Education in the UK vs US: Full Comparison (2023)
Trying to decide between education in the UK vs. in the US? Our comprehensive guide covers the differences and similarities between the two systems.
Table of Contents
When it comes to education at all levels, both the US and the UK are renowned globally for the quality of what they deliver. Both are therefore very popular destinations for international students.
There are however distinct differences between them, particularly when it comes to higher education. From cost to curriculum - there’s plenty to consider!
In this article, we explore the schooling system in both countries, and some of the differences and similarities when it comes to university-level study.
Education in the UK
In the UK education system, children generally begin some formalised schooling at age four, earlier than in the US, and with a greater early focus on academics.
- In the UK (England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland), England, Wales, and Northern Ireland follow the National Curriculum, with some differences. Scotland, however, has its own system.
- The national curriculum starts in state primary schools and continues into state secondary education, which children move in to age 11+.
- The first formal examinations at secondary level are GCSEs, which students take at 16 following a two-year GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) programme.
- In the UK school system, once a student reaches the age of 16, they can then start a 2 year programme which leads to A (Advanced) level examinations. Students specialize in 3 or 4 subjects, that are usually relevant to the degree subject they intend to follow at university. A levels are state examinations and are recognised by all UK universities and by institutions worldwide.
- Those who would like to study more than 3-4 subjects may continue their studies in a broader number of subjects with the International Baccalaureate, which is offered by some private schools.
The academic school year in the UK starts from early September and runs to mid-July, when pupils have a 6-week summer break.
Education in the US
In the US, most children attend some kind of part-time preschool, but state-provided education does not begin until Kindergarten (equivalent to Year 1 in the UK), and, in many districts, Kindergarten is still offered part-time.
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The US system is typically divided into three levels:
- Basic: Elementary school (K - Grade 5)
- Middle school (Grades 6-8)
- High school (Grades 9–12)
Curriculum and examinations
- In the early years, there is a heavy emphasis on socialization as well as developing basic English and maths skills; children are eased into academic studies.
- The US system places less emphasis on examinations, and students remain ‘generalists’ all the way through to the end of secondary school, when they graduate with a high-school diploma at the end of Grade 12 (the equivalent of UK Year 13).
- At the end of high school, US students apply for college education based on a number of elements: their grades in all four years of high school averaged as GPA (Grade Point Average), results from various exams, teachers’ opinions, and personal achievements and extracurricular/volunteer activities.
American schools have three summer months of vacation. The academic year typically runs from August or early September until the end of May or early June.
Comparison Point #1: Universities
The USA and the UK are two of the world’s top destinations for international students. Both countries dominate the international rankings of higher education institutions, however their universities and the educational systems they operate are very distinct.
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- There are over 150 universities in the United Kingdom. The University of Cambridge and University of Oxford (often referred to as Oxbridge) are generally considered the best universities in the UK, with St Andrews University, UCL, and LSE often highly ranked too.
- The 24 Russell Group universities are also recognized for their commitment to industry-leading research and an outstanding learning experience. Among this group of top universities are Durham University, Imperial College London and the University of Bristol.
- The UK’s higher education institutions are all held to strict standards by the government.
- The consistently high quality of education in the UK helps to keep it at the forefront of global research. According to the British Council, although it represents just 0.9 per cent of the global population, the UK produces 14 per cent of the world’s most highly cited scientific research.
- The USA has one of the largest education systems globally, with over 4,000 higher education institutions. Arguably the most famous are those in the Ivy League; eight universities in the North East of America that are renowned for their academic excellence, social elitism, and admission selectivity. They include world-famous Harvard University, as well as Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth, Cornell, Columbia, Yale and the University of Pennsylvania.
- In many countries, post-secondary institutions are called universities. However, in the US, the words college and university are often used interchangeably.
- There are many different types of US college/university; some are public (state-funded) and others are private (privately funded). Public universities are often bigger in size than private ones and are characterized by lower tuition costs.
- There are also those termed ‘research universities’, which can be public or private universities, and have high research activities.
- Finally, there are community colleges; two-year colleges that award an associate’s degrees (transferable), as well as certifications. Community college graduates most commonly transfer to four-year colleges or universities to complete their degree.
- Transferring between American universities is far more common in the US than the UK in general, and can be a great way for students to graduate with a degree from a more highly ranked institute.
At Kings, our Guaranteed Outcome programs take advantage of the transfer system to allow students to begin their US degree at one of our partner universities in Boston, New York, California, Wisconsin or Oregon before moving to a Top 50 or Top 100 university to complete their studies.
Our partner institutes provide the perfect starting point for international students to begin university-level study and acclimate to life in the US. With expert on campus guidance, theyre supported extensively to make sure they are equipped and ready to transfer after 2 years to a top ranked university in the US.
Comparison Point #2: Admission Requirements
In the UK, you can apply to up to five universities (four, if you're applying for medicine, dentistry or veterinary medicine). In the US, you can apply to as many universities as you want to, although the general advice is to apply to six to eight different colleges.
