Studying in the USA vs Studying in the UK Episode 3: Classes

Since I started this memoir series way back in June, I’ve only really covered the social aspects of my student exchange. Today I’d like to discuss the academic differences between studying in the USA and the UK, of which there are many. It’s super-interesting and I’ve been meaning to do a post on this for a while, so let’s begin!


  1. In the U.K most arts degrees have a set length of 3 years. You either make it in those years, or you don’t. I think if you fall short of a passing grade they give you some work to do over the summer, but that’s about it- you don’t retake the assignment.
  2. In the U.S, an average degree typically runs 4 years, but really there’s no set length. In the U.K each year is different, as we progress through a predetermined program of tasks and content. You can’t jump ahead to third year stuff; you have to reach that level. There’s an order to things. In the U.S however, everything is measured in classes and the credits they give you. Every degree has its own criteria about what is required to graduate, and so you can stay for 5 or 6 years if you want. Finishing in less than 4 is rare, but my genius roommate Anne-Marie finished hers in 3 and a half years, which was considered exemplary.
  3. In the U.S they have classes, and in the U.K they have modules. There’s a difference. A class is its own self-contained subject that might be filled up with all sorts of people at different stages of their study, all pursuing different degrees. In the U.K, we had modules, which were each necessary components needed to pass the year and in which we were all on the same journey at the same stage.
  4. In the UK, your degree has a singular, very specialized focus. I studied Creative Writing, which meant that every seminar, lecture and workshop I attended worked toward that goal, and what I needed to achieve that goal was laid out strictly from the start. This meant a deeper exploration of the given subject. Within Creative Writing we had modules that explored different subcategories, of which we had some limited choice, depending on if we wanted to become, say, a screenwriter or a poet. We had classes devoted to science fiction, children’s books, songwriting, modern poetry and scriptwriting for TV.
  5. In the U.S on the other hand, there’s an altogether different approach. Students have an emphasis, known as a “major”, but they are free to take whatever class they like, whether it builds towards their major or not. You can major in women’s studies but take classes in Portuguese and Limnology if you so choose.
  6. A lot of American students go to college without even knowing what degree they want to get from it. These kids are known as “undeclared” and can decide later what major they want. They are free to try out what classes work for them. In that way, college in the U.S seems like an extension of school, and in America people even refer to college as “school”.
  7. In the U.K you have to make your decision at the age of 17 and hope you’ll be happy with it. I know people who have done a year of one degree, hated it, and started a new one, accruing themselves a fine debt.
  8. In the U.S, this wouldn’t happen. You can change majors along the way, and I know people who have studied for 2 years towards one major and decided they would rather switch to something else, and it doesn’t affect their time spent there or their debt. Some people discover in their third year or fourth year that they are close to graduating in an altogether different subject, based on the classes they took, and will jump ship.
  9. Another option Americans have is collecting majors like the skulls of slain enemies. My close friend Elizabeth realized in her third year that she was close to graduating with an archeology degree, and ended up finishing her fourth year as a triple-major!
  10. In the U.S everything counts towards your grade. Every exam, essay, even the weekly quizzes.
  11. Homework is taken seriously in the U.S. Yeah, homework counts towards your grade too. In the U.K we would sometimes get given homework, but it was more prep for the next seminar. It was embarrassing when you turned up and hadn’t done it, but it wouldn’t cost you. One time I flat out told the professor I hadn’t bothered to do the reading, and she gave me this icy expression before ignoring me for the rest of class. I felt bad, because I liked her a lot. In the U.S, it’s in your interest to get that extra work done.
  12. Participation ALSO counts towards your grade in the U.S. In the U.K I mostly hid at the back of the classroom, thinking about sleep. In the U.S I was on my toes, because your public speaking forms a part of your grade.
  13. In the U.K the only thing you have to worry about are the assignments at the end of semester. We never had exams in Creative Writing, so each semester followed the pattern of having two assignments which made up your entire score. Usually a short story and a reflective essay. The classes were basically there to help you gain the knowledge to get a good grade, but nothing really mattered if you did well on those two assignments.
  14. The biggest difference I noted was that in the U.S there was a greater volume of work, whereas in the U.K I felt that the work was a little harder. I was getting pretty good grades in the U.S, but I was let down by the sheer amount of it. In the U.S the diligent, hard-working and organized student reigns supreme. I’m a lazy sonuvabitch, so I found it hard to complete every assignment to the best of my ability. There was literally a deadline for every day of the week for the whole semester.
  15. In the U.S they grade things as A, B, C etc, and for the most part it’s mathematical. It’s most often made by numbers, although I had one professor that told me she graded us on how she “felt” our work deserved to be graded. In the U.K, the grades have strange names like “Distinction” and “First” and “Second”.


What I’ve listed here are what I believe to be the fundamental differences between the education system in the USA and the U.K. This will serve as our groundwork moving forward. I’m going to follow this up with a post tomorrow in which I discuss how I reacted to these changes and how I feel about them. Be sure to Subscribe so you don’t miss out! Thank you once again for reading.

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