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What are the differences between UK universities and US universities?

In this article, one of our student contributors considers some of the differences between applying to study at a UK and a US university.

Nowadays, an increasing number of students choose to study abroad for a better education. The United Kingdom and the United States are two countries that attract a significant number of international students from around the world. However, determining which country offers a superior educational experience is a complex question. Both the UK and the US have their own distinct advantages and drawbacks. The UK is often associated with tradition, while the US is known for its freedom and openness. Consequently, there are notable differences between universities in the UK and the US. This post aims to explore these differences, focusing on various aspects such as the application process, student life, faculty, student body, accommodations, degree programs, and academic considerations.


Let’s begin by examining the application process. In the UK and the US, the evaluation of applications is carried out by different individuals. In the UK, applications are assessed by members of the academic teaching staff who would potentially be instructing the students if they are offered a place. On the other hand, in the US, the evaluation is typically conducted by admissions office personnel who serve as managers and do not directly influence the final decisions. This implies that students need to appeal to two distinct audiences. Furthermore, there are differences between the required components of the application. In the UK, students are expected to submit a personal statement, whereas in the US, they must write a “College Application Essay.” While both serve a similar purpose, there are subtle disparities between the two. The personal statement in the UK focuses on the subject of interest, demonstrating academic knowledge and the ability to think critically about it. It highlights the student’s desire to study the subject and align it with their long-term goals. Additionally, it showcases the student’s extracurricular engagement related to the subject, avoiding the use of humor. Conversely, the College Application Essay in the US provides a platform for students to showcase their personality, background, and non-academic accomplishments. It is designed to be entertaining and intriguing, conveying a greater sense of self-confidence compared to a UK personal statement. The emphasis is placed on explaining why the student wants to study at a specific institution. (Oxford-Royale)

Life of students:

The student experience in these two countries varies significantly. For instance, upon starting their first week at a US university, students often have the opportunity to attend parties with their roommates, regardless of personal affinity. Additionally, they have the freedom to join numerous clubs based on their interests, allowing for a multitude of engaging experiences. This abundance of choices can make the first week an exciting and memorable time. However, if these activities do not align with their preferences, students need not worry as they can still find like-minded friends later on.

In the UK, student life may differ in terms of the number of lectures and focused events. Students may have a relatively lighter schedule with fewer mandatory lectures and events to attend. Moreover, they have the freedom to select clubs or societies of interest, which often communicate updates and invitations via email throughout the three-year duration of their studies. It is worth noting that both UK and US students have opportunities to engage in various extracurricular activities, such as basketball, football, tennis, and more. Interestingly, US students tend to have a preference for basketball, while UK students lean towards football (soccer).

Overall, the student experience in the UK and the US encompasses a wide range of activities and social opportunities. While US students may have a more immediate and vibrant experience during their initial weeks, UK students can enjoy a more flexible and tailored approach to extracurricular involvement throughout their academic journey. These variations contribute to the unique cultural and social dynamics within each country’s university campuses.

Teachers and students:

In the United States, the term “professor” is commonly used to address all instructors, including graduate students. It is a title that is widely employed across American universities (BuzzfeeD, September 2, 2015). Conversely, in the UK, the title structure differs. Those engaged in teaching and research are referred to as “academic staff.” Following several years of exemplary performance, they may be promoted to the position of “reader.” Ultimately, after a substantial period of outstanding achievement, they can earn the esteemed title of “professor.” This progression represents a lengthy and rigorous process. As of the most recent available data, for the academic year 2020-2021, 79% of students studying in higher education in the UK were from the UK itself, while 5% were from other EU countries and 16% represented the rest of the world (UKCISA, 2021). In terms of the United States, the country remains a popular destination for international students. In the 2020-2021 academic year, despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of international students studying in the US reached 1.08 million (Open Doors Report, Institute of International Education, 2021).


The differences between UK and US universities are indeed quite distinct. In the US, it is quite common for students to share their rooms with 2 or 3 other students, and those who have a single room are considered fortunate. On the other hand, in the UK, students typically have the opportunity to have their own individual rooms without the need for sharing. Determining which arrangement is better is subjective, as both options have their own advantages and drawbacks.

Regarding the cost of accommodation, it is important to note that the figures can vary based on various factors. As of the most recent available data, UK students are required to pay tuition fees of up to £9,250 per year (UKCISA, 2021). In the US, the average annual accommodation cost is approximately $9,800 at public four-year colleges and $11,100 at private four-year colleges (College Board, 2021). It is crucial to consider that these figures are averages and can vary depending on the specific university, location, and accommodation options chosen by the students.


