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The differences between studying at university in the UK and the USA

Last Updated: 13 Dec, 2022

Thinking of studying in the USA but not sure how it compares to the UK? There are many differences between studying in these two nations; class structure, student life and fees to name a few.

Thinking of studying in the USA but not sure how it compares to the UK? There are many differences between studying in these two nations; class structure, student life and fees to name a few. They approach education differently, and there are advantages and disadvantages to both…


The application process for applying to UK universities and American ones is very different. In the UK, a student will apply to several universities at once via the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, or UCAS. On this website, you can indicate your first-choice university and submit both your grades and personal statement via this service. This is all done during the Autumn term of Y13. However, in America a student will likely begin their application for “College” much sooner. “College” is what Americans more commonly refer to as university. The process is lengthier, and a student can apply directly for each college separately, going through each institution’s own central admissions department.

A student will likely complete online applications for American colleges at their respective websites or  Common App which is the American equivalent of UCAS. This system allows a student to apply to many universities in one go. However, in addition to one general essay, the student must also prepare and upload essays for each individual university (approx. 200-300 words each). The main essay is fairly short (max 650 words). Most American colleges  use the Common App with some exceptions such as UC, MIT  and few others. There is one major difference between UCAS and Common App. When applying to UK universities via UCAS, a student can only apply to 5 courses in total. In America, you can apply to as many as you like!

When applying to American colleges it is also important to take the SAT or ACT exams as most institutions will require this. International students are most likely to take the ACT. The ACT is essentially an imitation of the SAT which is widely regarded as having a less effective design. Students have said there are too many questions in less time and the test is not entirely user-friendly. The SAT however was recently redesigned and much improved. Most Ivy League universities would expect a minimum of 1500 points for SAT, unless the student is an excellent actor, inventor or similar.

Extra-curricular activities aren’t all that important when applying for UK university, top universities such as Oxford or Cambridge are more interested in the wider reading a student is doing around their particular subject of choice. But if you’re applying to a university in the US, having several extra-curriculars across sport, music and other fields play a much more significant role. In the US, it is possible to get into a highly academic university based on sporting talent alone.

When applying to Oxbridge in the UK, student will likely sit an interview with the relevant admissions panel. Other UK universities won’t request an interview unless it is a specialised institution such as a drama or music school where you’d be offered an audition. In the US many colleges do require  an alumni interview.

The two most notable deadlines to consider when applying to UK universities are 15th October (For Oxbridge, Medicine courses etc.) and 15th January for all UCAS applications.  In America, there are various deadlines that are met such as early decision, early application and regular decision – these all happen depending on the individual institution. When applying for a UK university, a student is effectively proving their suitability for the course, based on their A Level choices/grades and personal statement. In America, as student is proving their suitability for college based on their education, extra curriculars and personal attributes combines. References from teachers aren’t always necessary for UCAS, but most Headmasters will provide these. References in the USA from high school teachers and professors are very important and can often sway the decision-making process by college admissions panels.

When comparing top American and UK universities, the acceptance rates into the likes of Harvard, Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge differ. In 2022, Ivy League acceptance rates were at an average of 6% across all eight universities. Specifically, the early admission rates of acceptance for Harvard, Princeton and Columbia ranged between 5-8%. In the same year, acceptance rates for Oxford and Cambridge were around 18% and 21% respectively. Does this mean it’s easier to get into Oxbridge than an Ivy League university? Not necessarily. Overall, Ivy League universities receive thousands more applications every year than Oxbridge, perhaps because the USA is just so much larger than the UK and has a much larger population of prospective students.

Length of Study

Perhaps the most notable difference between studying in the USA or the UK, is the time it takes to complete a degree. In general, degree programs in the US take about one year longer than programs in the UK. Courses are shorter in the UK because the course programs are generally much more focused than in the US.


Bachelors: 4 years

Masters: 2 years

PhD: 5-7 years or longer


Bachelors: 3 years

Masters: 1 year

PhD: 3-4 years +

See more about this here.


American colleges are often divided into schools by subject. For example, within one college there may be an Art School, an Engineering School or even a Drama School. These individual schools are often ruled over by the entire college as a whole. American colleges give students opportunity to explore multiple different subjects for at least a year before deciding upon a final major. This final major will be the title of the degree you eventually graduate with. As a student, you have far more control over your own schedule. You can choose which classes you want to take, and you can pick your timetable and even specific professors.

The emphasis of higher education in the USA is breadth of study, to allow students to make a better-informed decision in which direction they would like to take their career. However, this may not be the case for everybody. Upon registering for an American college, a student may have already decided on a final major. But they still must attend other classes throughout the first two years of study in order to continue working towards their final major degree. Most commonly, students at American colleges will declare a major at the end of their first year, after having an entire academic year in which to consider all options. This approach to studying is similar to the International Baccalaureate studied by some Y12 and Y13 students, where the emphasis on learning is to ensure a broader outlook on life.

Similarly, a UK university will have multiple departments within its overall establishment. However, upon applying to a UK university, you will be required to choose your course and department, and you will be given very little opportunity to study outside of this specialism. For example, a student wishing to study English at the University of Oxford will never find themselves working outside of this department in somewhere such as the Maths department. The style of education at university in the UK is more focused. This places further pressure on a Y13 student to make big decisions about which career path they may want to go down. Study at a UK university is more intense and specialised, this has its advantages and disadvantages.

American colleges will tend to be much more flexible than universities in the UK. In the US, a student will be able to transfer courses (and even colleges) with greater ease than in the UK. For example, a student may be able to commence their studies at a mid-level college and then transfer to an Ivy League college mid-way through their studies. Of course, every case is different, but in the UK a student would find it rather difficult to replicate such flexibility.


