnic” still gives an implication of inferiority. Although this is changing, it remains the case that UK universities look down on vocational education as less worthwhile than pure academic study. The further up the league tables a British university is, the less likely they are to have any compulsory study of career skills, which might instead be relegated to a handful of optional workshops at awkward times put on by the careers office.

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Careers advice is available at many UK universities, although not as part of a course’s curriculum.

This even holds when it comes to fields like medicine and law, which are highly competitive and also, technically, vocational. Oxford and Cambridge both have medicine courses that focus on theory much more than their competitors; it takes a lot longer as an Oxford or Cambridge medicine student to meet a patient than it does elsewhere, where the course is more hands-on. Similarly, law students at universities lower down the league tables are likely to have much more by the way of careers guidance, talks, events and workshops organised by the university. Universities higher up the league tables might invite top law firms to come in and talk to their students, but they’re less likely to spend time guiding their students in how to write a good application for a training contract, for instance; they simply don’t see it as part of their role.
In the USA, this kind of thinking seems positively alien. The higher price tag on university study means that students, though valuing their academic experience, are acutely conscious of the need to find a high-paying job on graduation and believe that part of what they are paying for is the university’s assistance in finding such a job. There’s certainly no sign of the lingering UK belief that talking about job prospects is a little grubby and disrespectful of the purity of academic study.

6. Grading

This is a small point, but it shows up inevitably on any exchange student’s discussion of the differences between UK and US universities. In the UK, university grades are given on a percentage scale. Anything below 40% is a fail; 40-50% is a Third; 50-60% is a 2.2; 60-70% is a 2.1; and anything over 70% is a First. A student might be told that a good grade is 60% or above, and that an excellent grade is 70% or above. They might then reasonably assume that an outstanding grade is 80% or above and if they really stretch themselves, they might reach 90%.

If you do end up going to a UK university, try not to be disheartened if your best work doesn't get above 80% - its very rare, and anything over 70% is excellent
If you do end up going to a UK university, try not to be disheartened if your best work doesn’t get above 80% – its very rare, and anything over 70% is excellent

Anyone familiar with British university grading will know how flawed this is, at least in any subject where a ‘right answer’ is debatable. An outstanding grade is, in fact, about 72%, and if they really stretch themselves, they might reach 73% or even 74%, at which point all of their classmates will want to read their work and find out what miracles were achieved within. Urban legends are made of the student who got 85%, usually through cunning, or with the punchline being that they received a Nobel prize two years later.
Universities in the USA grade in the way that British people are used to from school – where a mark in the 90s is outstanding, the 80s is good, the 70s is acceptable and below that is effectively a failing grade. Much less of the overall scale is used, and there isn’t so much room to give higher grade to truly exemplary work, but it is possible – unlike in the UK – to get 100%.
There are more differences between studying in the US and studying in the UK than we’ve had space to cover here: for instance, the stark difference that’s noticeable in the amount of university-branded merchandise that a student at that university will own (in the US, all of it; in the UK, maybe a mug or a scarf, if that – merchandise is for tourists), or in the number of students with cars or passports (more of the former in the US, and more of the latter in the UK). If you’re thinking of studying in the US or the UK, tell us about the differences you’ve noticed in the comments!
Image Credits: Graduation caps, butterfly, rabbit, bear, basektball, tie, books.


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