Each year, I work with students curious about attending colleges outside of the US, and they are most often interested in Canadian or UK universities. So, I jumped at the invitation this past February to join a group of 30 US and international college counselors on a 6-day Northern England University Tour that included nine UK universities: Newcastle University, Northumbria University, Durham University, University of Leeds, Sheffield Hallam University, University of Sheffield, University of Manchester, Liverpool John Moores University, and the University of Chester. My trip concluded with a day in London to network with 21 London university representatives (including Imperial College London, University of Exeter, University of Liverpool, and the University of Nottingham) as well as attend a UCAS application workshop (the application used by most UK universities).
It was an incredible trip, as not only did I get to see the beautiful English countryside, Medieval castles, and diverse universities, but I also learned a lot about what kind of student would and would not be a good fit for earning their undergraduate degree abroad. Below is a quick summary of the most important things I learned about the differences between the UK system and the US system.
Things I learned:
1-Students in the UK finish their degree in three years instead of four. UK degrees do not include general education requirements or university core curriculums. Instead, students jump right into their course (major), so the degree length is shortened. Master’s programs are one year in length instead of two. For students wanting more than just a study abroad semester but are not quite ready to be abroad for three years immediately after high school graduation, a one-year master’s program abroad is a great option to consider.
2-Students need to know what they want to study when applying to UK universities, as students apply to specific colleges and often specific courses of study. Additionally, it is unlikely that a student can change colleges once they have applied. Students might be able to change courses (majors) within a college early on, but it is not guaranteed. Some colleges offer “dual honors” where students can study multiple subjects, but this is usually only offered in the College of Arts and Social Sciences. Since at least one-third of US undergraduates change their major at least once (according to Inside Higher Education), this is important to consider before applying to UK universities.
3-Since students apply to a specific college or course, each course can have different admission requirements. Some courses (majors) have higher academic requirements than others. Additionally, students are mostly surrounded by students within their specific college in both their housing and their classes; this is in contrast to US universities, where students take more than half of their classes (general education courses plus electives) with students from different colleges and disciplines.
4-When students write their admission essay on the UCAS (UK) application, they should not write an insightful, “slice of life” story demonstrating their character like they are asked to do on US applications. UK universities and colleges want students to advocate for why they are a good fit for the academic course they are selecting.
5-The grading system is very different. 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. Additionally, students are not regularly quizzed or graded on multiple assignments and tests. Students in the UK might receive a course grade for only one or two comprehensive exams.
6-Accommodations are different. In the US, it is part of the first-year experience to share a room with a randomly-assigned roommate and survive at least a year of dining hall food. In the UK, most “accommodations” are single rooms with a small kitchen. It is rare for students to have meal plans, as they do in the US. There are food venues on campuses, but most students live in self-catered housing where they are responsible for their own meals.
7-The legal drinking age in the UK is 18, and university students are known for their Pub Runs. Students should be prepared to take it slow. Read more here for social tips.
8-The cost of an education in the UK can often be less expensive, especially given the shortened length of time to graduation. In the UK, the government sets the limits for tuition fees, and each individual school sets its own fee up to that limit. According to a law passed in 2012, universities in England may charge up to £9000 (approximately $14,300) per year for UK residents. Fees for international students can be higher, and accommodation costs vary widely, so you need to do your homework. In the United States, the government has very little control over higher education costs, and instead let supply and demand dictate what universities charge and what they discount for merit, financial need, or talent.
9-Athletics are part of the social life here, but athletes are not treated with as much reverence as they are at US colleges. Top athletes in the UK are removed from the traditional education experience earlier, so student-athletes that attend UK universities all prioritize their academics over athletics. Most athletes join teams in a more casual way (coming to tryouts the week prior to classes), and athletic scholarships are very small in comparison to the US athletic scholarship system. UK university athletes are part of the general population instead of having separate dining halls and housing, and athletic facilities do not have the bells and whistles or high-tech amenities that US colleges use to attract recruits.
10-Students studying the UK need to be very independent. Students at UK universities do not rely on administrative staff for support and direction as much as students have been trained to do in the US. For the right student, a UK education could be a wonderful experience and education.
For summaries of each of the universities I visited, visit my website’s College Visits page later this month or contact me for a consultation.