The Differences Between American and British Universities


Apr 13, 2017


The recent election results, political uncertainty and possible changes to immigration policies in the US and UK have caused a lot of concern globally, especially for foreign students aspiring to study abroad in those countries. Universities in both countries, however, are still actively recruiting and continue to welcome international students. And students still need to make choices that are relevant to their academic goals and right for their personalities. Both the US and UK offer high standards of education, renowned institutions and diverse student bodies, which add up to experiences typically seen as only an asset to students preparing to join the global workforce. That said, the higher education systems in both countries are unique, and these main areas of difference between American and British universities may help students and their parents decide which — if either — is the right fit.

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The difference between American and British universities

How cost and financial aid differ at US universities vs UK universities

For many families, the cost of higher education overseas is a primary constraint. Tuition, living and other expenses during the course of an undergraduate degree roughly total Rs 25 lakh to 40 lakh per year in the UK (a conservative estimate), and Rs 30 lakh to 60 lakh per year in the US.

Unfortunately, there is very limited financial aid for international students in the UK. This is because most universities there, with a few exceptions like Regent’s School of Business, are public and all bursaries and loans are primarily meant to assist British national undergraduate students.

The US has both private and public universities, with the public universities following a financial aid model similar to the UK universities in that it favors domestic students. Quite a few private colleges in the US, however, have large funds that offer aid to international students or offer merit-based aid to students with competitive academic performance in high school. This financial assistance varies widely, ranging from partial to full coverage of tuition. Only five US universities (Harvard University, Princeton University, Yale University, Amherst College and Massachusetts Institute of Technology), are considered ‘need blind,’ meaning they will admit students based only on merit and help them overcome any financial obstacles to attendance.

How academic options differ at US universities vs UK universities

Another difference between American and British universities is the breadth of study in students’ coursework. UK schools favour depth over breadth; students don’t take courses unrelated to their majors, and their only compulsory courses fall within their field of study. Also, students must decide what they want to study from the very beginning and cannot change majors midway through college. (You can read more about academic life at Oxbridge universities, which, in this regard, is representative of most UK universities.)

Conversely, US universities offer more flexibility and breadth. Students typically don’t have to declare their major until the end of their second (sophomore) year, which allows for more exploration. And after that point, students may still change their major. In fact, it is common to do so; it is estimated that 80% of college students in the US change their major at least once.

Students also must take compulsory courses in core subjects like writing, mathematics, science, and political science outside of their major’s coursework.

This is what it means, when it comes to deciding between a US vs. UK education: If your child is definitively set on a specific field of study – say, microbiology – a UK university environment might be best; if she has a passion for many subjects, doesn’t have a clear professional goal yet, or is interested in a broad field, like communications, a US university might be a better fit of the two.

Finally, for students interested in professions like medicine, dentistry or law, UK is the only country, of the two, to offer undergraduate programs; in the US, these programs are only available to students at a postgraduate level.

How the degree durations differ at US universities vs UK universities

An undergraduate degree in the UK takes three years, unless the student works for a year in the middle of their degree and thus takes four years. (More on that below.) In the US, your child will normally receive an undergraduate degree in four years, unless they choose to fast-track their degree by taking courses during summer break.

How admission processes differ at US universities vs UK universities

Admission for undergraduate programs is another huge area of difference between American and British universities. In the UK, admission requirements focus on academic performance. Decisions are primarily made based on a student’s class 12 predicted grades meeting the programs’ minimum entry requirements (normally listed on the programs’ websites). Admission is finalized only when students actually achieve required grades. Also, some UK programs may require the completion of specific courses in high school, so admission planning is more of an academic long game for students interested in studying in the UK.

UK universities do not require standardised test scores. However, for competitive courses such as medicine and law, as well as applications to Oxbridge, students must take admissions tests.

US universities, however, may or may not look at SAT/ACT and/or SAT II subject scores, along with many other factors. (Competitive US universities do look at test scores.) In the US, the focus of admission is on a students’ potential fit within the community. University admission committees weigh academic transcripts, letters of recommendation, personal essays and extracurricular involvement alongside test scores. And there is no perfect formula that combines all these elements in a student’s high school experience.

How pedagogy styles differ at US universities vs UK universities

UK universities are largely lecture-based, with occasional assignments through the semester. In some cases, there may be no required assignments and a student’s entire grade may be based on a single, final exam.

In the US, most courses require weekly or biweekly assessments as well as assignments like small writing projects, major research papers, and oral presentations. Scores on these assignments and assessments, along with a final exam score, make up a student’s overall grade.

How work opportunities differ at US universities vs UK universities

In both countries, international students enrolled in courses are governed by rules and regulations about working on or off campus. Students may work up to 20 hours a week during semesters and full time during breaks.

In the UK, international students can take advantage of programs that offer a year of industry experience (making the total time till graduation four instead of three years); for these programs, work experience is included in the student visa.

