British vs. American Universities

Last entry, I discussed lower school systems in the UK vs the US.  This time, we’re ditching the minors and heading to university!

Oxford academic dressFirst up, the British system. The picture is not something they wear every day, so don’t recoil in horror.  But, Oxford students have to wear this for ceremonies and exams.

I’ll pick up chronologically where I left off last time.

So, you’ve got your A-level scores, you’ve applied and had interviews at a few universities, and then you get accepted. Yay!  Here’s what I know about UK universities:  They are very different from US universities.

Take something like Oxford.  The whole thing is the University of Oxford, but it is made up of a bunch of small Colleges. You would apply to a specific college, most of the time, based on your interests, talents, where you want to live, etc.  You are admitted to a specific college.  I believe at Oxbridge your tutor will come from your college, but I could be wrong about that.  You go to classes with everyone in your subject, but you live and eat with your college mates.  Think of Oxford as Hogwarts and the Colleges as Houses…but without the competition.

Other universities are different.  King’s College London is part of the University of London, but the different colleges (UCL, ICL, Queen Mary, etc.) are even more separate. They operate completely independently of each other, and are geographically disparate. You have no interaction with students at other colleges (through classes anyway).

Big point for UK Universities–they are dirt cheap compared to ours.  Average tuition is something like £8000 (~$13,000)  And they are eternally upset about that.  I mean, yeah, it’s a lot of money.  Buut…compare it to the $40-50,000 you would be expected to pay at an American private university.  Add to that, in the UK (in my experience at least) you aren’t expected to pay anything until after you leave university.

UK students only go to university for 3 years (there are a few exceptions to this, like St. Andrew’s, but it’s mostly true).  They finish in 3 years by only studying the subject they came to study.  If you are a Lit student, as I was, you only take Literature classes.  No general ed. classes, and a lot less variety and fewer options for courses.  So, if you’re an English major, then there are no math courses, no science courses, no language courses.  If you’re a Chemistry major, you don’t take any English courses.  This boggles my mind.  I find it really strange that you’re expected to know at 18 the only thing you want to study for the next three years and then do in your career.  And that you might not need to know some other skills.  Scientists should still know how to communicate effectively.  English majors should still know how to do math.  I can’t say I use Calculus every day in my publishing job, but I do understand more about the world and how it works for having learned some Calculus.  I don’t like this system, I won’t lie.

The other big difference is how much time you spend in class.  Hardly any.  I had 4 classes.  Each one had 1 lecture per week and 1 seminar per week, which meant a total of about 8 hours of class per week. 100% of your grade for the course is based on a test you take at the end of the year (or a paper you write), so there is no incentive to go to class or to keep up with reading or to participate in seminar discussions if you don’t want to actually learn. I could have read one Shakespeare play in January, written a great paper about it over the next three months, turned it in and gotten an amazing grade…and never gone to class.  Also, there’s no reason to be polite to your teachers, because the exams/papers are graded anonymously.  From my experience, the seminars were interesting because some discussion took place, but the lectures were mostly random professors paraphrasing something they’d recently published.  But that is my very limited experience.

Generally, you live in a dorm (at least at first), and these are roughly similar to American dorms.  A few key differences:

  • Usually you have a single room. Some dorms have suites, where you share a kitchen and maybe a bathroom with a few others, but your bedrooms are still for one person only.
  • Dorms are mostly self-catered, meaning there are a few kitchens with communal fridges, cabinets, oven, microwave.  When I went to KCL, there was I think 1 fully catered dormitory that provided meals, so it is an option, but not a great one. I recall that they could not cater to specialty diets.
  • Some halls have en suite bathrooms, most have a women’s and a men’s on each floor.
  • They have housekeeping!  I had a maid come clean my room every Tuesday, and I could drop off my sheets to get a fresh set whenever I wanted (which I totally did, like all the time. I definitely didn’t go the entire semester without changing my sheets).
  • During vacation times, universities often rent out student rooms as tourist accommodation.  This is really strange to me.
  • Usually they are not really called dorms, but are called Halls of Residence (or just halls).

