Tag Archives: A-levels

British vs American Education Systems

I was engaging in some friendly Internet banter on Gawker the other day and ended up (after being asked to do so) explaining the American education system to some Brits.  There is a lot of confusion on both sides, partially because the systems are really different.  I can’t say I think one is superior to the other, but they both have strengths and weaknesses.  Thought it might be helpful to provide a real breakdown of how they differ.  I can’t guarantee I’ll get everything right, but I think this should be mostly accurate. I’m going to deal with lower education first, and discuss universities later.  Otherwise this will be a very long post.

First, the British System

the_inbetweenersMost importantly, you’ll notice the uniforms.  Uniforms are, I think, a government mandate.  Blergh.  So glad I didn’t have to deal with that.  On the other hand, I think I wore a black Old Navy fleece pullover for about 6 months straight in high school, so maybe it wouldn’t have been so different.  Still, I got to choose the black fleece pullover.  An illusion of freedom is helpful for those under 18, who have no actual freedom under the law. I think there are a few schools in the UK without uniforms, but probably over 90% require uniforms.

The British system starts out similar to the US System.  You have the option to attend something called Nursery School, which is similar to our Preschool, until you’re 4.  After that, you go to Primary School from ~4/5 years old through ~11 years old.    The first year is called ‘reception’, similar to our kindergarten. After that, you start with year 1, then year 2, etc., etc., very similar to our 1st grade, 2nd grade.  Things don’t really become vastly different until you’re nearing adulthood.

When Brit kids are in year 6, they sit an exam called the Sats (in no way related to the US SATs), which helps determine what classes they can/should take going forward.  This is, I imagine, similar to our basic standardized tests in elementary/middle school, when it comes to format and material.  The big difference is that it makes a difference in what classes you can take going forward.  More of a placement test.

After year 6, if you don’t get your Hogwarts letter, you go to Secondary School.  Instead of having a Middle and High school as we do, you go to Secondary school from about 11/12 y.o. to 16 y.o., from year 7-year 11.  Somewhere in there you take another Sats test to help with future class placement.  But the first big deal stressful test you need to take in your young life is the O.W.L.s….no, that’s not right.  The GCSEs (stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education). I think you study the subjects for year 10 and 11 and then take the tests in year 11, but I could be wrong on that.  According to Wikipedia, the grading goes like this:

The pass grades, from highest to lowest, are: A* (pronounced ‘A-star’), A, B, C, D, E, F and G. Grade U (ungraded/unclassified) is issued when students have not achieved the minimum standard to achieve a pass grade; the subject is then not included on their final certificate.

The GSCEs help you determine where you go next.  Government mandated education in the UK stops at 16, not 18 as it does here.  So if you want to be done with school and go work at your uncle’s garage, go for it.  If you want to go to University, you need to continue with school.  You have two options; you can go to ‘College’, or you can stay on at your Secondary School in something called ‘Sixth Form’. Both options prepare you to take your NEWTs A-levels.  From what I understand, being accepted to Sixth Form is more competitive and difficult than going to a College, and there don’t tend to be a lot of other students with you.  This video talks about the differences, and the guy mentions that out of his entire Secondary School, there were only 30 classmates in his Sixth Form.

Note to Americans–if you’re in the UK and you say College, people do not think you mean University.  They only call it University.

You take your A-levels at 17 or 18 years old, and primarily they determine what Universities you can attend.  People generally take 3 or 4 A-levels (usually you study 2 per year, I think). I believe the closest equivalent we have in the US is AP tests.  They seem to offer A-levels in everything, though I don’t think each of these subjects is offered universally.  I feel sorry for anyone who, at 15, decides Accounting is the subject for them, but I am jealous that so many different languages are offered. Passing grades are A*, A, B, C, D and E.  Everyone stresses about their results, and I think these tests are the main qualification that universities look at before they consider you for admission. For Oxbridge, you need all As, at least.  That’s the minimum requirement.  For reference, if an American wants to apply to Oxbridge, they expect 3 AP tests with grades of 5, so they are fairly equivalent in the eyes of their Admissions Offices.  King’s College London, which is where I went (briefly), requires you to ‘pass 3 A-levels’, but if you look at their more prestigious programs (Law, Medicine), they require AAA or A*AA to be admitted.  An A* is like an A+; I think you have to get over 90% on the exam, but I’m a little unclear on that because a 90% on an American exam is usually an A- and an A+ is over ~98%.  A more average university, like the University of Surrey, requires 3 passes at A-level, but also looks at your GSCEs.  You need a C or better at Math and English, regardless of your A level scores.

A note about graduation–they don’t have one in the UK.  Because some students leave at 16, some at 17, the rest at 18, there is no one moment of ‘thank god that’s done’ as there is in the US.  They have something called a Leaving Day, I believe, but it’s not on the scale of a high school graduation.