Below are some of the differences in terms of process.
- In the UK, every student applies to several universities through UCAS (the University and Colleges Admissions Service).
- This is a UK-based organisation that operates the application process for British universities. Here, you can choose your university options, submit your grades and personal statement and this service will store this information.
- It’s all done in one place, making it much easier. You also only need to write one personal statement; a short essay about why you want to study your intended degree course.
- In the US, the process of applying to university can be longer and more complex.
- Students have two choices when it comes to university applications; apply to each university directly, going through each university admissions department, or apply through the Common Application.
- Whilst it’s not as detailed as the UK’s UCAS system, it does allow you to submit all of your applications in one place.
- Students applying to universities in the US also usually need to supply essays for each university they apply to. So, if you apply for 10 universities, you'll need to write 10 essays - all specific to each university.
- You will have to submit your academic transcripts as part of your application for admission to university or college. In the US this includes your “grades” and “grade point average” (GPA), which are measurements of your academic achievement.
Comparison Point #3: Curriculum
There are significant differences between the UK and US education system when it comes to curriculum, not only regarding the point of specialization, but also teaching styles and assessment.
- As a UK student, you must decide what you want to study before you apply for university.
- It is not possible to simply apply to study at a university without detailing the specific course that you are applying for.
- All of your classes will be related to your degree subject.
- Another thing that varies between the US and the UK higher education systems is the typical teaching style. Degree studies in the UK tend to be heavily lecture based, although some smaller group tutorials, or seminars are also included.
- Being largely lecture-based, UK universities put a focus on self-directed study, meaning depending on which subject you study, you may have relatively few ‘contact hours’ with your tutors, when you are attending lectures or seminars.
- UK university study may include the occasional assessment, but it’s not uncommon for students at UK universities to have no formal assessment until an end of term, or even end of the year exam.
- Degrees are awarded as first-class honours (equivalent to GPA 4.0), upper second-class honours (equivalent to GPA 3.3-3.7), lower second-class honours (equivalent to GPA 2.7-3.0), and third-class honours (equivalent to GPA 2.0-2.3).
- in the USA, you have until the end of your second year of undergraduate study (sophomore year) to declare a major (the subject your degree will be in). Instead, you will study a core curriculum of arts, humanities and science classes, alongside the subjects of your choosing.
- This allows you to explore various disciplines and find which one suits you best before you choose your major. The broad range of subjects you will study at a US university means your degree will generally take longer to complete than in the UK.
- Those who wish to specialize in medicine, dentistry, veterinary or engineering fields must first complete their bachelor’s degree before undertaking a postgraduate degree in their chosen profession.
- The USA system uses plenty of lectures, but these might be incorporated much more with smaller seminars or workshops than in the UK.
- Often, US university students have more assignments to complete and more classes to attend. Those classes will also often include a lot of active discussion between the students and the professor. In fact, a large part of the overall grade at a US university will be based on class participation.
- Universities in the USA in general are much more assessment-based than their UK counterparts and students are likely to have weekly, bi weekly or monthly assessments, which will be combined with a final exam for a final grade.
- Assignments are graded as A to F and at the end of the degree, a grade point average (GPA) is calculated.
Comparison Point #4: Career Opportunities
Graduates from both US and UK universities are highly sought after, and career outlooks for international students with degrees from either country are good.
While it’s true that neither the UK nor the USA offers any kind of guaranteed job at the end of studies, the rules for any international student hoping to stay in on in the country to work after graduating do differ.
Recent changes mean that international students in the UK are now eligible to remain in the UK and work for up to two years, which allows them to really experience the country outside of formal education.
In the USA international students are eligible to remain in the country for just 60 days after graduation. In that time they will need to either enrol in another college, or in an Optional Practical Training (OPT) program to gain employment on an F-1 visa.
This is not always a particular easy avenue to access, and many students find themselves leaving after 60 days.
Comparison Point #5: Length
Generally, a university degree in the UK takes less time to complete than in the US, which is partly down to the fact that students specialize earlier in the UK.
- In the UK, an undergraduate degree typically takes 3 years. There are some exceptions, for example, degrees which require participants to complete a placement year in industry, or in a foreign country, usually take one year longer.
- UK master’s degrees usually take one year of full-time study to complete.
- Typically, American bachelor’s degrees take four years. In the US, each year of an undergraduate degree has its own name; year 1 is known as ‘Freshman Year’, year 2 is ‘Sophomore Year, year 3 is ‘Junior Year’ and year 4 is ‘Senior Year’.
- In the US, graduate (master’s) programs commonly take 2 years of study (full-time), as opposed to just one in the UK.
Comparison Point #6: Accommodation
Both countries typically offer first-year students on-campus housing, but one key difference is how accommodation is shared between students.