The US allows international students to benefit from an Optional Practical Training (OPT) period. This allows undergraduate students with an F-1 student visa, who have completed their degree or have been pursuing it for more than nine months, to work for one year on a student visa toward practical training that complements their education. After this period is up, international students must return to their studies, leave the country, or apply for a work visa to continue.

After graduating, students have no assurance of finding a job in either the US or the UK. And while most universities in both countries have dedicated resources to helping them find one, if they want it, given current political climates, job opportunities for international students are uncertain.

Students and their families should take time and consider and discuss all of the above points of difference between American and British universities, in the context of advantages and disadvantages. It’s all about finding the right fit for the applicant.





Written By Namita Mehta

Namita Mehta is a partner and the Undergraduate Services Manager at The Red Pen. Namita led the University Guidance Counselling Department at B.D. Somani International School in Mumbai for more than three years. As an in-house counselor, she advised students on effective profile development, managed the international university application process, and developed relationships with university admissions offices. Namita also specializes in training applicants for the Oxford and Cambridge interview process. She currently resides in Mumbai, but past homes include Hong Kong, UK and Germany. She holds a Masters in Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry, University of Oxford.

  1. Ashmi

    Great article, which clearly highlights the differences between the US and UK. A useful resource for students who trying to decide where to study.

  2. Megha

    a very informative article. Addresses the significant differences between the two countries very clearly .

  3. Shikha Dhar

    Great article. Very self explanatory. Gives students and their families a clear view of how to plan and what to expect.

  4. Prerna

    A very useful comparison for anyone deciding between the U.K. And US universities

  5. Harshil Kothari

    Informative and nicely written about both universities

  6. Abhinav Garg

    Amazing article Namita, even more informative than your previous one. Can you please compare the job prospects across Canada, US and UK in one of your future articles

  7. Kavita waghani

    What about Canada? How does that compare to the US and U.K.?

  8. Part Teehard

    Very interesting article. But as a budding carouser, I wanted to know some of the skylarking options in universities in both of the countries. Does anyone know of the same?

    I’ve heard very much about the different fraternities (in the US) and societies (in the UK), and I wanted to know how they compare with each other.

    Also, I’ve heard that the legal limit for inebriants is 21 in the US, is there any way around that?

  9. Arhan

    Thanks for this article about the differences between US and U.K. Universities. I always wanted to go to a US university and a few weeks ago, my mum told me that now was the time that they would start taking in my marks and reports. As a result, it was now time to decide between which nation’s universities to apply to, as they were very different. Now, thanks to your article, I can see some of the larger differences. It has helped to steer me towards the system which would be more beneficial to me, so thank you again for helping me with this otherwise complex decision.

  10. Dipti Rapte

    Great article. The article clarifies the difference between British and American education very clearly, including all aspects.
    Thanks Namita mam. It will be helpful to lot of international students like me to decide where to study.

  11. mangal kothari

    Hi Namita, your comparative article on Universities will help many students to take an informed decision and not regret later .

  12. Sriram Emani

    This is so useful Namita! Clearly highlights key differences that are playing on the top of every applicant’s mind right now, sharing this broad and wide!

  13. Nainika

    Wow – this is insightful for anyone trying to choose a university to go to!

  14. Sejalmehta

    Namita fabulous insight and so simple to understand. Its a much needed article for parents keen on sending their child to study abroad.

  15. Tripti Singh

    Great to know about the differences and to compare the two educational systems. An easy read. Very insightful

  16. Yuti Dalal

    Very relevant information – it’s important for students and parents to be aware of and prepared for what they are getting into early on – a lot earlier than the eleventh grade when tests begin.

    • Yuti Dalal

      It would also be interesting to compare these to Asian schools, especially in light of the unfavorable conditions in the U.K. And US at present.

  17. ruchi kothari

    Amazing namita!! I’m sure this is going to help so many parents! Keep up the fabulous work!

  18. Anisha

    Very insightful article! Really brings out the difference between educational systems in U.K. And US!

  19. Peter Kaufman

    Thanks for writing! As someone who works with international students on the US side of things, I’m always eager to learn a bit more about the other education systems that students are choosing from. I especially appreciated the run down of post-graduate employment opportunities.

    Oddly enough I know a large number of American undergraduates who opted for UK masters programs. I think many appreciated the flexibility of US undergrad but were more interested in the straightforward approach of UK graduate work.

  20. Roland

    This is such an incredible article! I’ve always wondered the difference between US and UK schools, especially as my daughter Namita, is looking at both options.

    Thank you for your comprehensive article, which has a ton of information. Look forward to more!

  21. Nimisha Mirani

    Very well written Namita. It is content based and at the same time not overloaded. A clarification for every 16 year old who do not know what his doubts should be, or what questions he should ask.

    I also find Part Teehard’s comment on the fraternities and societies interesting and relevant.

  22. Nimisha Mirani

    Very well written Namita. It is content based and at the same time not overloaded. A clarification for every 16 year old who do not know what his doubts should be, or what questions he should ask.

    I also find Part Teehard’s comment on the fraternities and societies interesting and relevant.

  23. Priyanka

    So informative. A great resource to help students in their decision making process.


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