Activities in UK universities are varied.  There are university sports, but it’s not anywhere near as pseudo-professional as in the US.  There is no big NCAA equivalent tournament, and it’s more like what we would think of as intramural sports. So don’t expect to get accepted to a UK university based mostly on your tennis record. There are also active student unions and lots of activities.  I can’t speak to specifics because since I was living in London for the first time, I spent my days doing touristy Londony things, not specifically student-oriented activities.  I would imagine the activities are more important for universities outside a major metro area, just like in the US.

So, on to the grades.  I will admit this thoroughly baffles me.  When I received my essays back, they had already been ‘translated’ into the American system, so I didn’t have to think about it too much.  But here’s my rough comprehension:

  • Anything above a 64/100 is considered an A- or above.  Anything 50-63 is in the B range, anything 38-49 is in the C range.  I do not understand how this works.  Do they just grade  things much more harshly here?  Because in the US, a 59 would be a failing grade.  I think this has something to do with grading on a curve, or scaling all the tests to match this weird (to me) set of numbers. I have heard UK students say that it’s virtually impossible to get over 80% on anything.  Anything over 75% on an essay, for example, means you could probably publish it in a scholarly journal, etc. It’s that good. Despite not being able to explain how it works, I can at least tell you that if someone ever mentions they got a 65 on their exam…do not console them. They did fine.
  • When you’ve finished your degree, your work is categorized in a specific way.  If you got an A average, you have a First degree.  If you got an A-/B+ average (roughly speaking), you have an upper second (2:1) degree.  If you got a B average, you have a lower second (2:2) degree. Anything below that is a third class or just a pass, and probably shouldn’t be bragged about.

As far as I know, no one’s going to ask you about your grades on individual exams after you’ve finished university.  But getting a 1st or an upper second is really important if you plan on pursuing a master’s or PhD.  It also looks good on your CV when you apply for jobs and internships.  Firsts are pretty rare, by all accounts, so anyone who has one is pretty smart.

A word or two about postgraduate.  All (or virtually all) UK Master’s degrees are 1 year.  You are generally required to have a master’s degree before applying for a doctoral program. PhD programs and similar are typically 3 years.  Unlike the US, there isn’t a lot of funding for doctoral students.  On the other hand, no one expects you to teach 30 hours a week in classes while writing your dissertation, so if you can afford to go there it is easier on you.  They have different terminology for some degrees, partially because study is divided into ‘taught programmes’ and ‘research programmes’.  The first is very similar to any master’s program in the US. You go to classes, you are ‘taught’, you take a test or write a paper, you get your award.  These award the same degrees: an MA or MSc.  The latter type is more of a ‘leave me alone I’m working on this project for a year’ program(me).  You go and take advantage of the lab/library, you work with an adviser, but there are no/few classes. These award different degrees: MPhil, MRes and some can be 2 years.  PhDs can be called PhDs or DPhils.  There are others like LLM (law),  MPhil, MEd, DBA, DMus, DEng.

Okay, enough of that confusion.  What about US Universities?

frats and sororitiesFirst distinction: American universities are divided into State Schools (which receive public funding) and Private schools (which don’t).  Most of your better schools are private, such as the Ivy League, Stanford, NYU, the Seven Sisters colleges.  There are also really good public schools, like U of Virginia, Berkeley, UCLA.  State schools offer big tuition reductions to students from that state.  So if you are from Virginia it’s much cheaper to go to U of Virginia than the nearby University of Maryland.  I spent 1 marginally terrible year at Iowa State University, and at the time I think it cost a paltry $3000 per year.  Dirt cheap.  On the other hand, there was almost no financial aid offered.  When I went to a private college, I was given tons of financial aid…but I still ended up with student loans at the end.  Biggest difference between UK and US grads–US grads are 1 year older and $40,000 more in debt.

Campus life at US universities (or those of a certain kind) revolve around sports and greek life.  This isn’t all universities, obviously.  NYU tends to care far less about sports than the University of Nebraska.  As a rule, the more there is to do in the city, the less you care about the stuff the university organizes.  But, compared to the UK, all US college sports are more organized, higher stakes, more widely followed and watched.  The biggest example is the NCAA March Madness, where all the (good) college teams in the country compete in a basketball tournament.  Tons of money goes into that, and it’s broadcast on prime-time TV and is a really big deal for people who follow sports (aka not me).

