In this blog post, we look at the key differences between studying at undergraduate level in British and US universities, including the strengths of each, what kind of student may be more suited to one or the other, and the process of applying. This content may be particularly helpful for international students who are considering both routes, but may also be useful for domestic students who are looking for an overview of the application process.
The Key Differences
At an academic level, both US and UK universities dominate global league tables, and so attending a top-ranked university from either country will set a student up excellently for their adult life either in the world of work, or in future academia. Furthermore, since a large portion of the world’s most groundbreaking research is carried out by US and UK universities, undergraduate students may indeed find themselves taught or supervised by leaders in their field.
At undergraduate level, US universities are renowned for their holistic approach to education: students must study a wide range of subjects across both the Humanities and Sciences, with students accruing credits for each course they take, and specialisation only occurring to a limited extent, through the selection of a “Major”, towards the end of their degree.
This makes them particularly well suited to those students who are academic “all-rounders” or who do not yet know which subject they’d like to specialise in. Generally speaking, U.S. universities have the highest quality of teaching, facilities and opportunities for extra-curricular activities. Furthermore, most US universities are located on closed campuses with everything that students might need within walking distance. These factors give them a quality akin to a direct continuation of high / secondary school. Some students relish living in these contained campus environments where everybody knows everybody; others might prefer to attend a university that is integrated into a city with greater freedom and anonymity.
It’s worth noting that there are two types of colleges in the U.S: Universities and Liberal Arts Colleges. Universities are much larger, with more opportunities for specialisation, and a greater emphasis on independent study and they generally carry a higher prestige. LIberal Arts Colleges are smaller with a collegiate culture, a broader focus of study and, generally speaking, a higher quality of tuition.
UK universities are renowned for their specialisation and academic rigour. Students select just one, or possibly two subjects to study for their entire degree, making them particularly well suited to students who have a passion in a particular area, as well as for those who envisage continuing their studies at postgraduate level. Whilst they are particularly good for academic subjects, such as pure Sciences and traditional Humanities subjects, due to their specialisation they can be considered sometimes less focussed on acquiring skills for the world of work.
Another important difference is the method of examination students will encounter at each type of university. Whilst US universities, with the flexible credits model, favour ongoing assessment, most UK universities place a lot of weight on the final year exams, often favouring those students who work well under pressure and who are very good at revising a large amount of information within a short period of time.
Finally, fees for international students vary considerably (they are fixed in the UK for domestic students), but on the whole one can expect to pay approximately twice as much in student fees to attend a US university. That said, they do offer more scholarships and grants for students who are gifted in either academic or extracurricular pursuits.
US universities will consider the full academic transcript and school report of each student, including their grade point average, “GPA” (or equivalent) and the results of the SAT (or ACT) exam. Beyond academics, they also look for an enthusiasm for knowledge, community involvement, sporting prowess and talent in other extracurricular areas. Although there is officially no minimum, the top U.S. universities typically take on students with a GPA of at least 3.9 and an SAT score of at least 1450. Many students will have a GPA of higher than 4.0 which they can achieve by taking extra “AP” courses in the final years of high school. Since American high schools vary greatly in their curricula and academic level, The SAT is often a better predictor of success than the GPA, and places great emphasis on literacy and numeracy above other subjects. Most students seek additional help with the SAT exam since its content is well beyond what most schools study at High School.
US university admissions are handled differently by each institution. Typically deadlines for applications fall in January of the year of enrollment, with application decisions reached in March.
UK universities expect a high level of subject knowledge from the beginning of the course (with the exception of “ab initio” courses) and are therefore lightly biassed towards students who took A-Levels. Students are selected based on their A-Level and GCSE results, their teacher references and their personal statement. Oxford and Cambridge and certain courses from other universities will also have their own interview and subject-specific exams. At the top universities, students who do A-Levels will generally be required to achieve A or A* grades, at least in the subject they are applying to study. Unlike US universities, extracurricular activities are of lesser importance, since most applications are handled by each academic department.
All UK university applications are managed through an online platform called UCAS. The deadline to apply is in October of the year preceding entry. Application decisions are announced by January with students receiving conditional offers, based on their end of school results.
Broad range of subjects, with a system of Majors and Minors.
Most students take a degree in a single subject or two at most.
Life at University
Most colleges in the US are campus-based.
Many British universities are integrated into a local city.
Assessment typically ongoing or at the end of each course to gain credits.
Largely left until end of degree final exams.
Students apply with school stanscript, GPA and SAT scores. Some universities require interviews.
Students apply with school reports and A-Level results (or equivalent). Oxbridge and certain other courses require interviews and college-specific entrance examinations.
International students can expect to pay approximately $55,000 in tuition fees per year.
International students can expect to pay an average of £23,000 per year in tuition fees.
Written by Roland Witherow, Director of Witherow Brooke