When you are applying to a university in the US or the UK, you might expect to see a lot of similarities. Both countries wield a significant degree of prestige in higher education, and the education received in either will carry a lot of weight in a graduate’s future career. Either country has its advantages and disadvantages in how education is structured.
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Now, let’s discuss some of the fundamental differences between getting a bachelor's degree (or higher!) in the US versus the UK. This information can be valuable if you are considering how long you feel you have to work on your education, how ready you are to begin your university career, and how certain you are about what subject you want to study.
Length of time to get a bachelor’s degree
The standard period to complete a bachelor’s degree in the US is four to five years. Some programs (particularly engineering and architecture) are actually designed to be completed in five years.1 The options for US education are many, and most schools require students to take a core set of courses in addition to the requirements for their chosen degree. The reasoning behind this practice is that students often benefit from having a well-rounded education that includes exposure to other cultures, languages, and ways of knowing. In sum, because of US universities’ more expansive degree requirements, you will usually spend more time than in the UK.
UK bachelor’s degree courses in England and Wales generally take three years to complete. This is because UK courses focus more narrowly on the main degree subject.2 While students do have to take some courses outside of their discipline, most of these occur in the later years, particularly with science courses. Bachelor’s degrees at universities in Scotland take four years to complete, much like those in the US (which were modeled on this system).
There are combined bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in both the US and the UK. These take four years to complete. Many sciences, engineering, and mathematics programs in the UK are combined programs, meaning that upon completion, students will be awarded both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Similar programs in the US are generally advertised as taking five years to complete.3
Foundation year (UK) vs. two-year college (US)
For students whose exam scores, grades, or general curricula are not enough to enter a bachelor’s degree program right away, both countries offer options to help applicants catch up. In the UK, many universities offer what is called a "foundation year." This year-long period of study can be completed either online or on campus, and upon completion, many foundation year programs will allow students entry into a degree program. These programs are not usually offered by the most selective universities. A notable exception is the Lady Margaret Hall foundation year at Oxford.4
During the foundation year, students will immerse themselves in modules dedicated to research skills and subject knowledge that students need to succeed in the university environment. Some are even tailored toward entry into specific fields. The University of Southampton offers three foundation year programs on their UK campus: the International Foundation Year (for students seeking entry into humanities, social science, law, and business programs); the Science Foundation Year (for science courses such as biology, physics, chemistry, and neuroscience); and the Engineering/Physics/Maths/Geophysics foundation year.5
International students in the US may choose a two-year college before applying to transfer to a four-year university. US education tends to require students to take courses outside their chosen major to fulfill general studies requirements. Many of these lower-level courses fulfill the same functions as lectures in the UK foundation year: teaching research, writing, language, and critical thinking skills. The vast majority of these general requirements may be fulfilled at a two-year college. Further, international student support at two-year colleges in the US tends to be much more robust than at the larger research institutions students transfer to.6
UK universities are less flexible about changing majors
US college students generally do not have to decide on a major right away. Many schools encourage students to explore a variety of courses before deciding on a major, like Stanford and Brown. Others, like the University of Pennsylvania, actually do not let students declare a major until their second year. At this point, students will apply to the programs in which they would like to pursue a degree.7 If a student wishes to change majors, it is fairly easy to do so, and it often does not affect financial aid.
The vast majority of universities in the UK require students to declare which subject they intend to study at the time of application. This is one of the things that contributes to UK bachelor’s degrees taking less time to complete than US degrees. Changing majors is not difficult in practice. Just like the US, all you need to do is fill out some paperwork. However, lecturers, professors, and advisors will actively discourage students from changing. Financial aid is usually affected, especially if the change in course will add a year or more to the students’ completion time.
While there are several application systems in the US (partly due to the huge number of institutions), the UK has one application system: UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service). Some universities, like the University of Nottingham, have an internal application system, but even this institution has a UCAS portal. Others (like Oxford and Cambridge) do have their own supplemental application materials in addition to the UCAS application.
In the US, the Common Application and the Universal College Application (UCA) are the two biggest application portals, hosting thousands of four-year institutions and their supplemental applications. However, not all schools are a part of these. The University of California system has its own portal to apply to California public state universities, for example. Further, 121 schools use the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success Application, including the prestigious Rice University in Texas and CalTech (California Institute of Technology). Others still maintain their own applications that must be accessed through their main site, but there are not many of these left. When applying, it is best to check the Common Application, UCA, or Coalition sites first.
These are just some of the most prominent differences between universities in the US and the UK. In our next installments, we will look at technical schools, medicine courses, and student employment options.
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- The Stuckeman School at Penn State (Pennsylvania State University) lists ten semesters of coursework to complete the Bachelor of Architecture, as opposed to eight. (2014) ↩
- The UCAS application portal (the site that most, if not all, UK universities use for their applications) lists this information in on the "UCAS Terms Explained" page. ↩
- The University of Chicago has five such programs: Computational Social Science, Middle Eastern Studies, two public policy programs, and social service administration. Another option allows dedicated pre-medical students to begin medical school in the fourth year of their bachelor’s degree. ↩
- The Lady Margaret Hall Foundation Year program is relatively new (started in 2016). While it does not guarantee a spot at Oxford, it will dramatically boost a student’s ability to succeed in a university environment. ↩
- Southampton’s foundation year descriptions can be found on their website. ↩
- US News and World Report notes that lower tuition and excellent support for English Language Learners are two reasons why international students choose two-year colleges (or community colleges) to start. ↩
- The University of York notes that international students wishing to change their course at a UK university must apply for a new visa before they can resume their studies. ↩