Okay…so that’s most of what I know about the UK Education System.  If any of my UK readers would like to correct me, I’d love to know what I got wrong or left out.  Also, if any of you readers from the UK (or elsewhere) are confused about the US system, this bit’s for you!

graduationIt’s far simpler to explain. First and most important: very few schools have uniforms.

First, you can go to preschool or daycare when you’re very young.  Then, when you turn 4 or 5, you will go to Elementary school. This starts with kindergarten, and goes through 5th grade (in most places).  So you start at 5 years old and leave at 11, very similar to the UK.

Here’s where it starts to be different.  After Elementary school you go to Middle School.  This is from grades 6-8, so ages 12-14(ish).

After 8th grade, you move on to High School.  TV shows should give you a good indication of what it’s like. You go to High School from 9th-12th grade.  There are other words for your status during each year: In 9th grade you are a freshman, 10th grade you are a sophomore, 11th grade you are a junior, and 12th grade you are a senior.  No one really says ‘I’m in 9th grade’, they would say ‘I’m a freshman’. You study a variety of subjects, but everyone has to study things like Math, Science, History, English.  Usually people study a language, and most places require you to take gym.  The popular kids torture the less popular kids, but really everyone is incredibly miserable.

Pressure to prepare for college starts, in my experience, as a Sophomore.  You take some standardized tests to give you a hint of what your future hell will be like when you are taking them for real.  You can start taking AP classes, if they are offered at your school.  AP classes are similar to GSCE classes, I believe. You study a subject for (usually) a year, and then take a test at the end.  Grades for the tests are 1-5, with 5 as the highest.  3-5 are the passing grades.  You can take as many as you want, or take none.  They’re not required, but if you want to go to Harvard, they’re going to expect you to take whichever advanced classes your school offers.

In your Junior year, you take the SATs and/or ACTs for real.  These tests are measured differently, but they test very similar things.  A very good score on the SATs would be anything above 2000/2400.  A good score on the ACTs would be anything over 31 out of 36.  Again, if you want to go to an Ivy League school, you need to have nearly perfect test scores.

The thing to understand about American universities is that they look at you as a whole person.  There are your test scores (AP, SAT, ACT), but also your GPA (more on that in a minute), your extra-curricular activities like clubs or sports, and your personal statement.  Some do interviews, but it’s rarely a requirement.  Most schools have a huge amount of students apply, so they use things like GPA and test scores as a first step to weed out the least suitable candidate.  Then they start to look at the other materials. Just keep that in mind when I continue to describe all the shit you have to do to have a chance at a good university in the US.

So, GPA.  This is a confusing subject for everyone outside the UK, from my experience.  Your courses are graded with letter grades, but each letter grade has a corresponding numerical value out of 4.0 (usually).

  • A = 4.00
  • A- = 3.67
  • B+ = 3.33
  • B = 3.00
  • B- = 2.67

etc., etc for grades A, B, C, D (the passing grades).  We only have one failing grade, F.  For more info, this is a Wiki page that goes into specifics. I’m not going to attempt to explain grading on a curve to you in this blog.

So, your GPA is just your average.  If you have all Bs, you have a GPA of 3.00.  If you have 2 As, an A-, and a B+, your GPA would be 3.75   [(4.0+4.0+3.67+3.33)/4 classes=3.75].

I would say GPA is the number one thing universities look for.  An Ivy League school would probably not consider anyone with below a 3.5, unless they were a celebrity, Olympian, legacy, sports star, or had something else to offer the university. The majority of people accepted to an Ivy probably a 3.8 or above.  For your middling state schools, anything above a 3.0 is fine.

The good thing about a GPA is that it’s an average, and it covers all 4 years of high school.  For UK students who get nervous taking their A level tests, this must sound wonderful.  After all, if you bomb one test in the US, it’s not going to hurt you in the long run.  On the other hand, the GPA is a bit unforgiving.  If you have a bad year in your freshman or sophomore year, it’s really difficult to ever get your GPA back up to a respectable level.  To judge people for university based in part by their performance at 14 years old seems harsh.  So, there are pros and cons.

Generally, people take the SAT and/or ACT once more in their Senior year in an attempt to get a better score.  People apply to college (university) in the fall of their Senior years and usually hear back in the spring. You get in and you celebrate, or you don’t and you cry.

Two big events end the high school experience for most students.  Prom and Graduation.  These have been covered in countless shows and movies, so I doubt I need to explain them.  A prom is just a formal dance, the biggest one of your young life.  Graduation is the formal celebration of your being finished with school.  Since the leaving age in the US is 18, this is a big deal.  Celebrating together the end of this collective experience.  You have a ceremony and a boring speech, you wear robes, you get a fake diploma, your family takes lots of pictures.  Usually you have a party afterward. If you’re wealthy or lucky, your family buys you a car and/or a laptop.  If you are me, your family buys you a dictionary.  You are an adult and can now do what you want (in theory).

Next time, university!

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