Greek life means fraternities and sororities.  These are places where the cheeriest, happiest, drunkest, worst, nicest, meanest, douchiest people go to be with others of their kind.  They range from really nice people who just want to have an active social life, to the most dreadful rich, privileged, fake, superficial people you can imagine.  I passed on being involved, because I have no desire for an active social life, and there were all kinds of meetings where people clapped for each other, and everyone had to follow rules about what they could and couldn’t do.  And that was at a nice sorority, not one of the ones that hazes you by making you take cocaine or anything involving penetration of anything into anything else or where you have to deal with this girl.  I’m sure there are nice greek chapters with nice people.  Somewhere.

The curriculum for US universities is very different from UK universities.  As I mentioned before, you don’t go in with a major.  If you do choose a major straight away, you can change it anytime.  The first 1-2 years of your university experience will be occupied with ‘General Ed requirements’ that everyone has to complete.  As an example, here is what Georgetown requires:

  • Two humanities and writing courses
  • Two history courses
  • Two math/science courses
  • Two social science courses
  • Foreign language through the intermediate level
  • Two theology courses
  • Two philosophy courses

The point of these is to ensure that everyone graduating from Georgetown has a solid basis in these fields, can talk intelligently about them, can do basic maths and can communicate reasonably well in English and in another language.  If you’re particularly skilled in any of these areas, or if you have taken AP tests and done very well, you can test out of taking the classes.  Once you’ve finished getting your general ed requirements out of the way, and you’ve picked a major, you take (mostly) classes in your major from then on. Some people also get a minor, which means that most of your optional classes were taken in a specific area.  Minors don’t really mean much for a job, but I guess they could help with grad school.

Classes meet far more often in the US than in the UK.  You typically have 3-4 hours of class per week for any given course you take.  I used to have my Italian classes for an hour every day.  Summer classes were twice as bad–I think I took 2 courses, but had class 4-5 hours per day, 4 days per week.  I also remember science classes are particularly awful because you get a 2 hour lecture 2-3 times per week AND a lab once a week that can be 4 or 5 hours long, but only counts as one ‘credit hour’.  That nonsense is part of why I happily switched to being an English major.  Also, my refusal to dissect anything may have played a part. Anyway, if you are from the UK and think you might want to go to uni. here, be aware that you will be spending a lot more time in class here, and you will have a lot more assignments.

Grades are cumulative in most courses.  That means each quiz, test, essay, and discussion from the whole semester will count toward your end grade.  And none of it is anonymous, so be nice to your professors if at all possible.  Also, generally, attendance is important.  Professors take attendance, and some classes lower your grade if you’ve missed a certain amount of days.

Grades are far easier to understand than the UK system.

  • 90% and above – A range
  • 80% and above – B range
  • 70% and above – C range
  • 60% and above – D range
  • the rest is all bad news.  F range.

GPA is calculated exactly as it is in high school.  For more info, see this Wiki page.

When you’re done with all your requirements, and you have all the credits you need to graduate, you…graduate. If you’ve done really well, you graduate with honors.  This is similar to the degree classification scale in the UK. If you got above a certain GPA (every school has a different measurement, but at my uni., it was above 3.80/4.00, then you get Summa Cum Laude.  This is roughly equivalent to a First.  The next highest (for me this was a 3.6/4.0) is Magna Cum Laude, roughly equivalent to a 2:1.  The last honors distinction is just Cum Laude, usually awarded for 3.4 or above.  Equivalent to 2:2, I think.  Anything under that is just a regular degree, no distinction.  Some schools don’t do the honors degrees at all, some (Yale, Harvard) do it by percentage, so the top 5% in the university class would get SCL.

So, graduation. There is a big ceremony in the football stadium or wherever, and everyone wears caps and gowns again.  If you’re from a fancy school they get Desmond Tutu or J.K. Rowling to come talk to you about starting your life. At least one of your relatives falls asleep during this speech.  Then you throw your cap up in the air and you’re done! On to terrifying debt and high unemployment, yay!

