9 differences between studying in the UK vs the USA

Olivier Guiberteau
Olivier Guiberteau
Last updated: Mar 30, 20238 min read
9 differences between studying in the UK vs the USA

They might share a common language, but there’s plenty of differences between higher education in the UK and the USA. From cost to length, from accommodation to methodology - there’s plenty to take into consideration.

Here are 9 differences between studying in the UK vs the USA.

1. Choosing your degree at the start or during the course

In the United States, students normally are not required to declare their major until the end of their second (sophomore) year. This gives plenty of time for exploration, and to change your mind any number of times.

Students also take compulsory courses in core subjects such as writing, political science, mathematics and science, which may lie outside their chosen course. It’s estimated that 80% of students in the US change their major at least once while at university.

The UK, on the other hand, requires students to choose their major before they even arrive on campus, and there are very few if any extra core subjects. 

If you’re a little unsure on your major or want to experiment for a year or two, then the USA is probably the better option. If you are 100% set on a subject, and just want to get going, the UK may be the place for you.

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2. The cost of education

The differences in cost between the two countries can sometimes be enormous, but not always. A law that came into effect in 2012 means that universities in England can charge up to £9,000 (approximately $14,300) per year.

Although it must be said that this applies to UK students (and technically still those from the EU, but this is likely going to change very soon).

Fees for international students will often be significantly higher. In short, the government chooses the fee limit and universities will decide where they want to be on that scale.

In complete contrast, universities in the USA have absolutely no constraint on how much they can charge, and they can vary wildly.

Fees in the U.S are usually broken down into; in-state tuition fees and out-of-state tuition fees, as well as between private and public universities. The average fee for a private university is around $29,000 per year, but others reach up to $50,000 per year.

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3. The length of the course

One of the most noticeable differences between studying in the UK and the USA are the lengths of courses. The UK almost exclusively has shorter courses than their American counterparts, and this goes for all levels of higher education.

A bachelor’s degree in the UK is normally 3 years, to the American 4 years. Taking a master’s in the UK will typically take just 1 year, while in the U.S it is 2 years. Finally, a PhD in the UK will be between 3 and 4 years (with exceptions for certain courses) while in the USA it will normally take 5 to 7 years. 

It might be easy to jump to conclusions about quality vs quantity but the truth is there is very little evidence to suggest either way is better. Although of course cost becomes a factor between them if you are spending an extra year studying.

4. How you study

This is quite a sizeable difference and which one is better for you will likely depend on your own study habits.

Universities in the UK are typically lecture-based and may include the occasional assessment, but it’s not uncommon for students at UK universities to have no formal assessment until an end of term, or even end of the year exam

Universities in the USA, however, are much more assessment-based and students are likely to have weekly, bio weekly or monthly assessments, which will be combined with a final exam for a final grade.

The USA system still uses plenty of lectures, but these might be incorporated much more with smaller seminars or workshops than you would normally find in the UK. 

5. Work opportunities

While it must be said that neither the UK nor the USA offers any kind of guaranteed job at the end of studies, their rules do differ.

In the USA international students are eligible to remain in the country for just 60 days after graduation. In that time you will need to either enrol in another college, or in an Optional Practical Training (OPT) program to gain employment on an F-1 visa.

This is not always a particular easy avenue to access, and many students find themselves leaving after 60 days.

Until recently, things were very similar in the UK. However, recent changes mean that international students are eligible to remain in the UK and work for up to two years, which allows you to really experience the country outside of formal education.

It also allows some time to look into further options should you desire to remain further.

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6. What kind of accommodation are you looking for?

As I’m sure you’re perfectly aware, it’s not just about studying. What about the differences in a student’s life in the UK and the USA?

One glaring difference is the type of accommodation, especially in the first year. While universities in both countries normally house first-year students (and sometimes other years too) in students halls, in the UK you will rarely have to share a room. Very rare indeed!

Maybe it’s the famous British reserve, but students in Britain will almost always have their own room or studio-style apartment in halls.

Most students in the UK after the first year will move out of student accommodation and often live in private accommodation, normally with friends.

If you’ve ever seen an American movie set on a campus, you’ll know full well that accommodation is typically based on sharing a room with another person.

Whether that is your cup of tea (as they say in the UK) is up to you. Some enjoy having a companion during the first year which can be difficult, while for others, the idea of sharing a room at the age of 18 is their worst nightmare.

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7. The environment

The UK and the USA are very different countries in terms of their culture and what they have to offer.The USA is a diverse country, both in terms of its climate and its people.

Depending on where you want to study, you can live in California or Florida beside a beach, close to the Canadian border and the snow and forests, or in a bustling city like New York, Washington DC or Boston on the East Coast.

Although the UK has beautiful beaches and coastline, as well as incredible cities like Birmingham, Mancheter and London, it offers less variety.

If you know what kind of environment you'd like to study in then the UK is the place to be, but if you're keen on exploring different climates and cultures, maybe the USA would be a better fit.

8. Societies and clubs

The societies and clubs on offer differ in both the USA and the UK. 

In the United States, clubs vary from marching bands through to varsity sports and fraternities and sororities. Students frequently put as much focus on extra-curricular activities as they do their studies, allowing them to have a broad and diverse college experience.

We've previously explored 8 quirky US student societies you should consider joining and 8 strange and quirky societies you can join at UK universities - and there's definitley plenty!

In the UK, sports societies are usually organised and led by the Athletic Union, with commitments varying depending on how involved you'd like to be.

Societies are flexible and don't usually require minimum investments of time, allowing you to fit your extra-curricular activities alongside your studies.

The UK also does not offer some societies and clubs that the USA does, for example Greek life.

9. Postgraduate opportunities

As we mentioned earlier, the structure of the UK higher education system is different to the one in the USA.

This means that in the United States, students who are looking to advance and specialise in their profession do so first when they go to graduate school.

Whether it be medicine, law or engineering, most specialist professions require a specialist qualification from a graduate school.

In the UK, most students have already learnt a great deal about their subject before they even think about persuing a postgraduate qualification.

Wheras in the USA students can join law school or medicine school having never fully explored either subject, in the UK it is rare for students to enter a postgraduate course with only a minimal knowledge of the subject.

That being said, it is possible to study both law and medicine in the UK without a undergraduate qualification in either, although you do need a qualification in a related subject at most universities.

Thinking of studying abroad? Why not explore the Edvoy website to find all the information you need to make a decision on your future.

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Written By
Olivier Guiberteau

Oli lives in London and is a writer and photographer.

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