Studying in the UK as an American: Key differences you need to remember | Top Universities

Studying in the UK as an American: Key differences you need to remember

By Aisha Khan

Updated September 2, 2022 Updated September 2, 2022

Although the US is home to some of the world’s top universities, including the Ivy League, an increasing number of students are turning to the UK when looking for a unique study experience abroad. 

To find out what it’s like studying in the UK as an American, we spoke to Emily Rose Ogland, a US citizen who moved to the UK for her education.  

Having double majored in philosophy and French at Bryn Mawr College (a private women’s liberal arts college in Pennsylvania), Emily Rose then studied a master’s in philosophy at the University of Warwick. She’s loved living in the UK so much that she’s now studying for a second master’s degree in social work at the University of Leeds.  

Here’s what she had to say about key differences between studying in the US and in the UK. 

In the UK, your grade can be entirely judged by your final exam/essay 

I’ve found that the type of academic work required of you varies a lot between both countries. When I was studying my master’s, I was surprised that my entire grade for a module was contingent upon one final essay, whereas I feel like it’s a common way to be graded in the UK.  

Conversely, in the US, we would definitely have a final exam or essay, but we always have smaller projects throughout the semester that count towards your final grade.  

Studying my degree in the UK kind of felt like running a sprint at the end of the semester. You can get away with not doing your reading or not keeping on top of your work, but as long you study for that last essay or exam, you’re okay. The US is more akin to running a long marathon where you’re always reading, writing an essay or studying for an exam. So, I’d say the way the workload was broken up on my course in particular was a big difference.  

Larger classes and lectures are more common in the UK 

The module experience also feels quite different as I found it was common in the UK to have very big lectures with over 1,000 students. You’ll then break off into seminar groups and you might get to know your teaching assistant (TA) very well and go to them for office hours, whereas you might not know your professor personally.  

In comparison, having gone to a small college in the US, I’ve had classes before with only four students and it’s just us and the professor. We even met at the professor’s house – which was weird but fun. I feel like you really get to know your professor when you’re studying in the US. 

There are some exceptions at larger universities where it’s similar to the UK in the sense that you’re more familiar with your TA than your professor. But, generally speaking, there is a big difference between the US and UK in terms of your relationship with your professor. In some cases, you end up knowing them very well, which makes it much easier to ask them for letters of recommendation if you apply for grad school.  

Drinking culture is more of a thing in the UK – and it’s legal too 

I remember being shocked when I first arrived at the University of Warwick and seeing lots of pubs on campus because, of course, in the US you’re not allowed to legally drink until you’re 21. I’ve also been out for pints with my professors after class which was mind-blowing because that would never happen in the US. Although there are parties at US colleges, the drinking culture can feel weird at first because of the legal differences.  

Freshers’ week is definitely a bigger deal in the UK, whereas we didn’t have that in the US. We have some sort of orientation week where you move in, meet everyone and get involved in fun activities but it wasn’t much compared to Freshers’ week, especially with drinking culture. The closest thing that we would have in the US is Greek life, which is things like fraternities and sororities.  

In the UK, you don’t get to sample different subjects before declaring your major 

In the UK, you take your A-Levels and when you’re applying to university, you’ll have some idea of what you want to study for those three years. It’s different in the US where most people might have a rough idea of what they’re interested in. 

Many colleges, especially smaller ones, will make you take modules that aren’t related to your field of study. As Bryn Mawr is a liberal arts college, I had to take classes in a range of disciplines in order to graduate. So, for example, I had to study French for a year, but I continued afterwards because I ended up really enjoying it. After two years of exploring different subjects, you then declare your major.  

I didn’t know what philosophy was before studying it at Bryn Mawr and was surprised to find that I loved it a lot more than math or science. I wouldn’t have discovered philosophy if it hadn’t been for the liberal arts requirement. A lot of students in the US don’t entirely know what they want to do until the end of the first year and can then specialise from there.  

I would have been very stuck at college if I had gone in thinking I wanted to do math and ended up hating it, so I absolutely love the fact studying in the US means you have the freedom to find out what you enjoy.  

Sports are much less important to student life 

One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed is the role of sports in university life. Sports at the college level is just huge in the US compared to the UK. I have a friend, for example, who performed well academically but she got into a specific university because of her sports performance. She did rowing and was recruited by coaches to be a top rower at that university.  

Football was also huge and the entire university would come out to watch a game, and there would be parties afterwards. There are societies in the UK if you want to play sports specifically but it’s on a much larger scale in the US.  

Studying in the UK can be cheaper – even after factoring in the travel 

The general cost of British education is a lot cheaper than the American higher education system. During my undergraduate degree, I was paying $50,000-$60,000 a year for four years, which is half a million dollars just to pay for college. But if you’re a UK citizen, it only costs around $10,000 to study there (or it’s free at Scottish universities if you’re from Scotland), so the cost is astronomically different.  

If I wanted to do a master’s in the US, it would probably be around $30,000 minimum, but in the UK, even as a non-citizen, it’s only $15,000. I would have also had to take the GRE exam to apply for a master’s in the US, which is a big, nationalised exam that covers math, reading and writing.  

I really didn’t want to do it, and at the end of my final year at college I had already missed many application deadlines. England seemed like a much better option because it was cheaper, quicker, there were no exams and Warwick had a rolling admissions process, so it worked out perfectly when I applied for philosophy.  

I also regretted not having done the full study abroad experience as I enjoyed aspects of it when I did a summer exchange programme in France. It’s led me to where I am now - I very much feel like the UK is my home and never want to leave! 

This article was originally published in September 2022 .

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