If the thought of that terrifies you, then graduate school is for you!  First stop should be standardized tests.  Take the LSAT, MCAT, GRE, or GMAT, depending on what you want to punish yourself with.  I took the GRE last year.  Remember to study vocabulary about 23 hours per day if you want to do well.

Master’s programs are generally 2 years here; no idea why.  They place less emphasis on research and you spend more time in class.  You have regular assignments and a dissertation/thesis at the end.  There is (usually) no funding for Master’s programs, so they tend to be quite costly.

PhD programs are incredibly competitive, partially because a lot of them are funded.  That’s right, they will pay your tuition and give you a living stipend (a paltry one, but still).  The funded programs are also the good programs, so everyone wants in.  Acceptance rates tend to hover around 5%.  In exchange for all this free school and living expenses, you pay in sweat and stress.  In addition to classes (again, there is more class time than a PhD program in the UK would provide), you are expected to be a teaching assistant or to teach your own class.  This depends on subject.  I think in the sciences you tend to lead seminars or labs, but I had my first year Italian course taught by a grad student.  A master’s student even, and she was the full professor of the course.  So it just depends. It’s a lot of work and you’re not paid for it; it’s expected because of your free education.  Also, somewhere in there, you have to write your dissertation.  Most people have a really hard time finishing in the 4 years that are paid for, and then they have to look for private funding opportunities to get time to work on the dissertation later.  Humanities PhD programs regularly have people who finish int heir 7, 8, or 9th years of study.  That’s almost a decade. No thanks.

When you’re done with grad school, you can look forward to even more debt, being a lot older, and probably fierce competition for a constantly shrinking number of academic jobs.  If you manage to get one, you will have to wait for someone to die before you get promoted.

These little snarky comments of mine aside, I do actually want to get a master’s degree, because what can I say, I love the learning.  And I’m a glutton for punishment and feel uncomfortable having money in my pocket or a job to go to.  Part of this post came about because I am considering both UK and US universities, and it helps me to compare and contrast in what way I want to go broke.  Both systems have serious flaws, but they also have upsides that make me look back on time at university as really rewarding and satisfying intellectually.  I’m sure I’ve got some of the details wrong here, or left something out, so if you have any questions, suggestions, or corrections, I’d love to hear them!

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8 responses to “British vs. American Universities

  1. Hi I go to university in UK and you mentioned how there is little contact time in terms of lectures and seminars but it depends entirely on what course you are doing and also the university you attend. Some courses are more packed than others i.e. medicine, natural sciences, actuarial sciences..etc

  2. Pingback: Useful Online Resources When Applying for University | The Uni Life of Sarah Mae

  3. I’ll mimic what Dani said. My degree is electrical and electronic engineering and in the UK I spent pretty much every day in the first 2 years from 9am to 5pm either in a lecture theatre or a lab (apart from Wednesdays when you take the afternoon off), with a 1-hour lunch break in the middle. Studying abroad in the US this year, I only go to lectures for like 12 hours a week tops, and that’s because of the (what I consider to be rather illogical) quarter system. Also, ICL is no longer in the University of London.

    Also, when it comes to PhDs in the UK it depends on what you actually study. I have been told that the law states a minimum of 2 years for the course, which NOBODY ever does, a few people finish it in 3 and most go for 4.

  4. Goodness! You are a terribly unaware person when it comes to British universities! Its rather shameful that despite having studied there you know so little! Perhaps your prior American education failed in enabling you to develop basic skills needed to comprehend simple facts.

  5. Just a few observations. Yes, UK students specialise in their subjects more but you can do a dual honours degree if you wish, such as English Literature and History or make use of any free credits remaining after you have picked the courses you need to study something totally different. Much better in my view than having to pay much more to study subjects you do not like that are not even relevant to what you want to do.

