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UK vs USA University Education: Key Differences

Have you ever found yourself wondering what it would be like to study at a university in either the UK or US? Perhaps you are toying between the two? Are US students molly-cuddled? Do UK students party too much? Why is one more expensive than the other?

Although the two are very different in terms of their teaching and academic styles, it is important to choose which is right for you, especially when you take into account the cost of attending university. Read our in-depth guide below and discover which one could be right for you.


Let’s start with the application process.

In the UK, students usually apply for their desired universities in the Autumn of year 13 (their final year in sixth form). Most students apply through UCAS (Universities & Colleges Admissions Service) where they can apply for up to five universities. Here, they can also indicate a first-choice university and submit predicted grades and a personal statement at the same time.

In the USA, applications are both lengthier and more complicated. Unlike the UK, US applications begin a lot earlier and require the student to apply to each college directly, going through each institution’s central admissions department.

As part of the process, students are required to prepare and submit a general essay (max 650 words) and individual essays for each institution which they apply to (approximately 200-300 words per essay).

Students are also encouraged to take the SAT or ACT exams as most institutions will require this during their admissions process. Though the ACT is an imitation of the SAT, it is less favoured upon as students describe it as being not entirely user-friendly.

Unlike the UK, one major benefit to the American applications system is that students can apply to an indefinite number of colleges. This allows students a longer amount of time before they must narrow their choice of university.

Extra-curricular activities

Top UK universities such as Oxford and Cambridge take an interest in a student’s wider reading and development around their subject of choice. Taking part in short practical courses, such as our Spring and Summer courses are a great way of showing prospective universities that you are totally enthralled by your subject and eager to work hard and develop your knowledge.

Though top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge take an interest both in a student’s wider reading around their subject of choice, extra-curricular activities usually aren’t that important when applying to a university in the UK.

However, if you’re applying to a university in the US, having several extracurricular hobbies across sport, music and other fields could significantly increase your likelihood of getting into university. In the US, it is possible to get into a highly academic university based on sporting talent alone.


Most often, UK universities won’t request formal interviews with applicants unless they are applying for a specialised institution or course such as a drama or music degree. Even then they will most likely be offered an audition. However, when applying to Oxford or Cambridge, it is highly likely that a student will sit a rigorous interview with the relevant admissions panel where they will get to know their prospective students and decide if they are suitable for their university.

On the contrary, in the United States, colleges lead a lot more of an impersonal application process and do not require interviews as part of the admissions process. On rare occasions, a student may be asked to meet an alumni student, but this is a rarity.

First Week Celebrations

In the first week of joining college, most US universities run an orientation week. This is where older students offer an insight into the college, give details about sports teams and sign students up to the various clubs which they may be interested in. Students may also choose to go to a few parties with the other people in their dorm to get to know one another.

UK students also experience something similar, which is more often known as ‘freshers week.’ During this, students can enrol in different clubs, sports and attend talks to get to know the university more. It is also the week where a lot of students will attend club nights and parties to help kick-start their university experience by meeting lots of other first years.

Length of Study

There is a substantial difference in the most common length of study a student will spend at university/college. They are as follows:


  • Bachelors - 3 Years
  • Masters - 1 Year
  • PhD - 3-4 Years


  • Bachelors - 4 Years
  • Masters - 2 Years
  • PhD - 5-7 Years

This difference is partly due to the structure of the universities…


In America, colleges are often divided into schools by subject. These individual schools are then often ruled over by the entire college as a whole.

Because of this structure, students usually have the opportunity to trial and test a variety of subjects for at least the first year of their studies before they must decide upon a final major. This final major will be the title of the degree with which they eventually graduate with.

As students, there is far more control over schedules than in the UK. They are able to choose which classes they want to take, pick their timetable and even specific professors.

The emphasis of higher education in the USA is breadth of study – to allow students to explore subjects and make a better-informed decision in which direction they would like to take their future careers.

Rather than being divided into schools, universities in the UK usually have multiple departments within its overall establishment. A lot less limited, students don’t really have the opportunity to study outside of their chosen subject. The studying itself is more intense and specialised, making it harder for students to transfer courses if they so wish to.

