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Student LifeTravelling

A comparison between US and UK universities: Is 4 years a waste?

8 June 2023
Photo by MD Duran on Unsplash
Photo by MD Duran on Unsplash
In reflection on a recent visit to a US university, I’m writing a series of blogs comparing the experience of Cardiff University students to students studying in US universities. After reflecting on the experience of Greek Life, sororities and fraternities, compared to UK student life, I also consider the differences in the degree structure. On one hand, in the UK we have our standard 3-year degree in which we apply for a specific subject in advance of joining the university. We often have to commit to this subject in our last year of sixth form, when we are only 17 years old. On the contrary, in the US, there is a 4-year system in which students study a more broad spectrum of subjects and choose a major (and minor) much later on in their degree.

Committing to a subject 

As a result of having to commit to a subject at a much younger age, this makes it more challenging for students in the UK to complete their degree. The main advice that I was getting from career advisers in my final year of A levels is that it didn’t matter what university I went to, so long as I was interested in the subject. Whereas in the US, this isn’t so much of a problem, you have time to learn and experiment before committing to a subject that you may not have even ever studied.


On the other hand, it can be said that by committing earlier, degrees in the UK are more specialised to the subject that students chose. Consequentially, we have more time to learn the subject in more detail. However, this also means that our education is limited to this one subject rather than a more broad range of interdisciplinary knowledge.

Pros and cons of a 4-year degree

While I feel envious of the students in the US who do not have to specialise in what they study until their second year of university there are other factors to consider where the UK system might work in my favour. For instance, while chatting with students at the University of Virginia, they mentioned that a 4-year degree is clearly more expensive (as well as US universities generally having higher tuition the UK universities). Additionally, a 4-year degree is clearly a more significant chunk of time which could be used to gain experience – though the US does appear to have more of an internship culture for students in the summer. 

Ultimately, it’s interesting to observe the differences between these two very different systems and the depth of the differences can be surprising. Although I am thankful for the affordability of UK universities in comparison to US universities, there are also fewer scholarships available. While it is valuable to have an in-depth knowledge of our degree subjects, it would also be beneficial to be able to take the time to gain the knowledge to choose effectively. Both of these systems have pros and cons and it’s interesting to observe the differences in education systems around the world.