One of the hardest things I’ve had to overcome since starting my Master’s course in England was the difference in education systems between the UK and the US. Although I knew in advance not to expect anything higher than a 70 on an essay from my short study abroad experience as an undergrad, I still wasn’t prepared for the postgraduate teaching style.
In the States the typical full-time student takes at least 12 hours of classes (roughly 4 courses), which usually covers five days—three or four if you’re lucky—which is then broken into 45 minute or 90 minutes classes. Personally, as an overachiever who wanted to graduate a whole semester early, I was taking anywhere from 15 to 18 hours (roughly 5 to 6 courses) a week and going to classes everyday. It’s fair to say I got into a very structured routine or going to class, going home doing my assignments and promptly falling asleep to do it all over again.
This is the biggest difference I’ve found in the general structure of these two very different educational systems. To compare, in my first semester of postgraduate studies at University of Westminster where I’m a full student, I only take three courses, each having one, three hour lecture a week (the equivalent of 9 hours). For me this meant only going for two days of week, simply unheard of back in the States.
When I explain this to people the next question is always, ‘then how do their degrees take less amount of time’ or the negative member of the groups rudely says ‘their educational system must be lazy’ when in truth it’s the opposite. The American system is focused largely on creating a “well-rounded” education, but this doesn’t mean it’s ‘better’ or function. Undergraduates are required to take a variety of sources in a variety of subjects in order to graduate with their degree, for example everyone must take (and pass) specific Math, English and Science courses.
This is not ideal for those who know in advance they struggle in these subjects, in fact it often hinders the students ability to learn. I know from personal experience as a tutor during my undergraduate career that students who willing knew going into university that they struggle with say, English, and are forced to take multiple English courses in which they continually fail or receive only nearing passing marks, often don’t see the point in doing their other studies. Additionally these students can become unmotivated to even attend their classes, which only further effects your grade in the US, particularly with required courses.
For the most part, this doesn’t even become an issue in the UK system because students chose their degree and area of study from the beginning and automatically begin relevant courses. In the US, you can go your whole first year with only taking one course related to your degree because you have so many other required courses to take first. Personally, this drove me crazy from day one, so much to the point that my senior year I was taking courses with mostly freshmen and sophomores because I kept putting them off to the last minute.
Now that I’ve covered the general differences, here’s the finer points of what to expect assignment and grading wise, if going from the US to UK system;
First, make sure your writing skills are top notch and for the love of all things use proper citations and use them often. I say this because during my first study abroad as an undergrad, I was so confident in my writing abilities and after my first assignment (worth 60% of my grade) wasn’t as great as I thought, I realised a few key differences a little too late. Writing in the UK is all about citations and proving your work with research. What I’ve discovered since beginning my Master’s is that it’s just as much about supporting your wiring as challenging it.
What I mean, is that the typically US format for writing is this: generalise what you’re going to say, provide evidence to support, analyse and prove. Typically, a good rule of thumb when writing in the US is your analysis should be 2-3 times longer than your evidence (citation) and then you repeat the process. It could not be more different in the UK. Your evidence and analysis should work together and your analysis can (and should) provide support from a different source to than confirm or challenge your first citation. This is where you really show your research and how well you’ve engaged with the research process.
This might sound really tedious and generally it is, but unlike in America you’ll have one or two large assignments for the whole term so you have months to work and research before anything is due. However, because it’s worth such a huge amount of your grade, you need to make sure you’re getting done right.
Second, when you get your grade, DO NOT read it out of 100 because you will have a panic attack. Instead, I like to think of the grade out of 75 (most say 70, but as I said I’m an overachiever) simply because anything higher than a 75 is over and beyond what is expected, simply due to what is considered recognised excellence. I’ve found two charts to be particularly helpful, the first one shows how grades are distributed by percentage and the second shows a comparison in overall grades between the two systems.
(Please note this is only a rough estimation based on my previous experiences after returning from study abroad and applying to UK graduate programs, and will vary from University to University. Also, in the US the top mark of A may vary, meaning some University’s may only recognise a 4.0 GPA as an A grade. Additionally, a 2.0 GPA is the minimum requirement for graduation.)
Third, professors are not nearly as keen to hold you hand to help you get the grade you need/want for an assignment. What I mean is, in America it’s very common for professors to review assignments multiple times so you can make the changes they would normally take points off for. This is unheard of in the UK where your marks are pretty much final and minimal guidance given throughout the assignment.
Lastly, your courses are going to be lectures, not the classroom setting you’re probably used to, especially individual desks. Also say goodbye to people wanting to participate in class because it’s like pulling teeth in England to get other students to actually respond. Unless however, you find yourself in a course which includes a seminar, in which case you might hear the occasional student opinion. For those who appreciate a small classroom size and the more traditional approach, I would recommend as many seminar courses as possible because it will give you the most one on one contact, as opposed to the standard lecture format.
Now for some finer points of what to expect if going from the UK to US system for study abroad or a full degree;
First, expect a lot of busy work in the States. Your final grade is typically made up of class participation (often including attendance), various homework assignments (anything from online quizzes to short essays or response pieces), quizzes, a mid-term and a final exam. This is great for those who see it as a way to study less for their final or put less pressure on themselves, but it all adds up and usually very quickly.
This what I call, busy work, is what I used to hate about my undergrad. You spend hours every night completely these little tiny assignments that don’t really give much value, you do them to do them and that’s it. Then when a big (meaningful) assignment comes around you slack a little because percentage wise it’s not that much of your grade.
Second, be prepared to take classes you’re probably not that interested in (especially if doing a full degree in the States). Don’t worry, we’ve all been there and you’ll get through it.
Third, get used to having a roommate. Although, it might seem normal for everyone to have single rooms in the UK that is a rare and often pricey luxury in the States. Typically, you’ll have between 2 and 4 roommates who you need to spend a lot of time with, so you need to make the best of it.
Lastly, make friends without who has a car because life will be so much easier for you. Having a car at University is very common in America so for those study abroad you might be a bit at a disadvantage in some situations (i.e. large Target shops) but have no fear, you can easily find someone who has a car and tag along to get all your shopping needs done.