Their style of education is a lot more focused, placing further pressure on year 13s to make big decisions about their chosen career paths.


Due the course’s breadth, US colleges usually require weekly or even biweekly readings and tests as well as other assignments such as; small writing tasks, major research papers and oral presentations.

Final grades are based on the student’s performance across the variety of assignments, with a final exam making up a small percentage of their total grade.

In the UK, most universities are much more lecture-based with only a small number of assignments to complete throughout the term. In some (although rare cases) there may be no summative assignments and instead, a student’s entire grade maybe based on one final exam.

Student Life

Unsurprisingly, student life in both nations is not too dissimilar. When taking a break from hard work, students can expect a lot of partying, socialising and (for some) drinking.

In the UK, most students opt to live – particularly in their first year – in student “halls.” These are often studio apartment-type rooms which are located on large campuses. Rooms are usually single occupancy but with shared amenities such as kitchen and bathroom.

After their first year of studying, many students will then opt to move into privately rented accommodation off campus. Usually in student houses, they will move in with a small group of friends to gain a little more independence.

In the US, student accommodation is similar to in the UK. However, students will often find themselves sharing dormitories with other students.

In some cases, students may join either a fraternity or a sorority. These are essentially large houses that students can live in together to feel as though they are like a family. A student must apply directly to the sorority/fraternity, outlining why they believe they would be a good addition to the home. Joining one of these houses allow students to integrate better into the university community whilst teaching them tolerance of others and providing an insight into ‘grown-up’ life.


The cost of education in both countries is far from cheap, but the cost of an education in the United States is generally higher.

In the UK, the government will set the limits for tuition fees, and each individual university is able to set its own fee up to that limit. Currently, universities in England are allowed to charge up to a maximum of £9,250 per year for UK and EU residents. Fees for international students can often be significantly higher.

By contrast, the US government has very little control over what universities are able to charge students. Though the average fee for private four-year institutions is around $29,000 per year, some private four-year institutions can charge up to $50,000 per year. The US fees differentiates between in-state tuition fees and out-of-state tuition fees, as well as between private and public colleges. It is these distinctions which can ultimately determine the tuition fee.

In order to help students, both the US and the UK offer government loans to cover tuition fee costs. However, for international students considering studying in the US, most colleges do not offer financial aid. To study at an Ivy League University, international students will be looking to pay approximately $65,000 a year for a room and tuition. Small and large state universities will be anywhere between $25,000 – $50,000.

The Style of Tuition

It is often debated whether US professors are offering an excessive helping hand to their students. Acting in a similar way to secondary school teachers, it is their job to ensure student’s grades are as good as they can be, and they will try to make their studies as effective as possible. This means tuition is quite a lot like school teaching, including regular homework tasks (which counts towards a final grade), progress-check quizzes and regular check-ins to ensure students are keeping up with the work and fulfilling their potential.

Professors will even offer to grade first drafts of assignments so that students can rework it with their feedback and resubmit in hope for a better grade.

By comparison, UK students work in a much more independent way, although of course they can meet with their tutors if they require some assistance with their work.

In the UK, tutors feel no particular responsibility for their student’s academic success. Students are treated very much as adults, with their academic success down to their own responsibility. While they may have occasional quizzes and tests, they are not set by tutors to track progress – they’re usually for students to monitor their level of understanding around a topic.

If your study style is unconventional, then Brtish universities allow you to work in a way and at a pace that is best for you; it’s ideal if school life left you feeling patronised or molly-coddled.

Ready to apply for Oxford Summer Courses?

For a once in a lifetime experience, join us for summer 2023 where you can discover over 40 academic subjects taught by expert tutors. You’ll also meet other like-minded individuals from around the world and make friends for life! Apply today and choose from 3 stunning locations; Oxford, Cambridge and London.

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UK vs US university: UK - UCAS app, less focus on extracurriculars, shorter study, lecture-based. US - Direct app, extracurriculars matter, no interviews, longer study, flexible schedules. Fees: UK gov limit, US higher. Teaching: US hands-on, UK independent. Choose based on preferences.

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