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UK v. US Universities: Where Should You Study Abroad?

advice for students
college application
By Matt Killorin
Last updated on November 16, 2022

What are the differences between UK and US universities? Read our guide before you commit to a course or program.

Two female students looking at a red-covered manual while on a bench outdoors with a brick university building in the background.

International students who are deciding between UK and US universities have a lot to consider before choosing a uni or college.  

The differences start with what higher education is called: in the UK, it is uni (short for university), and in the US, it is college. Despite having a common language, the differences in UK and US universities can confuse anyone not familiar with both, especially students who speak English as a second language

Read on for an in-depth comparison between US and UK universities’ undergraduate programs. While you read, consider how program availability, admission requirements, cost, and student life vary between the two higher education systems, and how these factors can impact your decision about where to study overseas. (If you still have questions, you can always reach out to a Shorelight advisor for more information.) 

What Does “College” Mean and What Does “University” Mean in the UK and the US?

Before we look at the two higher education systems, let us first define the terms “college” and “university” and how they differ from place to place. 

University in the UK is where you go to earn a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree. Generally, UK universities are made up of separate independent colleges. (Oxford University, for example, is made up of more than 30 different colleges.) You may apply to a course at one college within a university; however, if you wanted to transfer, you would have to apply separately to a different college within the same university. 

College can also refer to vocational or continuing education institutions that students attend after their sixth form or the highest level of secondary school. The equivalent to a British college in the USA would be a junior or community college, where students often go to learn a trade or prepare for a four-year program.  

The difference between college and university in the USA is more of a question of size: universities are generally larger institutions in student body, faculty, academic offerings, and campus size. Colleges are not necessarily parts of a university system in the USA (although they can be at some larger universities). In the US, you generally apply to college and take courses, or classes, after you enroll. 

When you apply to college in the US, you are doing the same thing as applying to a course at a university in the UK, with one big difference: in the US, you do not have to know what you want to major in yet. (More on that later.) 

UK vs. US Applications and Admissions: What Are the Key Differences?

Students applying to universities in the United Kingdom typically submit their application using the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, or UCAS. With UCAS, you fill out one application and send it to all the universities to which you want to apply. More than 710,000 students applied to courses at British universities using UCAS in 2015, 125,000 of which were international students. The UCAS application fee is £20 if you are applying to just one course, or £25 for multiple courses and for late applications sent after June 30, 2020. 

Here is what the application process looks like for international students in the UK:

  1. Decide on a course that you want to study

  2. Search for available courses at universities, or colleges within universities, that offer your course

  3. Apply to up to five university courses through UCAS

  4. Receive offers back from universities through UCAS

  5. Accept a course and begin the visa application process

In the US, students apply to between four and eight colleges on average, according to U.S. News & World Report. Students generally submit a unique application to each college on their list. It is worth noting that the Common Application in the US allows students to apply to almost 900 different schools with one application, similar to the UCAS in the UK. However, less than 17% of colleges in the US accept the Common App, so you may still have to submit some college-specific applications, depending on where you plan to apply. With the Common App, you still have to pay the school’s application fee, but you can apply for a fee waiver through the application process. 

Here is what the application process typically looks like for international students in the US:

  1. Decide on a college you want to attend (but you do not have to know what you will major in)

  2. Submit a unique application for each school on your list, with at least one unique essay for each school and (at most) one common essay that can be used for multiple schools

  3. Apply to as many colleges as you want

  4. Hear back from each school independently

  5. Accept an offer from a college and begin the visa application process

What Are the Differences Between UK and US University Admission Decisions? 

When it comes to higher education entry requirements, grades in secondary school play a more significant role in the UK than they do in the US. Students are not required to take the SAT or the ACT in the UK, unlike in the US. SAT or ACT scores help colleges and universities in the USA determine your college readiness, and almost every college requires scores from one of the two tests as part of the application. American universities generally have ranges of acceptable scores; however, most make a few exceptions for students who demonstrate proficiency or excellence in other areas. 

