Resources

Honors or Honours? The Differences Between US and UK University Systems.

The US and the UK are the two most popular destinations for international students. Although both countries have close ties and share a common language, their university systems have as many differences as commonalities. How to sort it all out?  Let StudentRoads be your guide. While we can’t explain why the US uses the term “umbrella” (from the Latin word “umbra”) and why the Brits use the term “brolly” to mean the same thing; the different university structures in the two can be demystified.

Overview

US

Typical undergraduate bachelor degree programs in American universities are four years in length. Class levels, in increasing order, are called: freshman, sophomore, junior and senior year.  US universities have broad academic requirements in terms of subjects of study at public, private, and liberal arts universities and colleges. The educational focus for earning an undergraduate degree in the US is for a student to be “well-rounded” in a wide and diverse range of subjects. This requirement means that students do not specialize on their primary subject of interest until later in their degree program. Often, a student may not formally declare his/her “major” until their junior (or third) year. A result of this is that more students graduating from US universities go on to study graduate programs to deepen their subject-specific knowledge. Each year a student must earn a certain amount of academic credit which can sometimes be earned from a variety of sources: academic courses, campus work programs and internships, and independent study. The difficulty of coursework varies by major and by university. Distributional requirements and the number of credit hours required for graduation tend to be uniform, regardless of a student’s chosen major. Courses are taught by professors, often with the support of teaching assistants ("TAs") who are graduate students.

UK

British universities offer three year undergraduate degrees (with certain exceptions) and students typically spend all three years focusing on their selected subject. They may also be required to write a dissertation to graduate. In fact, there is often little opportunity to broaden one's academic background through taking additional courses in different disciplines. This approach favors students that want to focus on one subject and can help give you a head start with career skills and post-graduate academic study. As a side benefit students do not run the risk of diluting the grades on their transcripts by taking exams in subjects that are not their strengths. However, one misses out on a broad-based education and the interesting classes offered by other departments. Arguments can be made about narrowing one’s focus too early but the US and UK systems are different because there is no true “one size fits all” solution to education.   

Degrees

US

The most common four-year undergraduate degrees in the US are: Bachelor of Science (B.S.) and Bachelor of Arts (B.A.). Other four-year degrees which are less common include: a Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.), Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.), Bachelor of Engineering (B.Eng.), Bachelor of Science in Public Affairs (B.S.P.A.), and a Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.). A five-year professional Architecture program offers a Bachelor of Architecture Degree (B.Arch.).

The two year undergraduate programs offered by community colleges normally award associate degrees. The most common are the Associate of Arts (A.A.) and Associate of Science (A.S.) degrees.

In the US professional degrees in medicine, dentistry, and law are all graduate degrees. One doesn’t have to earn a specific major for the four year undergraduate degree, although there are common paths and often specific undergraduate classwork that is required. For example, for entry into medical school there is a typical “pre-med” path followed by the majority of med school applicants where one majors in biology or other pure-sciences subjects. However, one can get into medical school with a degree in dance as long as the required science classes have also been completed (with distinction, of course). Specific entrance exams are required for graduate schools: the MCAT for medical school, the GMAT for business schools, the LSAT for law school, and the GRE for other graduate masters and PhD programs.

UK

Most British universities offer three year undergraduate bachelor’s degrees. However, a few Scottish universities offer four year undergraduate degrees; including Edinburgh University, University of St. Andrews, Glasgow University and Aberdeen University.  The arts faculties at these institutions grant Master of Arts degrees for these four year programs, while science students are granted a bachelor of science ("BSc") degree, like their English counterparts.

Professional degrees in the US and UK are earned quite differently. In the US they start at the graduate level while in the UK they start at the undergraduate level. In the UK an undergraduate degree in law is a standard three year program with immediate specialization. Post-graduation there is a one-year professional qualification.  Medicine is a four year undergraduate degree in the UK, followed by many more years of professional qualifications.

Grading Systems

US

Grades are determined by mid-term and final exams, generally coupled with periodic written assignments and progress tests or “quizzes”. A student accumulates a weighted average grade over the duration of their degree program: their grade point average or “GPA”. A GPA is generally stated out of a maximum of 4.00, which is an “A” grade and above 90%. However, there are some deviations from this rule as some universities award pluses and minuses. For example, an “A+” is a 4.5 or above 95%. Adding to the confusion, grades are sometimes derived from a rounding curve where the top scores are an “A” and the bottom scores an “F”, regardless of actual percentage scored on a given exam.

UK

The grading system at UK universities is not linear, a situation which can cause initial confusion. In reality, however, it is fairly straightforward. The highest degree is a “First Class Honours”, which is awarded to students with an A average across all their classes. The next band is a Second Class Honours degree, which is segmented into an Upper Division and Lower Division. These are commonly referred to as a “two-one” and a “two-two”, respectively. Statistically, the majority of students graduate with a 2:1. Many major employers of recent graduates require a minimum of a 2:1 for acceptance into their training programs. This is also often the threshold for admittance into master's and PhD courses. Third Class Honours and Ordinary degrees complete the hierarchy of degrees awarded by British institutions.

