The Differences Between U.S. and U.K. Universities

As mentioned in my previous post, I began university in the United States and left after my first year before starting at Surrey. Before I get into to why I chose a U.K. university over an American university, I should say that everyone’s learning style is different, and it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with your preferred environment before choosing where to go for school. With that in mind…here are the biggest differences I’ve noticed between U.S. and U.K. universities, and why I am so glad I decided to move here:

Majors/Courses. This is probably the biggest difference between U.S. and U.K. universities, and the one you’ll hear people talk about a lot. In the U.K., you apply to the program, not the university. This means that all your classes, apart from a few electives in the second and third year (depending on your program), will be a part of your course. If you’re one of those people who’s known what they wanted to do since kindergarten, this is fantastic for you. But if you’re like me, and have no idea what you want to do, this might seem a little daunting. What I discovered at my U.S. college, however, was that all the electives felt a lot like wasted time, especially since most colleges make you take a core curriculum of math, science, arts, humanities, languages, etc. So if you’re not sure what you want to do but know you hate math, or hate writing, too bad, because you’re going to spend the first two years of your college experience doing just that. When I started to consider what I wanted to study in the U.K., I realized that while I didn’t know exactly what specific career I wanted, I did know that there are certain subjects I was really passionate about that I knew I’d want to incorporate into whatever career I have. Most undergraduate degrees (apart from highly specialized ones, like Veterinary Medicine) are extremely adaptable career-wise, so you don’t have to worry about being locked into a career the second you choose a course.

Class sizes. When I was looking for colleges during my junior and senior years of high school, I wanted to find the best of both worlds–somewhere with a student body large enough to feel new and unfamiliar, but with class sizes small enough that students didn’t feel insignificant. What I learned, however, was that I was always either in a tiny seminar class where everyone had to participate all the time, or a massive lecture where the professor gave a powerpoint, took no questions, and never had any interaction with the students at all, and let the TA’s do all the grading and answer questions about the class. In the U.K., you may have a few big lectures here and there, depending on your course, but TA’s rarely if ever teach classes or grade work. Most of your classes will be large enough for you to take notes in peace without fearing that the lecturer will suddenly expect you to come up with something really thoughtful and witty to say without warning, but small enough for you to have class discussions with the lecturer and be on first name terms with them.

Professor accessibility. Speaking of first names, I always thought of the U.K. as being a lot more formal than the U.S., but it turns out it’s the opposite. Professors in the U.S. are usually called “Dr.” something but here, everyone goes by their first name. So your super distinguished, would-be intimidating physics lecturer? You can just call her Sylvia, (unless her name isn’t Sylvia, in which case you probably shouldn’t.) But apart from the casual first name thing, professors here expect to know and talk to their students. I’ve never been to any university, in the U.S. or elsewhere, where the lecturers are more enthusiastic about their subjects and about teaching. Most of them have tutorials (one on one sessions) with each student at least once a semester, and are incredibly approachable and eager to help.

Student life. A lot of colleges in the U.S. have Greek life, or the equivalent. Even tiny Liberal Arts colleges who say they don’t have Greek life have their own versions of fraternities and sororities, whether it’s by housing or year or whatever. Here, unless you go to Oxford or Cambridge, there aren’t exclusive societies. Instead, there are hundreds of open societies for pretty much everything you might be passionate about, from Harry Potter to kite surfing. During Freshers’ Week, you’ll have the opportunity to go to Freshers’ Fair and meet all the societies and sign up to mailing lists and learn more about them. Everyone I know is part of a society, so it’s really a huge part of university life here. You’ll also find that people tend to create a kind of family with their course mates. You’ll be with them for all three years of your study, and they’ll become some of the best friends you’ll ever have.

Employability. You may not go into university all that concerned about how employable you’ll be, but once graduation draws near, you’re bound to start feeling a little anxious. As someone taking an arts course, I was particularly worried about my career prospects when I applied to Surrey. But one of the major upsides to studying one course for all three years is that you will be incredibly skilled and qualified in your area once you graduate. On top of that, Surrey is unique among most universities in that it offers an optional work placement year between your second and third year. I cannot stress how incredible an opportunity this is. It was one of the main reasons I chose to come here, and one of the reasons Surrey’s graduates are some of the most employable in the country. Elsewhere on the blog you’ll find posts from other students who are on or have just completed their placement years, and you can read just what an amazing opportunity it is.