    The grades are also wrong:
    70 and above: a First (Class)
    60 and above: a 2.1 (Upper Second Class)
    50 and above: a 2.2 (Lower Second Class)
    40 and above: a Third

    Grades are out of 100 but the highest you typically see is 75. 2.1’s are most common. To be accepted into many roles and postgraduate courses, you need a 2.1 as your final degree classification. First year does not count to the classification (although you need to pass to enter second year). Second year does count and final year counts double so the stakes are high. We have coursework and stuff too and you certainly can’t skip class and expect to pass the exams (many classes take attendance into account in the grade). After first year, you also only get one resit at an exam if you fail and however well it goes, a resit result is capped at a 40 (Third) so it’s in your interests to pass first time.

    As for spending little time in class, that varies HUGELY depending on your subject. English Lit may do four hours a week. But medicine is 9-5 Mon to Fri. As a languages student, I had about 9-10 hours a week and that didn’t include reading and prep work outside class. With fewer pop quizzes, a lot more is expected of UK students. Tutors won’t check if you’ve done the reading, but they’ll know when the exam comes round.

    About halls and social life, you got some points right but missed a main one. Alcohol. Why anyone would wanna go to university in the US, where you can’t legally drink until you’re 21 is beyond me and I’m not a big drinker. Alcohol is a huge part of uni life. Even getting drunk is good for teaching you your limits and how to look out for your friends. 18 is a far more sensible age in my opinion. Having single rooms and ensuites is another thing. It’s one thing to share a kitchen and bathroom in a flat, but how do you share a bedroom, undress when you feel like it, sleep when you feel like, maybe bring a guest back, all while trying not to offend a roommate. And many US colleges have rules prohibiting opposite sex guests. Where’s the fun in that?

    Graduation is another big difference. For UK students, university is the only time they don that cap and gown. You don’t graduate from high school with the same ceremony that you graduate from university. I’m glad. Doing it in high school would make it less special. You can even get gowns for kindergarten which is ridiculous. Graduation is a huge deal in the UK with specific colours and styles of robe you have to wear depending on your subject and level of study.

  6. Housekeeping varies a lot between universities as well and even between different halls at the same university. At my university, the cleaners didn’t clean our individual rooms. We had to do that, with inspections twice a year. They only cleaned shared kitchens and bathrooms, usually once a week, but only the items which were shared, like the oven and microwave. They didn’t wash personal items and if the kitchen was too dirty or they couldn’t see the worktops under our junk to clean them, they could refuse to clean. They definitely didn’t do laundry or change sheets. We did all our washing at machines you had to pay cash for.

    I was catered and you’re right, it’s not great but it varies from uni to uni. Some have fixed menus and meal times. At my uni, we got a card with money loaded on it and could use it at lots of different places to eat around campus, so what and when we ate was up to us. If we didn’t spend it, the money left rolled over. Other unis are much stricter but not as in the US, where lots of colleges force first year students to live in halls and be on a meal plan.

    Sports and activities are different too. The way the US take college sport so seriously is bizarre to me, treating 18 year olds just out of school like pro athletes. That’s not to say there aren’t big competitions at UK unis as well. I go to the University of Sheffield and every year there is Sheffield Varsity between us and Sheffield Hallam University. It’s a huge contest with many different sports and the rivalry is intense. Oxford and Cambridge unis have their famous boat race. There’s a lot of emphasis on other activities though and a society for just about everything or if there isn’t, you can start one.

  7. As for renting the rooms out during vacations, it varies a lot between unis but in London it’s very common. Accommodation is so scarce and expensive that the unis can make a lot of money from tourists. Some unis make students take their stuff out of their rooms during the holidays, others don’t. At mine, you could stay in your room for Christmas and Easter and only had to move out in summer but some unis do want their rooms empty in the holidays. It’s not just tourists they might higher them to, but foreign students attending summer schools, children on summer camps.

  8. The reason we don’t take general ed. classes is because for our A-Levels we specialise in 4 subjects and these can be anything so you don’t need to take any maths, science or english etc… and at University we specialise further by taking the degree. Although I agree general ed. would be helpful by not taking it means we can focus on our most important subject. Also because we have specialised for those 2 years doing our A-Levels we have a good idea of what we want to study at University as we picked our 4 A-Levels based on our interests and we have specialised in those, so we have a good idea about what path we wish to pursue.

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