- In the UK, very few universities offer shared rooms. It is much more common to have your own bedroom in a shared flat or residence (commonly known as student halls) instead.
- Whilst they have their own bedroom, students generally have shared living and kitchen spaces.
- Alternatively, some universities and student accommodation providers in the UK offer studio apartments where you can live by yourself if you can cover the cost.
- Once students begin their second year at university in the UK, it’s common for them to move to off-campus accommodation; often into a shared house with other students in an area close to the university.
- It’s very common for students in the US to live on campus in student dorms, and also for them to share a bedroom with at least one other student during their first year. Some dorm rooms can even take up to 3 students per room. Students have shared living and kitchen spaces with their fellow residents.
- Often part of the application process also includes a short questionnaire on habits, preferred bedtime etc.to try and match students with similar lifestyles.
- In many cases, once you start your sophomore year, there are more housing options are to you — although some schools may not allow students to live off campus until they enter their junior (third) year.
- Many students move into their own apartments, which can offer more freedom and allow them to live more independently in readiness for when they graduate.
Comparison Point #7: Campus Life
Students in both the UK and the USA will have plenty of opportunity to get involved in university sports club and societies, and also to do volunteering and part-time work It's a great way to meet new people, enjoy student life and ensure you strike a healthy study/life balance.
The three main types of clubs and societies at UK universities are:
- social clubs organised around a shared interest
- sports teams
- subject-based groups
Whether you aim to continue with a hobby you've been enjoying for years or try something completely new, you're almost certain to find suitable extracurricular activities.
The student's union website is a good place to look for information, as are faculty notice boards. Arguably the best place to scope out potential clubs and opportunities though is at the fresher's fair, a huge exhibition held for new students at the start of the academic year, where most clubs and societies are represented with the aim of signing up new recruits!
There are two big differences between clubs and societies in the UK and the USA — the first relates to something known as ‘Greek life’ and the second to sporting activities.
Greek life refers to a special kind of student society, called a fraternity for male students, and a sorority for female students. These often take their names from the Greek alphabet, hence the term ‘Greek life’.
- Fraternities and sororities are unique to US universities and if you’d like to join one, you must ‘pledge’ them during the first weeks of the semester, usually by completing a series of challenges set for prospective members.
- Not everyone who pledges a sorority or fraternity will be accepted, but those who are will often have the opportunity to live in a shared house with their ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters’. This gives students a great opportunity to build a social and professional network.
- University sports are a huge part of university life in the USA; far bigger than in the UK. University sports teams fill stadiums with fans and inter-university games are shown on TV. Talented athletes can become local celebrities and even get big discounts on their tuition fees!
- All of this might make the USA a very attractive destination for students with a big interest in sports, or who want the opportunity to play in high-profile games.
- Professional teams often pick new players from university leagues, so attending a US university could be a great option if you’re interested in pursuing a sporting career after you graduate.
Comparison Point #8: Cost
The cost of education at UK and US universities differ substantially. While all universities set slightly different fees, generally speaking the cost of a university education in the US is higher than in the UK.
- Tuition fees for home students in the UK are capped at £9,000 per year. While there are no such restrictions on how much international students can pay, the average is between £10,000 and £20,000 a year.
- Students who have UK citizenship are able to apply for a loan to cover their degree and living costs. However, most international students will be unable to apply for this kind of funding. Instead, international students can work part-time to fund their studies, if their visa conditions allow it.
- Students can also apply for scholarships for help with their finances.
- In the USA, costs vary widely between universities, but international students can expect to pay up to $45,000 a year to study a bachelor’s degree at a public university, and up to $55,000 a year or more at some private institutions.
- There is no government funding for tuition fees or living costs, however often there is some type of financial aid available.
- Students often have part-time jobs to help fund their education.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Below are some of the most commonly asked questions about education in the UK vs USA.
Q1. Is education better in the UK or US?
Both countries are renowned for the high quality of their education. Which country would suit you better as a study destination depends on a host of factors, from financial and time-related considerations to cultural preferences.
Q2. Is education harder in the UK or US?
It is difficult to say which country has a harder level of education. Which you consider harder will probably depend on your style of learning, and what field you hope to focus your studies on.
Q3. Is the UK a good country for education?
Yes. British higher education providers are recognised internationally for their creative and challenging environments, which help students achieve their best. Their standards are highly regarded they generally feature extensively within internationally university rankings.
The British higher education system has been the basis for higher education standards around the world for a long time, with revolutionary teaching styles and modern facilities.
Q4. Is the US a good country for education?
Yes. The US is recognized for the high quality of its education, in particular at university level. Approximately half of the world’s top 50 universities are located in America, an accolade which can be attributed to factors such as accomplished faculty, and advanced technology and research capabilities.
We hope that this article has helped you understand more about the differences between the education systems in US and UK.
If you would like to receive more detailed information about Kings and our university pathway and preparation programs in both countries, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.