Colleges in the United States also look at your extracurricular activities more than universities in the United Kingdom. While top universities in the UK focus on your understanding of a subject, colleges in the US will consider your clubs, sports, volunteer work, and other non-academic pursuits. While this can help students with less-than-perfect grades get into better schools, it can also hurt students with great grades but little to show outside the classroom. 

How Are Colleges and Universities Structured Differently in the US and the UK? 

The majority of UK universities are independent institutions that receive money from the government. In this sense, they are public universities; however, international students are less likely to receive the benefits of a public education, namely reduced tuition. 

More than 10% of the best global universities are based in the UK. The University of Birmingham, for example, has over 8,400 international students (28% of the total student body) and is ranked 96th. At Birmingham, if you wanted to study computer science, you would apply to the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences within the university. 

Similar to all other UK universities, Birmingham has a tuition cap for domestic students of £9,250, but international students can expect to pay at least double that. For instance, studying computer science at Birmingham costs international students £22,260 annually. 

Course curricula vary between UK universities, and so do the entry requirements. It is also worth noting that degree courses in the UK are very specialized and go deeply into the subject, more than US undergraduate majors, on average. With that in mind, if you are considering studying overseas in the UK, it is more important to find a course that reflects your interests and career objectives than it is to go with a highly ranked, well-known university that does not meet your goals. 

In the US, there are public and private institutions. While students from the same state receive tuition remission at a public school — often referred to as a state school or state university — out-of-state and international students tend to pay the same amount for theirs. In either case, the tuition at public colleges in the US averages around $26,000 a year less than tuition at private colleges. 

At private universities, you generally get smaller class sizes, more personal attention, better alumni networking opportunities, and many other attributes that help an institute of higher education do well in college rankings

However, you may be surprised to know that almost 50 of the top 100 schools in U.S. News & World Report’s US national college rankings are public. When it comes to the quality of education at public versus private universities, be careful not to dismiss a college just because it is public. Auburn University, ranked 44th best public school and 104th best college in the US, is a great example of a public university with top-of-the-line research programs and notable alumni, including Apple CEO Tim Cook

Does It Take Longer to Earn a Degree in the US or the UK?

In the UK, it can take much less time to earn your degree compared to the US. You can expect to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in three years, whereas it takes four years to earn a bachelor’s degree in the US. 

In the UK, a master’s degree usually takes one year to earn and a doctoral three to five years, whereas in the US a master’s degree takes two years, and a doctoral can take five to seven years. Students on a budget or in a rush to get to the workforce, take note: one less year of tuition, one less year of studies for students in the UK. 

How Do Term Dates Differ Between the UK and the US?

Summer lasts one extra month in the UK, but it starts a month later, too. The academic year in the UK runs from the end of September to mid-June at most universities. Students at The University of Manchester, for example, start classes for their first term, or semester, on September 21, 2020, and end on January 31, 2021. The second semester starts on February 1, 2021, and ends on June 11, 2021. There is a month-long break from December to January and a summer break from June to September. There are exceptions: some schools, such as the University of Oxford, run on a trimester schedule

Most colleges and universities in the US also run on a semester schedule, but there are quarters, trimesters, and a small number of other options. Stanford University runs on a quarterly schedule and Dartmouth College on a trimester. The standard semester academic year, which accounts for 85% of all undergraduate academic calendar types, according to The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), runs from the end of August to mid-May. Students at Cleveland State University (CSU), for example, start their first semester on August 22, 2020, and finish on December 16, 2020. After a month-long winter break, the second semester at CSU starts January 11, 2021, and ends May 12, 2021. 

Are Classes and Workload Different in the UK Compared to the US? 

You can expect more reading, but fewer assignments, in a British classroom. If you are used to homework assignments, quizzes, tests, and class participation grades, you may be surprised to find the British education system is very different. Your classes are lectures, your professor is your lecturer, and your homework is lots of reading. Your grade will be based on your performance on a final exam, with reading assignments that last the length of the term. 

US universities value a wider-ranging education than UK universities. Undergraduate degrees require a basic understanding of a range of subjects and aim to build students’ soft skills, like interpersonal communication, alongside hard skills, such as coding or business math. Expect classwork, group projects, regular homework assignments, and quizzes, unlike the British equivalent. An American education will help students develop work-ready soft skills and a robust knowledge of a major subject. 

