Skip to main content

Advice for StudentsCardiff University ExperiencesStudent LifeWhy University?

Differences between UK and US universities

18 April 2023

As an international student from the US, I often get asked, “what is different about attending university in the UK vs the US?” Though I never officially went to a university in the US, I have siblings that have and have been conditioned to study in the US all throughout high school. All the tips relating to studying at university (or college as we call it in the states) were pertaining to US universities. Because of this, I have a good grasp on what to expect when looking at applying and studying in the US vs the UK. Here are some of the main differences I noticed:

Application Process

All through high school, when my school would discuss the application process for universities, it was a lot of work. We spend months applying to all these schools that range in entry requirements and essay questions. When applying to the UK, the process was very different.

UK: When applying to universities in the UK, you apply to a program, not just a school. You have one application that you send to up to 5 schools through UCAS. The application deadlines range from November-January prior to your entry year. The fee is the same for up to 5 applications. Through this application, you add your education requirements, basic information, and then your personal statement which typically relates to why you want to study what you are studying. Unless your extracurriculars relate to your field of study and you insert them in your personal statement, they are not mentioned. I’ve noticed that the UK wants to look more into your academic self than your whole person to find the best fit for you academically. When applying in the UK, you will likely receive conditional offers. This is because the test scores needed to fulfil your offer aren’t released until August for UK students. Once test scores are released, then your application is fully accepted and you decided where you will go to school the next month.

US: In the US, you apply to individual schools and can apply to as many schools as you want. Application deadlines also begin November-January prior to your entry year. In the application itself, you mention your education requirements, personal information, extracurriculars you are involved in, volunteer work, and you answer an essay question. Honestly anything abut yourself is put into your application. The essay questions vary from “Why do you want to study at -” to “Who is a person you admire and why?” In US university applications, you are showing the school who you are as a person, not just your academic self. When applying, for the most part you already have all the information you need in your application and by May of that year, you will have decided on a school.


UK: UK undergraduate or bachelors degrees usually last 3 years with the occasional option for a placement year or, if you are in Scotland, you may have 4 year programs. When applying to university, you have to have a course set in mind and if you choose to change, you must restart your time in that separate course. UK courses start immediately with modules (or classes) that directly relate to what you are studying. UK modules vary with weekly assessments depending on the course however most courses rarely have weekly assessments, most of the time lectures and seminars are the way you learn and you have 1-3 assessments total for the module. These assessments combine to create your final grade and degree type from 1st class to 3rd.

US: For the most part, undergraduate (aka bachelors) programs in the US last 4 years. The first year is typically devoted to general education courses so you don’t have to have decided on a course or major to study until a year in. US courses are also a lot more assignment based, often with assignments every week for each class you take. These assessments combined with final exams make your final grade or GPA for the year and for your degree.

Term Times

UK: Most courses in the UK have 2 terms that last around 12 weeks each, beginning at the end of September-early October and lasting through June. The first term ends after Christmas, in January. Students break for Christmas for around 3 weeks then come back for final exams. The second term then beginnings in early February and lasts until mid June. Students are also given a 3 week break for Easter. Depending on the course, reading weeks are also implemented where lectures halt for a week each term. This is time for students to catch up on readings and make headway on their final assessments.

US: US universities usually have 2 terms lasting about 16 weeks from August to May. In December, final exams take place before Christmas then Christmas break lasts about 4 weeks before the next term begins. There is also sometimes a Fall and Spring break put in place that last a week and an added break for Thanksgiving.

Grading Scale

UK: The UK implements a 4 part qualification level for your degree. A first class degree aligns with 70% or higher. An upper second class is 60%-70%. Lower second is 50%-60%. And a third class is 45%-50%. These class type qualifications depict the degree type you get at graduation. Often when give assessment grades, your percentage is reflected into the 4 part qualification system set.

US: The US goes off a letter grading system ranging from A to F. For the most part, A= 90%-100%, B= 80%-90%, etc… These grades then align to create a GPA. A high or perfect GPA is a 4.0. The GPA is what depicts your degree type and whether you receive a certain merit at graduation.


UK: UK universities offer. range of extracurriculars that are referred to as societies. These can be athletics based, art based, culture based, even food based. Honestly, the possibilities are endless.

US: The US is vary big on sports life, often with sports scholarships given out to students to attend university as well. That being said, sports culture is huge. Many students are involved in extracurricular sports activities or attend sporting events on the regular. ‘Greek’ life is also a big part of US university culture. Students ‘rush’ a sorority or fraternity and join a family in a sense. Though other extracurriculars are offered, these tend to take the spotlight when it comes to getting involved at university.


US and UK university costs vary drastically. In the UK, the law has a consistant £9,000 a year for home students. International student fees vary however, but there is a set constraint on £9,000 currently for home students attending university. The US however has no laws in place so each university can decide how much they want to charge. Cost varies between private and public schools then from in-state, out-of-state and international. Often times US universities costs anywhere from $10,000-$40,000 a year. US universities however offer more opportunities for scholarships to cut down on costs where as, in my experience, the UK has a limited amount of scholarships that students are eligible for.

Though both places have their perks to university life, they vary greatly in many ways. As an international student from the US, learning these differences is a real eye opener but so worth it, adding a new adventure to university life.

Hope this helps,

Lilly <3