Finding your university: UK versus US

Submitted by grace.mccabe on Wed, 06/29/2022 - 14:57

The UK and the US are home to some of the world’s most prestigious universities. Both nations attract thousands of international students a year and for good reason. However, there are some key differences between them, such as application processes, costs and how degrees are structured.

We’ve compiled a comparison of going to university in the UK versus the US so you can choose the country that suits you the best.

The application process

UK

  • Applications are made through Ucas.
  • Each student can apply to up to five universities.
  • Applicants for medical, dentistry or veterinary courses must choose a non-specialist course as their fifth option.
  • Students can upload their documentation, grades and application details in one place.
  • Students write one personal statement that is then sent to all universities on their application.


US

  • Students apply directly to each university.
  • Students can apply to as many universities as they want (although teachers recommend between six and eight universities).
  • Required documentation varies depending on the university.
  • Some universities are included on the Common App, which allows students to apply to several universities from one place.
  • The Common App requires individual personal statements for each university. 

Course structures

UK

  • Students choose their degree speciality before they begin their first year.
  • Students can choose one subject or a joint honours degree that is evenly weighted.
  • Degrees take less time to complete. Bachelor’s degrees usually take between three and four years to complete. Master’s degrees usually take one year and PhD programmes can take three or more years.

US

  • Students can study any subject they are interested in for the first year of their degree and must complete 120 credits each year.
  • In their second or third year, students are asked to declare a major and start to specialise towards one subject area.
  • Students receive a broader education but it takes longer to complete their degree as a result. Bachelor’s degrees take four years to complete. Master’s programmes take two years and PhDs take about five to seven years (or longer).
  • Those who wish to specialise in medicine, dentistry, veterinary or engineering fields must first complete their bachelor’s degree before undertaking a postgraduate degree in their chosen profession.


Another common aspect of the university structure in the US is the ability to transfer between universities in other parts of the country or change and drop subjects.

In the UK, it is unusual to transfer between universities. If students would like to change university or course they often have to drop out and start again at a different university. It’s always best to speak to a student adviser to see how your university can help you.

Accommodation and student life

    UK

    • The legal drinking age is 18 so students often hold events on and off campus, and take part in club and pub culture.
    • Most universities provide private rooms in on-campus accommodation for first-year students, with shared kitchen and living spaces.
    • Student can join societies and sport teams to socialise with others who share similar interests.
    • Students can attend matches and support their university team in a range of sports, but it is not as prominent a part of the university calendar.


    US

    • The legal drinking age in the US is 21 so universities often arrange “dry” events for students to enjoy without alcohol.
    • Most universities offer on-campus dormitory accommodation to first-year students, which they share with a room-mate and have shared living and kitchen spaces with other students.
    • Students can join fraternities and sororities, which sometimes have a large house for members to reside in.
    • Sport is a big part of US student life; the whole campus gets involved during college football matches and fiercely supports its teams at all sporting events. 

    How to find legitimate accommodation at university
    How does university system work in the US?
    How does university system work in the UK?


    Exams and teaching 

    Both UK and US universities expect students to complete independent reading, essays, projects and presentations. However, teaching varies across the two countries. 

    UK

    • Students complete some assignments throughout the year but most of their final grade each year is weighted during “exam season”.
    • Students are awarded a percentage grade for every assignment they complete.
    • Degrees are awarded as first-class honours, upper and lower second-class honours and third-class honours.
    • Teaching at UK universities is more lecture-based with a focus on seminars and workshops. 

    US

    • Students are assigned work more often throughout the year in the form of quizzes, essays, projects etc. They therefore have more pressure throughout the year and less in “exam season”.
    • Assignments are graded as A to F and at the end of the degree, a grade point average (GPA) is calculated.
       

    UK v US degree conversion chart

    US GPA 

    UK Percentages 

    UK degree classification 

    70 per cent

    First-class honours 

    3.7 

    65-69 per cent

    Upper second-class honours 

    3.3 

    60-64 per cent

    Upper second-class honours 

    55-59 per cent 

    Lower second-class honours 

    2.7 

    50-54 per cent

    Lower second-class honours 

    2.3 

    45-49 per cent

    Third class honours 

    40-44 per cent

    Third class honours 

    35-39 per cent

    Ordinary degree (no honours) 

    < 35 per cent

    Ordinary degree (no honours) 

    Cost and financial aid 

    UK

    • Average tuition is approximately £9,000 per year for home students and up to £30,000 per year for international students. 
    • Students who have UK citizenship are able to apply for a loan from Student Finance to cover their degree and living costs. However, most international students will be unable to apply for this kind of funding. 
    • Instead international students can work part-time to fund their studies (check your visa conditions to see if you are eligible to work). 
    • Students can also apply for scholarships for help with their finances. 
       

    US

    • Tuition at top US universities can start at $33,730 (£27,688) per year and varies depending on factors such as length of the programme, whether it is a public or a private university and which state it is in.
    • There is no government funding for tuition fees or living costs. Students have to take out private or bank loans or use their savings.
    • Students often have part-time jobs to help fund their education.
    • Students have access to many loans and scholarships to help cover university costs. 
    • Loans must be paid back upon graduation, leading to high student debt.

    Term dates

    Most universities in the UK begin in September and have breaks at Christmas and Easter.  

    In the US, most universities begin their term in mid to late August and have a long break at Christmas, starting in mid-November or mid-December to include Thanksgiving. Students then return to studies in mid-January.

    Section
    Standfirst

    The time has come to choose your university, but perhaps you’re not sure whether to study in the UK or the US. With some of the best universities in the world, this guide will help you choose the best fit for you