In the UK, your classes will be in your course of study. You will not take a wide range of classes in an array of subjects. The British undergraduate curriculum is similar to grad school in the US: you will have a deeper study of your subject matter, classes focused on your field of study, and few to no non-related electives. 

Since you are not expected to declare your major until the end of your second (or sophomore) year in the US, you have much more flexibility and freedom when it comes to picking your classes. In addition, if you apply to a university, you will have access to most of the colleges or schools within the institution. 

In the UK, you have to pick your major before you apply, and you have to apply to each college independently. As a result, switching majors is much easier in the US, and you have the flexibility of taking a class to see if the course of study is for you. If you are still undecided when it comes to your study focus, the US education system is better suited for you.

What Are the Differences Between the US and UK University Grading Systems?

Getting 70% on an exam in an American college is not exactly a cause for celebration. However, 70% in the UK university grading system qualifies as a high achievement. That is because the British have their own undergraduate degree classification system, which also covers integrated master’s degrees, or degrees that combine undergraduate and postgraduate courses into a single program. 

In the UK, you can take honours classes and examinations, or you can study for an ordinary degree. The majority of students, including international students, choose the honours track, with the highest-ever percentage of first-class honours degrees awarded in 2018 — 110,475 degrees or 28% of all graduates — according to The Telegraph

First-class honours is the highest score or degree awarded in the UK. Students who score 70% or higher are in the first-class honours category. Students who score 60-69% are in the upper second class, 50-59% in the lower second class, and 40-49% are third class. Students who opt for an ordinary degree have a similar grading structure: 70% and above is graduating with distinction, 60-69% is a merit, and 50-59% is a pass. Honours classes and exams, as you would imagine, are much more difficult than ordinary classes and exams. 

In the US, 98% of all undergraduate institutions grade on a 4.0 scale, according to AACRAO. That said, you may also receive letter grades, pass/fail grades, checks or minuses, or point-scale grades on assignments, quizzes, presentations, and exams. These grades will be assessed on a 4.0 scale where 4.0 equals an A, 3.0 a B, 2.0 a C, and 1.0 a D. 

Comparing the two systems side by side, the grading scale would look like this: 

Best possible score: 

  • UK: First-class honours

  • Numerical grade (UK): 70-100%

  • US: 4.0

  • Numerical grade (US): 93-100%

  • Letter grade: A+ (97-100); A (93-96)

Second-best possible score

  • UK: Second-class honours, upper

  • Numerical grade (UK): 60-69%

  • US: 3.0

  • Numerical grade (US): 83-86%

  • Letter grade: B

Third-best possible score

  • UK: Second-class honours, lower

  • Numerical grade (UK): 50-59%

  • US: 2.0

  • Numerical grade (US): 73-76%

  • Letter grade: C

Fourth-best possible score

  • UK: Third-class honours

  • Numerical grade (UK): 40-49%

  • US: 1.0

  • Numerical grade (US): 65-66%

  • Letter grade: D

UK vs. US universities: How Is Student Life Different?

Students entering college or university universally feel nervous, excited, homesick, and overwhelmed — regardless of where they study. That said, there are many significant differences in student body makeup and campus life when we compare universities in the UK and US. 

Who Goes to College in the US? Who Goes to University in the UK?

To start, of the 2.3 million students enrolled at university in 2017-18 in the UK, 60% were white, 5% were black, and 9% were Asian, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. Of the total students studying at university in the UK in 2017-18, 19.6% were international students, according to Universities UK International

The 16.8 million students studying in the US are 53% white, 20% Hispanic, 13% Black, 7% Asian, and 2% American Indian/Alaska Native, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Of those students, more than 1 million were international, accounting for 7% of the total student body, according to the Institute of International Education. 

What Is Campus Life Like in the UK vs. the US?

British students live in residence halls, very similar to dormitories where American students live. In the UK, however, students often have their own room and even have dedicated cleaning service options. In the US, dorm rooms are most commonly shared between two or more students and vary in amenities, but there are not many, if any, with room service. 

