The Difference Between British and American Universities


When pursuing an education, would you prefer a professional-level specialization or freedom of choice? Going into London for a study abroad program, that was the first time I realized how different the British “uni” system was from the United States. In fact, university and college don’t even mean the same thing to them. It never did, but Americans have simply passed over that technicality (universities are actually a collection of colleges). Britain is currently undergoing law reform that would keep students in school until the age of eighteen, which means in some cases college or further training is required. While as expected, wealthier students are still much more likely to pursue studies, a good 30% plus of the entire population is made up of graduates. Statistics are looking while not exceptional, but positive for Britain. What, then, is the benefits and drawbacks about the system?

Walking us in a short tour, the University of London student I met first introduced to me the idea of a strict, one-choice-determines-all sort of route to take for four years or more of education. It’s probably an exaggeration, but when I did mention that I had several friends who would take Guitar or Art classes to bolster their GPA, the students said they definitely couldn’t do that. A person would say, choose Law, and immediately jump in and be trained for it. In a way, it mostly skips over the “required courses” many U.S. colleges dump on us. Humanities, sciences, math, and some fun, hobby electives are all sort of unavailable depending on if they’re necessary or not to your career. While this level of focus and specialization produces more qualified people within a field, is it really the fast track for success?

In my own personal, inexperienced opinion, I think not. What makes a university is the diversity of choices as well as walks of life. I don’t know how easy transfers are in Britain, but at my current college the majors and programs are incredibly easy to drop and add. I might fulfill an elective requirement with something easier and increase my GPA, and in a way that can be called slacking or unfair, but I would still be gaining a lot of possibly practical knowledge with a course in psychology, which I chose out of experimental interest this semester. Studying English, Economics, nearly anything doesn’t have a set boundary at all for the possible tangents a student will explore in job-hunting later on. Some schools even offer a wacky, create-your-own major that opens up the course list like a buffet table. Being a jack-of-all-trades from a four-year college may not always land you in medical school, but it will make you open-minded and adaptable, with a good grasp on your strengths and interests. It’s idealistic of me to think this in shaky economical times, but I stand by it nevertheless: growing into yourself, I believe, is what a college program should promote.

British Graduation Rates:


  1. It is possible to take elective courses for part of your credit in the UK (I did a French language module during my archaeology degree), but it’s not commonly done. Bear in mind that school education in the UK starts a year younger than in the US (mandatory attendance in the September-August period you turn age 4), and the material taught in the first year of US universities roughly equates to UK A-Level courses (end of high school), which is where we get our version of ‘breadth’ – we take 3 or 4 courses, and it’s fairly normal to take maths or science even if you intend to take an artsy degree at university. It’s that two-year period where we work out what kind of degree we want to do, just as the first 2 or 3 years at an American college give that kind of experience.

    Furthermore, the UK job environment has traditionally been built around hiring people for positions they’re educated for, rather than expecting applicants to have a degree of any kind. Until the last few years, applicants for most jobs simply weren’t expected to have any degree at all, just appropriate A-level results. Mass university education has really taken off since the mid/late 90s, and HR in the UK is still adjusting to this, and deciding what kind of education is expected from entry-level candidates.

    For any US student considering a UK degree, talk to your potential department(s) first. Different universities have varying degrees of flexibility on elective modules, and some may be able to make allowances if they realise its important for your resume when you get back to the States. Also make the most of the extra-curricular activities and the other educational classes you can do alongside your degree.

Tell the Truth

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: