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What are the differences between studying at university in the UK and the US?

14th June 2019

Thinking about going to university in the UK or US, but not sure how to decide which university system is more suited to you? Both countries offer a strong, high quality education, but the teaching and academic style is very different.

It is important to choose which system suits you academically, socially and financially. What might be suitable for your needs, might not meet the needs of someone else so it is important to consider the features of both and make an informed decision. 

Read our guidance below on the key differences between the two university systems to help you figure out which might be the right one for you.   

How you apply

In the UK, students apply for university in the Autumn of Year 13, their final year at school, through UCAS. You can apply for up to 5 universities, unless you are applying for Medicine or Veterinary Science where you can only apply for 4.

Your application on UCAS will include your grades (normally GCSE and predicted A-Level/IB grades), the course you’re applying for, your chosen universities, your personal statement and references from your teachers at school. You will normally have to pay a fee of £24 for your application to up to 5 universities.

In contrast, the US application process is lengthier and less straightforward. There is no limit to the number of universities you apply to. You can apply for many of them through the Common Application which includes submitting your grades and a general essay, but you still need to submit individual essays to each one depending on what they require. This also means paying an application fee to each institution so it can work out expensive if you apply to several colleges.

Most universities require not only your GPA (grade point average), but you to sit the SAT or ACT exams. Whether you decide to sit the SAT or ACT is up to you and depends on which test is more suited to you.

A key difference between UK and US university admissions is that you have to choose a specific course to apply for at UK universities, which is not the case for US colleges.  

WHAT THE INSTITUTIONS CARE ABOUT WHEN SELECTING THEIR STUDENTS

Top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge are primarily interested in academic ability. For this reason, they are more interested in your grades, wider reading and development around your chosen subject. Taking part in short academic courses, such as our Summer School in Oxford, is a great way of showing universities that you have a genuine interest in your subject and are keen to develop your knowledge.

Extra-curricular activities such as sports and music are not that important when applying to UK universities.

US universities, on the other hand, value extracurricular activities ranging from sport, volunteering` to music. Playing a sport at a high level, for example, can significantly increase your chances at getting into a top university. 

2. The Interview

If you are applying to Oxford or Cambridge, or for a course like Medicine, you will have to sit an interview at the relevant university, and most likely an admissions test. However, if you are applying to other UK universities, it is very rare that you will have to sit an interview.

If you apply to Oxford, Cambridge or to medical schools, your admissions test and interview will be specific to the course you are applying for. The ‘Oxbridge Interview’ is known for being rigorous, but is designed so that the tutors can assess your suitability to study your chosen course at academically challenging institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge.

In the US, you do not have to interview at the college you are applying to. Sometimes, students will be asked to meet an alumni student for an informal interview, but this is not that common.  

Length of study

In the UK, an undergraduate degree normally lasts 3 years (4 if you have a year abroad), whereas for you will be studying for 4 years at US institutions. Masters are generally 1 year at UK universities, with some being integrated into a 4 year undergraduate course for scientists, while they are 2 years at US universities.

EXAMINATION/ASSESSMENT 

At US institutions, you are mainly assessed by your grade average which is based on a combination of homework assignments, exams and presentations. In the UK, your grade is primarily based on your final year exam results. However, depending on your course, this will also be determined by coursework marks.  

Academics

In the US, the emphasis is on breadth of study, particularly in the first year of undergraduate study. This means that students have the opportunity to try a variety of subjects for the first 1-2 years before they choose their final major – the subject they want to specialise in.

Compared to the UK, there is more time to try out different subjects before you choose your degree.

In the UK, when you apply to university you are applying to pursue a specific degree (this can be joint honours if offered) at your chosen universities. Students are generally not given the opportunity to study outside of your chosen subject once you are university. This means that you really get to immerse yourself in your subject.
 

Teaching style

Aside from academics, the teaching style is also very different.

University professors in the US are closer to secondary school teachers in their teaching style. They will teach students in a classroom setting, ensuring the students are doing as well as they can and setting homework, tests and regular check-ins. They will even offer to mark a student’s first draft of an assignment so the student can submit it in the hope of achieving a better grade.

In contrast, UK students work much more independently. The teaching is mainly done through lectures, seminars and independent reading. It is not a tutor’s job to ensure that students succeed academically. Students are given more responsibility for their academic success. If you study at Oxford or Cambridge, you will be taught through lectures and tutorials or supervisions.

Tutorials/supervisions are unique to these institutions and involve you and potentially one other student having an academic discussion with a tutor about an essay or problem sheet that you will have completed beforehand.  

Student Life

For most UK students, they will spend their first year at university living on campus in university accommodation or ‘halls’. You normally have your own room with a shared kitchen and bathroom with other students in first year. Canteens are not widespread at UK universities, so many students find themselves cooking meals for themselves.

After first year, many students move into privately rented accommodation off-campus with a small group of friends.

In the US, student accommodation is similar in the first year of university. However, it is more common for students to share their room with 1-3 other students. There are not as many cooking facilities, but most universities have large canteens which serve all meals.

Universities often have accommodation to house students throughout the duration of their studies, but some students will join a fraternity or sorority and move out to live in the large house with the other members.  

Fees


Most of the universities in the UK, including the top ones such as Oxford and Cambridge, are public universities. This means that they cannot charge more than £9,250 a year for UK and EU students. The fee for international students is variable and can be double or triple the domestic fee.

US universities vary a lot how much they charge students. If you go to an in-state public college where you are a resident, the fees can be a lot lower. But the fees increase for the same college if you are from outside of the state, while still being cheaper than private universities. The average private institution charges around $29,000 a year, but some institutions charge above $50,000 a year. Ivy League institutions charge fees in the region of $65,000 a year.

Financial aid can cover some of the tuition fee cost, but this is not normally offered to international students.


Knowing the key differences outlined above should help you make a better-informed decision about whether you would be more suited to studying in the US or the UK. There are pros and cons to both so there isn’t a clear winner - it's up to you. 

Ultimately, if you know what you want to study, don’t want to study for more than 3 years and prefer to study more independently, then studying in the UK might be a good option for you. However, if you want to be able to try more things and get that breadth of knowledge before you choose your specialism and prefer the structure of the US academic system, then you might lean towards studying in the US.

If you’re still torn, or want to check whether you’ve made the right decision, then get a taste of university life on the summer school in Oxford. Our courses are designed to give you a flavour of what studying at a UK university is like.