In the US, Greek life plays a large role on campus. In the UK, it is almost nonexistent. Greek life, or Greek letter organizations, refer to student social organizations called fraternities (for men) and sororities (for women). These lifelong membership groups have specific governing rules and secret rituals—and were founded to encourage philanthropy, networking, and etiquette training. Many often have houses, either on or off campus, where members live while enrolled. Today, most fraternities are known for hosting big parties and events on campus.  

In the UK, there are many student societies, clubs, unions, and sport groups, but they are not treated as an integral part of the college experience, as they are in the US. College sports in the US can draw more than 100,000 people to a single game. There is nothing even close to that at a British university. In the UK, extracurricular activities are just that: extra. Students attend university to study and work hard, and while there are many welcome distractions at uni, they rarely get the same level of attention as in the US.

If campus life is important to you, or if you love watching live sports, you are probably better suited to study in the United States.

How Much Does it Cost to Study in the UK vs. the US?

Whether you plan to attend college in the United States or university in the United Kingdom, your education will be expensive. Tuition remission for state schools in the US and tuition caps for all universities in the UK are generally not available to international students. International students sometimes pay a premium to attend schools in other countries. 

Here is the cost breakdown for students studying in the US in 2019-20:

Private university:

  • Average tuition and fees, private 4-year university: $36,880

  • Average room and board costs, private 4-year university: $12,990

  • Average cost, tuition, fees, room, board (TFRB): $49,870

Public university:

  • Average tuition and fees, public 4-year university, out-of-state: $26,820

  • Average room and board costs, public 4-year university, out-of-state: $11,540

  • Average cost, TFRB: $38,460

Here is the cost breakdown for international students studying in the UK (in USD for easy comparison). Remember that international applicants cannot take advantage of the tuition price cap that domestic students can. It is also worth noting that students in STEM fields or fields that require laboratory work tend to pay more than students pursuing courses in the humanities or social sciences. See the Complete University Guide, Reddin Survey for more information. 

Here is a breakdown of the cost of university in the UK:

  • Average tuition, international student, classroom only (no lab or clinical requirements): $19,500

  • Average cost of living expenses for international students: $5,943

  • Average cost per year, TFRB: $25,443

Remember, too, that it takes one less year to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in the United Kingdom, compared to the United States. 

In either country, where you choose to go to school will affect your expenses. For instance, studying in London will cost you  £157.48 per week in rent (on average), whereas renting while attending university in Northern Ireland costs only £83.01 per week. The same can be said about studying at a city college versus a rural college in the United States. 

For more information about college affordability in the US, try out the College Affordability and Transparency Center tools from the US Department of Education. For similar resources for UK universities, check out DiscoverUni’s suite of tools

Should I Attend Uni in the UK or College in the US?

Deciding between the UK and the US for higher education comes down to your personal values and career goals. Do you want a well-rounded education that helps you develop the kinds of skills that are useful in any workplace, or do you want to go deep into your subject matter and become an expert? 

Students looking for more breadth than depth are better suited for colleges in the US, while students wishing to gain mastery of their subject matter in less time are better suited for UK universities. 

There are rankings to consider as well. Many of the top universities around the world are either in the UK or in the US. In fact, 55 out of the top 100 best global schools are located in either the UK or the US. In terms of rankings, the US edges the UK with 44 on the list. It is also worth considering that there are only 130 universities in the UK, compared to 5,300 in the US. More schools mean more opportunities to find the right program for you. 

If you are looking for a university where you can work and play hard, make sure you reach out to current students to get their perspectives on college life. You can find groups on Facebook or through the schools’ websites. If you are looking to chat with a current student in the UK, try the UniBuddy app from UCAS. 

Finally, do not forget to reach out to your dedicated Shorelight advisor for more information on US schools or for information to help you compare higher education between the US and any other location in the world. Choosing where you attend university will chart the course for the rest of your personal and professional life. Make sure you consider your interests, goals, and personal values before you make your final decision. 

Ask a Shorelight advisor about research and resources for international students >