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5 Differences Between Going to College in the US Vs the UK

United Kingdom United States
by Matt Hershberger Oct 17, 2014

FOR ALL OF OUR SIMILARITIES and for all of our shared history, the United Kingdom and the United States are extremely different places. Culturally we owe a lot to each other, but we’re also very distinct. You’ve heard the broad stereotypes for each of the countries before: The British are quiet, sarcastic, and stiff upper lipped, while Americans are gregarious, friendly, casual. There’s a good amount of truth to both of these stereotypes, but they don’t really do the complexities justice.

I received my undergraduate degree (a BA in Journalism) from Penn State University in the United States. Penn State is located in State College, Pennsylvania, the quintessential college town, and is known for football, agriculture, and one ugly scandal. My graduate degree (an MSc in Human Rights) came from the London School of Economics and Political Science. LSE is located in the dead center of London, the quintessential cosmopolitan city, and is known for Nobel Prizes, the social sciences, and one ugly scandal.

The schools, like the countries they reside in, are incredibly different. Here are some of the differences between attending college in the US vs the UK.

1. Professors aren’t concerned with teaching to your career in the UK.

After two months of studying only theory in my master’s classes, I went to my professor and asked when we were going to start learning some real-world skills.

“Never,” she said.

“How are we supposed to learn career skills then?” I asked.

“You’re supposed to learn them on the job,” she responded. “We’re more interested in giving you a theoretical groundwork. The practical stuff is for the practical world, not a university.”

I was annoyed at the time, but it has since appeared that my professor was right. I haven’t really used any of the “career skills” I learned in my undergraduate degree, but I’ve absolutely used the theoretical knowledge I gained in my master’s. In this sense, my UK education was far more effective.

2. UK students hang out in pubs, glorious pubs.

Drinking culture is a huge part of American college life, but because most college students are below the drinking age, a lot of it exists underground — whether that be at house parties, frats, fields, or through the use of fake IDs. This makes a bigger difference than you’d think. In the UK, students can drink at 18. While the British are just as sloppy drunk as a lot of American students, it also means that a pub is a place that one can casually, legally go to. Pubs, for Americans who don’t know, are basically the same as most American bars, but they do not ever double as clubs, and they rarely blast music so loud you can’t hear yourself talk.

I found that after classes at LSE, students often went to the bar and talked about the lecture or the course. This served as a sort of second education with the students playing as much of a teaching role as the professors. In short, I learned a lot more in my time at LSE, in part because, yes, I was a master’s student and not a shitty undergrad, but also in part because pub culture allows for long chats between friends.

3. Red Solo cups are a topic of conversation.

No one in the United States thinks red Solo cups are interesting. We know them best as the shitty plastic cups that we need to spend half of the morning after a party cleaning up. We also know of them as the ideal beer pong receptacle. But because they are so ubiquitous at our parties, they have made it into the movies. And because American college movies are watched everywhere, red Solo cups are now “a thing” abroad.

Red Solo cups — easily the least interesting thing about US college — was one of the things I was most frequently asked about in the UK.

4. Quizzes? What are quizzes?

Self-discipline is way more important in the UK. Professors in the US are more or less willing to hold your hand, because they have an incentive in you getting good grades as well. Throughout the semester, they will give out projects and pop quizzes and tiny little daily assignments to make sure you’re following the material.

Not so in the UK. For the most part, the professor will give their lecture, assign their reading, and then basically ignore you. Three of my six final exams were for 100% of the total grade, and the other three — which may have had midterms or major projects — had finals that accounted for, at the very least, 50% of our grade. There was way less room to fuck up in the UK.

5. The British grading scale puts you in your place.

Grade inflation is a thing in the UK, but it has reached less epidemic levels than it has in the US. Regardless, though, the British character is one that is much less focused on individual self-esteem, and one of the side effects of that can be seen in the grading system. In the US, grades are simple, running through A, B, C, D, F in descending order. Only F is a failure.

In the UK, at master’s level, it is as follows, again from highest to lowest:

Distinction – 70-75%
Merit – 60-69%
Pass – 50-59%
Fail – Below 50%
Bad Fail – When fail just isn’t strong enough.

That might not seem interesting, but think about that for a second — there are two levels of failure in the UK. You might have failed, but the professors might not think that was adequate enough. You need another kick while you’re down.

The second thing is that the top score stops at 75%. I asked one of my professors if it was possible to get 100% and he said, “No.” I said, “Well how high can it get?” He said, “I’ve never seen higher than 80%.” This is a man who has taught future Nobel laureates. This is a system you will never be good enough for.

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