Should You Study in the U.S. or the U.K.?
When pursuing higher education, it’s important to consider many factors. What do you want to study? Do you prefer a large school where you feel like a part of something big, or a more intimate one? But the first step before you can answer any of these is figuring out where in the world you want to study. Today, more students are traveling overseas to pursue higher education than ever, and two of the most popular destinations are the United States and the United Kingdom.
If you're considering studying in one of these, know first that you can't go wrong with either. Each offers a distinct higher education experience. Think about what it is about the U.K. that calls to you? Is it the cozy pubs or intellectual ambiance of a campus strewn with halls that date back centuries? What about the U.S.? Is it the all-American school spirit you find across campus on football Saturdays, or that you can always find something to do around campus?
Of the top ten universities in the world, all but one are located in the U.S. and the U.K. According to the most recent data from the Institute of International Education, the number of international students studying in the U.S. totals over 1 million (source). In the U.K., recent statistics report more than 442,000 international students make up their total student body (source). The U.K. higher education system is comparatively smaller than that of the U.S. though, so consider that these statistics mean that 19% of students in the U.K. are international, while 5.5% in the U.S. are.
I spent my undergraduate years at the University of Michigan, but later jetted off for Scotland to earn my Master’s. Having studied in both the U.S. and the U.K., I can confidently say that while both experiences have defining features and highlights, each differs greatly from the other.
So where should you attend university - or ‘uni’ as it’s known in the U.K.? Consider the following.
1. Differences in Degrees Between the U.S. & U.K.
Some of the most prominent differences between these countries have to do with the structure of the degree programs -- or 'courses' -- that they offer. Take length, for example. In the United States, a standard undergraduate degree program generally takes four years to complete. In the United Kingdom, the same degree only takes three. Some may value that extra fourth-year experience and the memories to be made on campus, while others may hope to earn their degree as quickly as possible.
One thing to consider is that while a four-year degree leaves time to spend a semester abroad, a three-year program may offer the opportunity to take a gap year to go overseas to travel or work.
In addition to the length of the program, how you choose what you wish to study differs. In the U.S., students are encouraged to take a variety of classes that interest them. It’s typical to not declare a ‘major’ until your second year.
Degrees in the U.K. are very different -- students apply to a university course from the beginning. The classes you take are catered for that specific course. This means that you head off to college knowing exactly what it is you want to study.
As someone who bounced around between majors before declaring one at the end of my sophomore year, I struggle to comprehend that many students know exactly what field they wish to pursue right out of their secondary education. I liked the flexibility that my U.S. degree offered - I was able to ‘shop around’ and try out programs to determine if I liked them before committing to one. But for those who do know what they plan to study, the more time focused on a particular field may be an attractive aspect.
2. Differences in Teaching Style Between the U.S. & U.K
Teaching methods differ as well. In the U.S., it’s common to have many quizzes and assignments throughout the semester that count towards your final grade. This can be a great way to receive feedback continually and have a better understanding of how you are doing in the course. However, it can be a bit more stressful to have so many assignments. Comparatively, in the U.K. many classes rely on one or two exams or assignments to determine your grade. This means that a lot of material is self-taught outside of the classroom as well. It does stand true for both universities, however, to develop strong relationships with your professors. They’ll help provide feedback along the way and you never know when you may need a letter of recommendation.
Just remember that choosing a degree is your choice. You’re investing money and time into your education and your future, so be sure to take the time you need to decide what it is you enjoy and want to study. And don’t rush into choosing a university just because of its prestige - make sure you find a school that offers a great program in what you choose to study.
3. Cost of Living Differences Between the U.S. & U.K.
Another important difference to consider when choosing where to study abroad is cost. International fees may not exactly come cheap in either country, but tuition alone is generally cheaper in the U.K. than it is the U.S. I constantly find myself explaining to my classmates in Scotland that while I’m paying more on my degree than they are, going to school overseas is actually saving me thousands in tuition than if I had stayed in the U.S.
That said, there are other costs of living to consider, including accommodation, transport, food, textbooks, entertainment, etc. In the U.S., the books required for each class can cost a small fortune alone, while in the U.K. textbooks aren’t as regularly required as many professors post readings online. When it comes to housing, be sure to explore the institution’s rules and offerings. Sometimes it’s required to live on campus for the entirety of your degree, while sometimes it’s possible to stay in off-campus housing. Consider what housing option makes the most sense for you financially - but don’t forget that the chance to live on campus can be a great way to meet people when you first move abroad.
The key factor is that both offer scholarships, grants, and financial aid - including ones catered to international students. Explore your options and apply to as many things as you can - you may be able to make either program that much more affordable.
4. Student Life On Campus in the U.S. & U.K.
It’s important to acknowledge that your experiences outside of the classroom will differ as much as they will within. Finding a social life that suits you is decisive too. In the U.K., the university feels integrated into the town. In the U.S. the town can feel like more of an extension of the university as student life is generally centered on campus.
People in the U.K. are known for their dry humor and for their fairly reserved natures, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t friendly! Meanwhile, in the U.S., people are typically casual, welcoming and amicable. And while the U.K. is much more than pints in a local pub and university cloisters that remind you of Hogwarts, so too the U.S. is more than fraternity parties.
When choosing what kind of campus experience suits you best, be sure to consider who you want to surround yourself with and what type of social life calls most to you. Also consider the details:
- What kind of public transit is available on campus?
- How many student organizations are there to get involved with in your free time?
- How does student housing affect your experience and ability to meet new people?
For example, it’s typical for first-year students in the U.S. to share a dormitory with a roommate. This is a bit of a collegiate right-of-passage and a way to meet new people. However, sharing a room with a stranger on campus doesn’t generally happen in the U.K.
U.K. institutions may offer a variety of activities and groups for students to get involved with, but they are generally treated as a way to meet people and stay active outside of their program, which is their main focus. In comparison, extracurriculars are an important part of student life in the U.S. as they are treated as an extension of the classroom and as a way to network and gain first-hand work experience.
College sports can be a prominent aspect of student life for many schools the U.S. Football or basketball game days can include donning ridiculous outfits in your school’s colors and cheering on the home team. While universities in the U.K. do offer club sports programs, attending games and school spirit generally isn’t a part of everyday life. Old traditions may take the place of those experiences instead,
And of course, be sure to leave time to explore the country you’re living in! There is plenty to see in both the U.S. and the U.K, from the Grand Canyon to Buckingham Palace.
Ultimately, the choice of where you study abroad is yours, and you’ll have an incredible experience no matter where you choose. Be sure to research your options thoroughly and don’t rush into any degree. And while you are at university, be sure to establish and grow an international network that will support you throughout your career.
This post was originally published in October 2012, and was updated in April 2019.