Tag Archives: Ivy League

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!

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!