Admissions

US

In the US standardized entrance exams (e.g. the SAT) are required that are used in applications to all universities. In general, a student applies to every university individually but there is a consortium of universities that accept a common application.

The foundation of the US admissions system are the SAT and ACT, both standardized entrance exams that is taken by high school students typically within a year of applying to university. Most students take one or the other but the SAT is more prevalent. The SAT is a three part test ranking math, verbal, writing and reasoning skills. Each part is graded out of 800 points to give a total possible score of 2,400.  University admissions officers review a student’s SAT or ACT score, high school GPA, any subject-specific achievement test results, and any, “AP”, or advance placement scores (equivalent to freshman year college courses). In addition to these scores an application typically includes essays, a resume of activities and achievements, and references from teachers and community mentors.  Essay questions may focus on one’s experiences or analytical reasoning but seldom tests academic knowledge of a particular topic.  The goal of American university admission officers is to create a diverse and balanced class; not just top test scorers. Therefore, every part of the application is important as your objective is to prove that you are a well-rounded student that will bring something unique to your class. As described above, because a student doesn’t specialize at the undergraduate level they apply for general admission rather than a specific major. The deadline for the applications differs by university but getting the applications at the beginning of your senior year in high school helps your chances.  

UK

In the UK there is no standard entrance exam and the admissions system is centralized. A student completes one application form that is then distributed to the selected universities by a central agency – UCAS – which publishes the admissions form and distributes a student's application to his/her selected universities.  All high school students take national leaving exams that form the basis for their academic credentials for the UCAS form.  These exams are supplemented by a personal statement (a one page essay on a student's background and academic interests), a reference from a teacher, and a list of other qualifications and achievements. Unlike in the US where a student applies for general admission to a university, in the UK students apply to specific degrees within universities.  The UCAS form allows for 8 degree courses that a student can apply to. Therefore, a certain strategy is required in completing the UCAS form: do you apply for three or four degree programs at a university that you are very interested in or do you apply to the degree that you really want to study at 8 different universities? A student's approach to this question will be a factor in how they complete their personal statement as the focus will either be on a particular university or a particular academic subject.  The application deadlines for the UCAS form are: mid-October for applications to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, as well as medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine; mid-January for other universities and courses; and mid-March for art and design courses. Universities respond the applications within two months.  The offers are typically conditional on the results of the student's final school leaving exam results.  Once a student has all his/her offers from universities, they have to submit their first and second choice selections to UCAS, where the second choice offer must have a lower academic requirement than the first choice offer. In mid-summer when the school leaving exam results are announced there is a special process called “clearing” for students to take places in undersubscribed courses if they fail to attain the exam results to get into their top two choices.

So there you have it. Two very different approaches that provide enough diversity for a student to meet their goals in the manner that is best for them.

[Top image credit: Stockbyte/Thinkstock; Second image credit: Hemera Technologies/Photo.com/Thinkstock]

© 2012 StudentRoads. All rights reserved. Do not reprint without permission.

Add Comment

No comments yet. Be the first to comment!

Student Stories

  • 1 of 3
  • Maria Ly is quite literally a Rock Star. You’ll often find her hanging off a 5.13a grade rock climbing route, she is the rock star co-founder of Skimble (which is incubated by Rock Health), and you can find her rock formation photography featured in Outside Magazine.

  • March 13, 1988 was the day we moved to America. Although it wasn't my first time in the country, that date was the beginning of my journey through the American school system. Those eleven years filled me with a lifetime of great memories.

  • Mayank is an inventor and zebra-enthusiast. He developed Stripespotter, a biological barcode scanner for zebras, and is a part of the team behind Facebook insights. By way of India to Oman to the US, Mayank can be found behind the wheel of a red Porsche dreaming up his next big idea.

Reviews

Reviewer: Anonymous
Overall Rating:
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)
Comments:

It was really nice to attend such a great university, I like the environment and faculty of the University of Health Sciences Antigua.

Reviewer: Seungbum K.
Overall Rating:
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)
Comments:

Golden Gate University (GGU) offers practical and affordable education for international students.

Reviewer: Rebecca R.
Overall Rating:
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)
Comments:

Studying at St. Andrews was one of the best choices I have ever made.

Reviewer: Andrew L.
Overall Rating:
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)
Comments:

I went to FSU on an athletic scholarship having finished a degree at Stirling University in Scotland.

News

  • 1 of 1
  • Want a chance to win an iPad 3? All you have to do is sign up for StudentRoads and you will be automatically entered. It is that easy!

Newsletter Sign Up



Sponsors

  • 1 of 1