Even the brightest and most worldly college-bound American teens are not usually able to name more than a handful of universities in the United Kingdom. Sure, there’s Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics and…well, the list dies off after that. Yet, there are close to 400 universities across England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland and plenty of them crack lists of the top schools in the entire world. Imperial College London, University College London, University of Edinburgh, King’s College London, University of Manchester, University of Bristol, and the University of Southampton are among the top institutions of higher education anywhere on the globe.
So, how do you know if studying in the U.K. might be an appealing option for you? We’ll answer five main questions that strike at the core differences in an American degree program versus one in the United Kingdom.
- How long does it take to earn a degree in the U.K.?
- What does tuition cost in the U.K.?
- What kind of classes will I take?
- How do U.K. university admissions differ from college admissions in the U.S.?
- What are classes like and how do they differ from American classes?
Below you’ll find detailed examinations of each area.
1. You will earn a degree in three years
Believe it or not, the four-year bachelor’s degree is primarily an American phenomenon. Thanks to the Bologna Declaration, an agreement signed by 29 European countries (including the U.K.) in 1999, the three-year bachelor’s degree is standard practice across the entire European Union. Even British schools like the aforementioned Cambridge and Oxford with a combined 1,800 years of rich history and tradition run three-year undergraduate programs. It’s not only bachelor’s degrees that are truncated in Europe—PhD programs which typically take six years to complete in the States run only 3-4 years in England. Students considering studying in Europe are often drawn to the “cheat code” aspect of a three-year degree which affords them more options for gap years or to gain work experience after graduation. Of course, a three-year degree also has significant financial implications which brings us to our next factor.
2. It can be cheaper than college in the U.S.
There are 169 private colleges and universities in the United States that cost more than $60,000 per year to attend (including tuition, room & board, and other fees); 79 institutions cost more than $70,000 per year, which equates to $280,000 for a four-year bachelor’s degree. Fortunately, many more affordable public options exist that allow residents to take advantage of in-state discounts. While universities in the U.K. actually average higher tuition than their American counterparts, the ceiling price tends to be much lower, even for international students (meaning you) who are charged a higher rate. Non-EU students (again, meaning you) are generally charged somewhere between $9,000-$31,000 in annual tuition. This is includes some of the best schools the continent has to offer, such as the University of Glasgow or University College London, which each charge around $20K, roughly $15K less than the average private American university.
In the U.S., we are used to all degree programs costing the same amount of money. For example, a computer science degree and a theater degree from a private college in Massachusetts will cost students an identical tuition figure even though those fields pay vastly different salaries. Interestingly, Cambridge charges a different amount for a degree in the humanities (19,000 euros) than for an engineering degree (31,000 euros).
3. Greater emphasis on one’s major
In the U.S., plowing through a series of required courses in areas that may be of little interest is an immutable staple of the college experience. For better or worse, American students who want to study communications are usually forced to take a couple of science courses (Rocks for Jocks, anyone?) and engineering students must dip their toes into poetry and sociology. While a well-rounded education has its merits, those who prefer to immerse themselves more exclusively in their chosen area of study will greatly prefer the structure of U.K. degree program. Unlike in America, where you can wait until after sophomore year to declare a major, students in the U.K. enter the university with their major already selected. Of course, this is a compelling reason for those entering college as “undecided” to remain close to home. On the other hand, those who know what they want to study will love being able to delve right into their concentration area as first-years. This emphasis on finding students who are committed to particular subject areas also has admissions implications.
4. A more straightforward admissions process
Top American schools desire applicants who are heavily involved in extracurricular activities and have demonstrated leadership and commitment through athletics, academic competitions, the performing arts, or student government. Schools in the U.K. are far less interested in this holistic portrait of its applicants but rather prefer (the very Irish) meat and potatoes of the application—standardized test scores and high school grades. Application components like essays that are essential factors in the admissions process at selective American institutions are considered “fluff” at universities in the United Kingdom. Since British schools allow students to focus more exclusively on their area of concentration, they are less concerned with well-roundedness in academics. For example, a promising physics student is less likely to be judged on their AP/IB English scores than in America where even the most elite technical schools like MIT, Caltech, or Stanford are looking for across-the-board academic perfection.
5. More “old school” education – less hand-holding
Are you someone who likes group projects, opportunities to express your opinion, and prefers lots of little assignments rather than pressure-filled end-of-semester midterms? If so, you will be better off completing your studies in the United States. Higher education in the United Kingdom is more lecture-based in nature and, in most cases, there will be few outside-of-class assignments over the course of a semester other than research papers. Rather, formal assessments like quizzes and a cumulative exam will do more to determine a student’s grade than number of times you raise your hand or acing a group presentation.
Adventurous American high schoolers should explore the possibility of spending three years abroad pursuing a bachelor’s degree in the United Kingdom. It is far less cost-prohibitive than many believe and offers a style of education that works better for some learners, particular those who, post-high school, are 100% certain of their path of study.
A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew’s experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.