College in the UK vs. the US: Your Guide

Arial view of London, UK
July 11, 2022
The Basics: College in the U.S. vs. the U.K.FAQs: Colleges in the US vs. UK

Are you deciding between going to college in the US vs. the UK? All aspects of academic life in these two countries are compared in this article.

Leaves turning color from green to orange, yellow, and brown signal the end of the summer season and the beginning of the new Fall season: and the new Fall term. This rings true for students in either the United States of America or the United Kingdom.

Most first-year students will still be running the course of their last teenage years, whether they are entering college in the UK  or the US. Upon closer examination, many differences can be found from  each similarity, reflecting the cultural uniqueness of each respective country.

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The Basics: College in the US vs. the UK

One of the most significant linguistic differences between American and British postsecondary education is the term that each nation uses to identify it: Americans generally understand postsecondary schooling as “college,” while Brits understand it as “university.” 

Patriotism for one’s college in America is as alive and well as the patriotism that American citizens are known for having for their country. In the UK, the university is less representative of a community that simulates the ‘real’ world, and more of a hub for academic pursuits that are exclusive to the confinements of postsecondary education. 

Application Process

There is no system to limit a student in America from applying to as many colleges as they desire; in comparison, a UK student can only apply to up to five universities. The caveat for American students is that they have to apply to each college directly and supply essays and supplementary documents to each college separately through a system called Common Application. 

In contrast, the British version of this system – UCAS – allows British students to apply for all their universities in one place using one personal statement  directed more towards the course they are applying for, rather than the university.

Admissions Requirements

There is more of an emphasis placed on the institutions in the US than there is in the UK, and this is first demonstrated in the college application process – students are required to apply directly to individual universities. Each US college will have its own fees and deadlines attached to this, while UK universities will have these fees and deadlines centralized in UCAS. 

American students will want to keep in mind that the undergraduate admissions office of a college will be responsible for admissions decisions, not faculty members of academic departments (as is the case in the UK).

Extra-curricular activities hold greater importance when applying to a college in the US vs. the UK. College sports, in particular, are the closest level of experience for North Americans to the pro level, so there is great emphasis on its culture and development through sports scholarships and recruitment. Sports and other extracurricular activities are ranked in the UK as secondary or tertiary priorities compared to academia.

Coursework

In the UK, university work consists mostly of developing theoretical groundwork that can grow with more nuanced scholastic training.  As blogger and traveler Matt Hershberger learns, it is not a place to learn skills for a job – that is what the job is for. 

This is very different for a student coming from an American postsecondary background who sees a postsecondary career as one of many pieces of the postsecondary education pie. For an American student, campus life, community and relationship building, and extra-curricular activities are large parts of the college experience.

Grading coursework essentially becomes different in the UK vs. the US as well. Though it is also given on a percentage scale similar to the US, grades in the UK  only reach a “high” of 75%. American grades use the same percentage scale, but it is possible to score 100% in American colleges. There will always be more room for improvement in the British way of grading.

In addition, coursework in the UK might be more specialized from the beginning than in the US. Since universities in the UK usually hold 3-year  programs, their courses are more tailored to specializations as soon as they begin . In contrast, colleges in the US offer more general courses during the first year of college and more specialized courses in later years.

No student can escape assignments in either the US or UK educational system; both school systems will likely require essays, research papers, and oral presentations. 

The difference can occur in UK universities being more lecture-based and weighing final exams more than their American counterparts. US colleges are more likely to give out assignments  marked along the way, which end up distributing the weights in the grading.

Campus Life

Whether there are student halls, dormitories, fraternities, or sororities, campus life is what students make of it; no matter which school they attend. Universities in the UK provide extra-curricular opportunities for students to create relationships with other students, just as colleges in the US do. Perhaps the most significant difference is that most British universities will not allow pets in dorm rooms.

Another commonality between US and UK post-secondary students is that drinking is part of both cultures. The difference lies in age: the legal drinking age for UK citizens is 18, so British students are less likely to feel that their socialization is taboo. Conversely, it is not uncommon for American students to engage in activities that range from getting fake IDs to finding underground clubs and so on.

Cultural Environment

Both UK universities and US colleges provide a sense of community and isolationism in their collegiate culture which  stems from different ideologies. Both educational systems are based on Western civilizations, so it makes sense to find that there are similarities as well as unique postsecondary traits in each culture.

Americans understand that they live in the most vocally supportive country of capitalism globally, so they have an inherent sense of competition amongst their peers; even though the communal aspects of college life are some of the most critical parts of the experience. British universities taught academia above all other university elements, creating an elitist aura that can alienate outside thinkers.

In addition, skyrocketing tuition in America can create pressure for any student to make sure they prioritize their success over anything. Tuition in British universities fails to compare in stature, which allows the British student body to have financial breathing room amidst all the pressures they already have.

Degree Length 

American Bachelor’s Degrees typically take four years to complete, whereas Bachelor’s Degrees in the UK can take three to four years, depending on the specialization. Master’s Degrees in the US take twice the amount of time as it typically takes in the UK, generally taking two years to complete. PhDs can take a lengthy amount of time to complete in both countries.

Local Job Prospects

The US and the UK show relatively similar unemployment rates (around 5%). Ultimately, job prospects are more directly dictated by the industry that a student is studying to enter. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly affected jobs and is continuing to do so. Still, the fluctuation of job losses over the years has also created opportunities, and it is all about seeking them out and carving out your own path.

FAQs: Colleges in the US vs. UK

Do you still have questions about whether you want to go to college in the US or the UK? Here are some general frequently asked questions that offer more information on colleges in the US vs. the UK.

1. Which is more expensive: College in the US or the UK?

College in the US is more expensive, and it is not even close. In fact, a US citizen could enroll in a program at a British university as an international student and save money, depending on the program and institution they choose. This financial burden is a significant factor for American students to succeed and take their post-secondary education seriously.

2. What else do I need to consider when choosing a college in the US vs. the UK?

If you are looking for work after you graduate, it is crucial to consider the importance of  building a network of professional contacts for the community you will be working in. If you feel you can establish that better in a particular place, this might prove an advantageous edge worth considering. There is also the underlying decision of whether you want to immerse yourself in British or American culture. No matter where you choose to study or work, you will be spending a considerable amount of time there.

3. How Do I Know If Moving Abroad is Right for Me?

Studying abroad is a big decision, as you will be foregoing a lot of the comforts of your hometown to find yourself alone in a foreign environment. Having previous experience fending for yourself can help you take the leap more easily. Ultimately, you must determine whether that program  miles away is worth the financial and logistical challenges.

4. I want to study in the United States and work there. What do I do now?

You need to decide which colleges you want to apply to because you will need to apply to each of them individually. Similar to applying for a job, you will need to tailor each application to the specific college you are applying to . You will also want to start educating yourself on visas and how your current situation is.

5. When is the deadline to apply for my program?

You will have to check with UCAS if the program is in the UK. If it is in the US, you will have to look up the specific school you are applying for and check for their specific deadlines. Both countries have school cycles that generally start at the same time.

6. Since I’m still deciding,  can I apply to both colleges in the US and the UK at the same time?

You can! Just remember that applying to colleges in the UK uses a specific portal called UCAS, where you will submit one application. Colleges in the US need to be applied to individually, and you will need to write specific letters to each college you apply to that are tailored to each school.

Final Thoughts

Studying in the US or the UK is a privilege that can prove advantageous to your academic and professional career. Both countries have similarities in having world leaders and leading members of Western civilization. Both have communities with unique qualities that can be found in many facets of society. 

Both countries have differences in the way their school system undertakes application processes, admission requirements, coursework, campus life, time to finish a degree, and job prospects after school, but the US and the UK still host some of the leading institutions in the world that produce high quality professionals for their students. 

These countries can provide you the opportunities to succeed in your goals, so it all comes down to where you want your success to occur.

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