Because the US system emphasises breadth, courses require weekly or even biweekly readings as well as other assignments such as small writing projects, major research papers, and oral presentations throughout the course. Final grades will be based on your performance on the variety of assignments, with a final exam making up only a percentage of your total grade. In the UK, most universities are much more lecture-based, with only occasional assignments throughout the term. In some cases, there may be no actual required assignments and instead your entire grade may be based on one final exam.

Student Life

The late Stephen Hawking once said “I was not a good student. I did not spend much time at college; I was too busy enjoying myself”. Such a remark could be said by any student attending either a UK university or American college. Student life in both nations is not too dissimilar – a lot of partying, socialising and (for some) drinking. But of course, with hard work must come some much-needed downtime so students are often forgiven for their wild antics.

In the UK, a student will likely live in “student halls” or student accommodation. These are often third-party companies that provide students with studio apartment type rooms on large campuses. Students will often have their own individual rooms but will still live within close proximity of other students.

In the USA, accommodation is similar, but students will often find themselves sharing dormitories with other students. In some cases, students may join either a fraternity or sorority. These are essentially large houses that students can live in together to feel like they are a family. A student must apply directly to the sorority/fraternity, detailing why they would be a good addition to the home. Each one will have their own set of guidelines for applications though. Joining one of these houses will allow a student to integrate better into the university community, it also teaches understanding/tolerance of others and gives a student an insight into grown-up life.

American colleges are renowned for student’s forming lasting lifetime friendships, given the amount of contact time with others during lessons and extra-curricular activities. In the UK however, it is possible to attend a university with very little integration into the community. A student could attend their classes and that be it. Ultimately, it is down to the individual student and making the most of the opportunities available to you is always the better choice to make.


The cost of education in both countries is far from cheap, but the cost of an education in the United States is generally higher. According to a law passed in 2012, universities in England may charge up to £9000 (approximately $14,300) per year. Of course, this applies only to citizens of the UK and the EU, not international students. Fees for international students can be significantly higher. The government sets the limits for tuition fees, and each individual university sets its own fee up to that limit.

By contrast, the government has very little control over what universities charge in the United States. The US differentiates between in-state tuition fees and out-of-state tuition fees, as well as between private and public universities. These distinctions determine the tuition fee. The average fee for private four-year institutions is around $60,000 per year. Finally, some private four-year institutions can cost up to $90,000 per year. In order to help students cover the cost of tuition in both countries, loans are available through the government with favourable terms and interest rates.

For international students considering studying in the US, most colleges won’t offer financial aid. To study at an Ivy League University, an international student is looking at tuition/room and board fees of approximately $85,000 a year. Small and large state universities will be anywhere between $60,000 — $80,000 a year.

Whilst universities in the UK are regulated by the government, in the US colleges are free to do what they like. However, if they are state attributed colleges this is not the case. Interestingly, if you apply to a state college such as University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the majority of students accepted onto the course will be locals from this state.

So… where to study?

We asked UK Study Centre tutor, Dr Nina-Marie Gardner, her thoughts on the main differences between studying in the UK and USA. Dr Gardner studied at both Yale University and Royal Holloway, she now prepares UKSC students for their American college applications and assists with the preparation of theses, personal statements and general essay writing.

With regard to undergraduate programs in the US, I think there is a lot more flexibility in terms of the diversity of courses on offer and the number and range of electives one is permitted – and indeed, encouraged – to take. Unlike the UK, one does not necessarily have to have decided on a major – and even if a student enters having declared a particular major, it is very easy to change. I entered Yale as a theatre studies major, quickly discovered this did not involve taking many acting courses, and switched to English where I specialised in Shakespeare. A common complaint amongst the students I have encountered in the UK is the lack of flexibility in terms of their choice of electives, and how difficult it can be to take courses outside of their chosen department.

Pedagogically, the UK system is lecture-based, complimented by seminars, with final marks contingent on a single summative essay, exam and/ or presentation (or combination of the three). In the US, lectures and seminars also feature heavily, but one’s final mark is based on the results of multiple essays, quizzes, exams and presentations administered throughout the year. In my experience as an undergraduate in the US, and as a lecturer in the UK, I have found the US system encourages more consistent attendance and commitment to coursework, and it also (in my opinion) allows for a fairer assessment of a student’s performance.

In terms of lifestyle, I have always been impressed with the quality of student accommodation in the UK – perhaps this has changed, but in my undergraduate days living ‘on-campus’ meant sharing cramped quarters with at least one – if not three — other roommates. The cultural differences could fill a novel, but I think both study in the UK and the US offer incredibly exciting opportunities in terms of extra-curricular activities, internships and new experiences in general, relative to geographical location. At Yale, a trip to New York City was a short train ride away and I frequently made the journey to see plays, take acting classes and explore. Similarly, studying in London was a life-changing experience given its literary and theatre culture.

Should you be interested in working with Dr Gardner, get in touch with her here.

Overall, studying in the UK or USA may be very different but each country has its own merits when it comes to higher education. There may be a lot more choices in the USA (there are over 3500 more universities there than in the UK), but ultimately the structure of education is different. If a student wishes to pursue a broader university course, that allows them to pick and choose directions to take throughout their study, then an American university is best suited. If a student is ready for more focused study over a shorter period of time, UK universities are a better option for them.

UK Study Centre has been helping students prepare for some of the best universities around the world for the last 15 years. Our team of experienced education consultants are able to advise you on a wide variety of courses and institutions, get in touch today to find out more!

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