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6 ways college is different in the US and the UK

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A cyclist rides beneath Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

  • College in the United Kingdom looks very different than the United States, despite a shared language and history.
  • UK college students pay less for education, have a different grading system, and spend less time completing their degrees compared to American students.
  • Whether you’re preparing to study abroad or are just curious about the cultural differences, here are six ways college is different in the UK and US.

Although they share a language and parts of history, the United States and the United Kingdom are still very distinct countries with a number of cultural differences. The difference in higher education is particularly pronounced.

I’m an American who studied abroad in Scotland, so I learned a lot about these differences firsthand. In addition, I’m married to a Brit, and my husband and I constantly confuse one another when regaling each other with our college stories, or in his case, “uni stories.”

Here are six ways college is different in the UK than in the US:

1. For starters, it’s ‘university’

1. For starters, it’s ‘university’
Oxford University.
Jack Taylor/Getty Images

In the UK, higher education (what Americans call “college”) is known as “university.”

College” actually has another meaning in the UK — it’s where many students go for two years after completing compulsory schooling at 16 in order to prepare for exams to get into university. You can also take vocational courses at college.

University, or “uni” for short, is where British people go for a bachelor’s degree.

2. The three-year degree

2. The three-year degree
Harvard Graduation, 2009.
Darren McCollester/Getty Images

British students only go to uni for three years to obtain a bachelor’s degree, unlike the common American term of four years, according to US News and World Report. The shorter timeframe has its pro and cons — sure, you’re done faster, but think about all of the fun and lack of responsibility you’re missing out on for that last year. Personally, I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

This might explain the popularity of the “gap year” among UK students — a year off before starting uni to travel, find themselves, and have fun. A gap year often leaves students with a rolodex of crazy party stories and, at least in my husband’s case, an oddly large collection of bar crawl tank tops — or as the Brits call them, “vests.”

3. Major pressure early on

3. Major pressure early on
In the US, students can choose their major much later.
Strelka Institute/Flickr/Attribution License

In the UK, students apply to a university and a course (or in US terms, a major) at the same time, US News reports. So, there’s no great existential debate over what you should study while in school. It’s already settled before you move out of mom and dad’s.

I may not have finished school on time in the UK, with my shift in major from music to international studies to French to communications. I have to side with the US on this one. What 18-year-old really knows what they want to be when they grow up?

4. Crazy low costs

4. Crazy low costs
Tuition is much cheaper in the UK.
Rob Stothard/Getty Images

I’m sure you’re shocked to find out that higher education is cheaper outside of the US.

When I studied abroad, all of my Scottish friends found it hilarious that I was actually saving thousands of dollars by studying abroad. At home, I was enrolled in a pricey NYC college. By studying abroad, I saved so much on tuition that I was able to travel the summer before my semester abroad and throughout my time in Scotland.

As for my Scottish friends, they weren’t paying a single pence (UK penny) for their tuition. How? The UK fully covers tuition for Scottish students who go to Scottish universities.

However, tuition depends on your home country— English, Welsh, and Northern Irish students still pay up to £9,250, £9,000, and £4,030 respectively to attend school in their home countries.

But it’s nothing compared to the cost of tuition and fees at at a private college in the US, which cost an average of $34,740 per year in the 2017-2018 school year, according to the College Board.

5. Grading without GPAs

5. Grading without GPAs
The UK doesn’t have a GPA like the US — at least for now.
Leon Neal/Getty Images

The US/UK grading systems are way, way different. In the UK, the highest grade is called “first class honours” and is 70% and up.

There is no GPA like in the US — at least for now. Some UK institutions are currently experimenting with a US-style GPA, according to Insider Higher Ed.

When I studied abroad and got a midterm paper back with a 60% written in red bold ink at the top, I nearly had a stroke. But sensing my terror, my kind English literature professor sat me down to break down their grading system. Turns out, I did better than I thought!

6. So, what does the US do better?

6. So, what does the US do better?
Boise State vs. Oregon, December 2018.
David Becker/Getty Images

You’re probably thinking the UK sounds pretty great right now in terms of education. But there is one thing that no other country can compare to the US in — college sports!

Uni in the UK sports are nowhere near as big as college sports in the USA. First, UK professional athletes don’t have to go to uni in order to play professionally. In the US, players would generally never have the visibility needed to be recruited without college sports, The Economist reports.

While many UK universities have a variety of sports teams for students, the games generally aren’t drawing crowds of over 100,000 people, like college football does in the US.

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