United States vs. United Kingdom: University

While I outlined key differences between the United States and United Kingdom that really stood out to me in my reflection post, now that I’ve experienced a whole semester’s worth of learning abroad (including exams), I thought I would elaborate on it.

ChronologyFor most of the pre-university learning, the academic systems are more or less the same. British students may switch schools at a different age or grade, but even that varies within the United States. At the age of sixteen (equivalent of junior year in high school), British students go to “college,” which I think of as a more specialized version of high school. British students narrow their learning interests down and eventually take a more specialized version of standardized testing (like the S.A.T.) called A-Levels. In the end, most American and British students go to university at the same time (age eighteen). Also, university in the United Kingdom starts around mid-September with first term exams after Christmas and second term starting in February with a month-long revision period before exams in June. In the United States, university starts in mid-August with first term exams before Christmas and second term starting right after the New Year with exams in late April.

University basicsUnlike most programs in the United States, a Bachelor’s degree in the United Kingdom only takes three years to complete bar some majors which might require a foundation year (a year of more general studies). A foundation year is typically required for students who did not take A-level exams in that particular course of study to catch them up to those who did. Although university is only three years, I feel the course load is similar with four or five classes per semester, but the type of work you get and the way you are assessed is really different, which I will get to later. I have also noticed that United Kingdom universities require less textbooks (I only required one this semester), which has probably saved some students and their families a small fortune. Finally, a vocabulary lesson: in the United Kingdom, a “course” refers to a major, a class is called a “module” and a semester is called a “term.”

LecturesI would say that the way the material is delivered is the most similar of all the features. A professor will talk for fifty minutes twice a week and students will follow along and take notes. Some classes will also have a seminar or lab, as well, just like my classes at Arizona State University. Although, there is less class participation in the lectures, which I personally enjoy. I don’t have to live in a constant state of anxiety that I will get randomly called upon in class, but I feel comfortable to ask questions when I don’t understand something. Like American professors, British professors make themselves available to help through office hours and e-mail despite being told they wouldn’t be as accommodating. And, I know you’re all wondering, yes, I can understand all of my professors.

GradesThe grading system differs greatly in the United Kingdom. First of all, they don’t have A’s, B’s, etc., they are assessed in levels (first, 2:1, 2:2, third, and failing),which are hard to explain in relationship to both the United Kingdom and the United States grading scale, but if you’re curious, this image explains the different levels in regard to the United Kingdom grading scale. Second, the grading scale is different, a 65% is an equivalent to an “A,” but any grade over 75% is rarely given and passing grade in my program (70%) is a 40% United Kingdom equivalence. I was pretty horrified when I got back my first graded assignment and I got a 72%, but my classmate reminded me that’s actually a really good mark. The scale may seem like a sweet deal, but the work is typically more difficult.

AssessmentThe way the grades are broken down is probably the most different thing about university in the United Kingdom. In the United States, my grades are typically composed of participation (~10%), homework (~10%), quizzes (~15%), tests (about three or four totaling ~40%) and a final exam (~20%). However, in the United Kingdom, you may have two or three other assignments contributing ~30-40% of your final mark, but the final exam is worth ~60-70%. I prefer the United States system because with frequent exams, I can test my knowledge (or lack thereof) throughout the duration of the course and if I don’t do well on a test or assignment, it’s not the end of the world. However, keep in mind that the highest grade level in the United Kingdom is a 65% and a passing grade is a 40%, so there’s less pressure to exceptionally well. Now if only we could combine the United Kingdom’s grading scale and the United States’ assessment breakdown…

CourseworkWhile the United States’ method of assessment is very broken up as I noted in the last section, the United Kingdom university work ethic requires a lot more advanced planning. For example, while you may only have four 2,000 word essays the entire semester, if they’re all due the same week and you don’t plan ahead, you’re, for lack of a better word, screwed. It’s necessary to chip away at large projects so you’re not scrambling the day it’s due. As an American exchange student not used to less frequent assignments, it’s easy to feel like you have no work when that couldn’t be more untrue.

Exams: I had my first exam today (plant biology) and it made me think about the similarities and differences I experienced. First of all, my exam was in the city, about a thirty minute bus ride away from the campus, and my class of about 25 people was seated in a large room with another unrelated class of about the same size where we took our exams together, although their allotted time was an hour and ours was two hours. I found all of this very odd, but I suppose it’s the norm over here. My exam was obviously unseen (I didn’t know what questions would be asked before I took it), written (rather than multiple choice) and cumulative. However, like some courses I’ve taken at Arizona State, there may not even be a final exam but rather a final project or essay, instead.

Campus lifeCampus life obviously varies from university to university all over the world, but for simplicity sake, I’m going to compare just Arizona State and Sussex University. At Arizona State, bikes seem to be like a popular mode of transportation around campus. At Sussex, it’s rare I see more than a few bikes a day. It could be the narrow paths, constant rain, or the fact that there aren’t many nearby off-campus residences, limiting commuters to public transit, but walking seems to be the main mode of intra-campus transit. Unlike Arizona State with its huge student population, sharing a room with someone is practically unheard of in the United Kingdom. Whether you’re in the halls or a stand-alone house on campus, you have your own room. Also unlike Arizona State, Sussex residences have a fully equipped kitchen as there aren’t any proper on-campus dining options. There is a small buffet-style cafeteria, but it’s mean to be supplementary to your kitchen-made meals. The only other eateries on campus include the small grocery store and the two (yes, two) on-campus bars. Both my first year Arizona State dorm and my second year apartment had their own fitness center in addition to the fitness complex on campus with a membership embedded in my tuition. Sussex University encourages a healthy lifestyle with frequent recreational sports events and a small gym, but the fact that they’re inconveniently located (as in not on the bottom floor of my halls) and you have to pay each time is a turn-off for a lot of students, including myself. However, I’m trying to stay (somewhat) in shape by running as often as the weather permits me (almost never). The combination of on-campus bars and lack of exercise facilities will surely be my downfall. As for my favorite thing about living on Sussex campus: while Arizona State is set in a busy metro area, Sussex is set in the heart of the South Downs park, where we’re surrounded by rolling hills, but still only minutes from the city center and the sea. The area feels calm and secluded, which gives me peace in the midst of this often crazy adventure.

I would like to do more of these United States vs. United Kingdom pieces, so comment if you’re curious about anything!



  1. Mom
    January 14, 2016 / 8:40 pm

    So interesting. What is the most popular major? What are the most popular vacation spots? What is the favorite foods amongst your peers?

  2. January 16, 2016 / 5:55 pm

    What an excellent report. ” FIRST”. I’m looking forward to learning more. Is it required to attend the lectures? Do they take attendance? Are costs for classes comparable to the US? Are jobs available for graduates? …. what a great experience. Love, Gpa

  3. AC
    January 18, 2016 / 2:19 am

    My initial response to the “differences”of attending college in the USA vs. GB is that it seems in GB if you’re in college, you are considered an adult and can take a bus ride several miles away to a class, fix your own meals, walk to class, etc. Do your classmates seem more mature? Just curious. Do they have sororities/fraternities? Are the locals into smart phones and technology like in the US. Are the GB students friendly towards the «foreign” students? Love your blogs. What an experience! Love, AC

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