The degree structure in the UK and the US holds significant importance for students as it showcases their dedication and the knowledge they have acquired. In the US, it typically takes four years to obtain a Bachelor’s degree, two years for a Master’s degree, and five to seven years for a Doctoral degree. On the other hand, in the UK, it usually requires three years to complete a Bachelor’s degree, one year for a Master’s degree, and three to four years for a Doctoral degree  (full time). It is important to note that these are general guidelines, and the duration of degree programs can vary based on the specific field of study and individual circumstances.

The contrasting time frames between the UK and the US have led some individuals to express concerns about the perceived quality of UK degrees. However, it is essential to recognize that the duration of a degree program does not solely determine its value. The UK’s shorter degree programs often emphasize focused and intensive study, enabling students to delve into their chosen subject area with depth and efficiency. Conversely, the longer duration of degree programs in the US allows for a more comprehensive exploration of subjects, providing a broader educational experience.

Ultimately, the quality and value of a degree go beyond the duration of the program. Factors such as the curriculum, teaching quality, research opportunities, and university reputation significantly contribute to the worth of a degree. Prospective students should carefully consider their academic goals, career aspirations, and personal preferences when evaluating the suitability of degree programs in the UK and the US.


One notable difference between UK and US universities lies in the structure of the first-year study. In the UK, students are typically required to select a specific subject or discipline that they intend to focus on throughout their four-year program. Conversely, in the US, students often have the flexibility to pursue a more general education during their initial year, without being required to declare a major. The opportunity to choose a specific major or subject of interest typically arises during the second year of study in US universities. This approach provides students with additional time to explore various academic disciplines and make informed decisions about their preferred areas of study.

The contrasting approaches to course selection in the UK and the US reflect differing educational philosophies and systems. In the UK, the emphasis on selecting a specific subject from the beginning allows for a more specialized and focused educational experience. Conversely, the US system places value on providing students with a broader foundation before delving into more specialized areas of study.

Both approaches have their merits, and the choice between a structured curriculum from the start or a more exploratory approach depends on individual preferences and academic goals. It is essential for prospective students to consider their own interests, career aspirations, and learning style when evaluating the course structures offered by UK and US universities. By understanding these differences, students can make informed decisions that align with their academic and personal objectives.

Questions for discussion:

Q: What kinds of students are suitable for UK universities and what kind is suitable for US universities?

A: Studying abroad offers a unique and enriching experience for students as they have the opportunity to live in a different country, interact with people from diverse backgrounds, and gain a deeper understanding of the host country. The UK, with its rich cultural heritage, is well-suited for those seeking high-quality education while remaining in their home country, as it can be challenging for individuals from other countries to immigrate. Additionally, UK universities are a good fit for students who aim to attain a degree within a relatively shorter timeframe.

On the other hand, the United States stands as one of the most technologically advanced countries worldwide. It is an ideal destination for students who aspire to make significant achievements in their chosen fields or engage in in-depth research. The US offers unparalleled opportunities for students to explore cutting-edge technologies and advancements in various disciplines.

It is important to note that the suitability of UK or US universities depends on individual preferences, academic goals, and personal circumstances. Students should carefully consider their aspirations, desired educational experience, and long-term career objectives when deciding between the two countries. Each option presents distinct advantages and offers a range of opportunities for personal and academic growth.

Q: Does the universities have any problems?

A: Undoubtedly, cost poses a significant challenge for students when considering studying abroad. For many families, providing financial support for their child to pursue education in another country can be a daunting task. Take, for example, the high cost of accommodation in cities like London, which can place additional strain on students and their families. Therefore, it is crucial to carefully consider the economic implications before embarking on a study abroad journey.

Furthermore, students may encounter challenges associated with being away from their parents for an extended period. The absence of parental care and guidance raises concerns about whether students can adapt to independent living and maintain their focus on academics. There is a potential risk of succumbing to negative influences, such as excessive alcohol consumption or excessive engagement in online gaming. It is essential to acknowledge and address these concerns to ensure a successful and balanced student experience.

In conclusion, UK and US universities present several differences in terms of knowledge, friendships, and overall student life. These experiences have the potential to shape our future trajectories and even influence our personal growth. It is crucial for every student, especially international students, to deeply reflect on these factors and carefully choose the type of university that aligns best with their individual aspirations and circumstances. By considering the potential challenges and opportunities associated with studying abroad, students can make informed decisions that pave the way for a fulfilling educational journey.

Original draft provided 10th May 2018, substantially revised.

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