Choosing a US University as a UK Student

Exploring Differences and Cultural Factors

As a UK student considering higher education abroad, choosing a US university can be an exciting yet daunting prospect. So, stay tuned and equip yourself with the necessary knowledge for this adventure. 

There are key differences between UK and US universities that you should be aware of when making your decision to study in the US, as well as which specific university to pursue. Whatever country you decide to study in, it’s important that you understand how universities differ in terms of culture, education style and tradition. To excel at university and be fulfilled there, you need to attend one that aligns with who you are and how you function!  

By understanding these differences and considering the cultural factors at play, UK students can make an informed decision about their future academic journey.

If you’d like to benefit from bespoke guidance, just reach out to our expert US admissions team. Over 95% of students at The Profs get into their first and second-choice universities. 

Don’t forget to check out our article on how to get into US universities as a UK student. We also have more tailored articles on how to get into Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Cornell, MIT, NYU and the University of California as a UK applicant. Check them out for insider information!

Why study in the US?

Both UK and US universities are globally recognised for their academic excellence. The US in particular has a large number of top-ranked universities with globally recognised names and a wide range of programme offerings. 

For example, American universities provide an extensive variety of academic programmes, allowing students to choose from numerous majors, minors, and specialisation options to tailor their education to their interests and career goals. Hence, many students opt to study in the US where they have a vast option of prestigious universities to pursue that could open doors in their future careers.

Beyond prestige, US universities have a reputation for being a fun and social experience with all kinds of opportunities, such as events, sports and societies. 

The US also offers vast networking opportunities, enabling students to connect with professionals, industry leaders, and alumni networks. Internships, co-op programmes, and career services provide valuable practical experience and enhance employability.

Generally, studying in another country is a great way to branch out, travel, learn and meet new friends. It’s exciting to broaden your horizons and learn in another country. Moreover, it can show an employer that you’re brave and independent by having the guts to uproot your life and earn your degree in a foreign country. Employers often also like candidates who have been exposed to different cultures and people as they’re more likely to be mature and worldly. 

If you’re interested in studying in the US but want to learn more about what’s right for you, then chat with our expert US admissions team.

Understanding university culture: US vs UK

In this section, we will examine the fundamental differences in university culture between the United States and the United Kingdom. From the teaching and learning approaches to student life and campus traditions, it’s important to grasp these disparities before diving into specific US universities.

There are some main differences to the UK to think about:

Admission process

It’s likely that you’ve already encountered some differences between UK and US applications if you’ve started the process. Chief differences are that the US uses the Common App and Coalition App, as opposed to the UK, which uses UCAS. The University of California has its own application system entirely! Check out our article on the Common App and Coalition App for all the information you need. 

Another key difference is that US universities do not require a personal statement. Most top US universities ask for a Statement of Purpose and/or multiple mini-essays that are unique to the university. The personal statement and Statement of Purpose are entirely different and you should not approach them in the same way. Find out everything you need to know about the SOP and mini-essays here.

Generally, US universities tend to take a more holistic approach to admissions than the UK. For instance, they value extracurriculars more. 

Claim your dream offer by reaching out to our expert US admissions team. Over 95% of students at The Profs get into their first and second-choice universities. 

We also have tailored articles on how to get into Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Cornell, MIT, NYU and the University of California as a UK applicant which cover the university’s individual application process. 

Education system

UK universities typically follow a three-year undergraduate degree structure, whereas US universities generally offer four-year undergraduate programmes. 

On that same note, UK universities offer one-year master’s programmes, whereas US universities generally require two years to complete a master’s degree. PhD programmes in the UK are usually shorter and more focused compared to US programmes. So, it’s good to keep in mind that any university-level qualification will usually require more time from you than in the UK.

The US education system offers more flexibility in designing your academic journey than the UK. Typically in the UK, you choose one discipline for your undergraduate and your module options will all fall under this. 

However, in the US, you do not choose a discipline but a major, and you can choose minors alongside this. Meaning, you have the opportunity to explore various subjects before selecting a major and you can pursue your discipline whilst also learning about other subjects. You can even opt to delay choosing your major. Hence, US students can explore diverse subjects, change majors, and customise their course selections to create a well-rounded education.

US universities typically require applicants to have completed a broad range of general education courses in subjects like Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences. UK universities, on the other hand, tend to focus more on the chosen field of study from the beginning.

Need help making your choice of university and crafting your application? University admissions are our expertise. Plenty of our tutors have graduated from top US universities and/or worked on admissions there. Benefit from our tried and tested guidance and become another one of our success stories here!

Class structure and grading

UK universities generally have a more lecture-based teaching style, with fewer interactive classes and more independent study (except for top institutions like Oxbridge). US universities often incorporate smaller discussion-based classes, seminars, and opportunities for student participation. 

If you’re planning on pursuing a discipline or subjects in Humanities, it’s worth noting that US universities often afford Humanities students more contact hours than in the UK. 

US students often have opportunities to take on optional work, classes and/or projects for extra credits.

Your final degree grade is also calculated entirely differently in the US. Usually in the UK, your first year does not count towards your final degree grade – whereas your second year counts a little more, and your third year even more so! In the US, the GPA (Grade Point Average) is calculated throughout the entire undergraduate programme, incorporating grades from all courses taken.

Overwhelmed or confused by all the new and different information surrounding the US university system? Our expert US admissions team is here to help.

Ivy League vs public universities: unveiling the contrasts

Ivy League universities are a group of eight private institutions known for their academic excellence, selective admissions, and rich history. They are:

  1. Harvard University
  2. Yale University
  3. Princeton University
  4. Columbia University
  5. University of Pennsylvania
  6. Brown University
  7. Dartmouth College
  8. Cornell University

These Ivy League universities have long-standing prestigious reputations and are known for being exclusive, selective and competitive. They often have large endowments, allowing for generous financial aid packages. On that same note, Ivy League schools have a strong network of alumni connections that can provide career and networking opportunities.

Also keep in mind that the US has little Ivy Leagues too, which are a group of smaller, highly selective liberal arts colleges in the northeastern United States. 

Whilst they share some similarities with their larger Ivy League counterparts, such as a commitment to academic excellence and personalised education, little Ivy League schools often have smaller class sizes, a more intimate campus environment, and a focus on undergraduate teaching. These colleges provide a close-knit community and emphasis on close student-faculty relationships, offering a unique educational experience within the Ivy League framework.

Some of the top little Ivy League colleges include:

  1. Williams College
  2. Amherst College
  3. Swarthmore College
  4. Bowdoin College
  5. Middlebury College

Public/state universities, on the other hand, are state-funded institutions that offer education to a broader population. They are typically larger and offer a wider range of academic programmes.

Some notable public universities in the United States include:

  1. University of California system 
  2. University of Michigan
  3. University of Virginia
  4. University of Texas at Austin
  5. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  6. Stanford University

Whilst public universities may not have the same level of prestige and exclusivity as Ivy League schools, they often excel in specific fields and offer strong academic programmes. Similarly, UC Berkeley and UCLA (both part of the University of California) along with Stanford, MIT and Duke are all globally renowned as great universities. Here it should also be noted that Ivy Leagues are primarily in the Northeast, so status is sometimes a question of geography.

Public universities usually have a diverse student body and provide more affordable tuition options for in-state residents. These institutions often have a focus on practical education, community engagement, and service to the state or region in which they are located.

The bottom line is this: if you’re seeking exceptional education and reputation, you need not limit yourself to Ivy League Schools. This is especially the case in the 21st century when elitism, classism and nepotism are being challenged, and hence, public schools are fast improving. 

You can check QS’s top universities and colleges rankings here (2024). The New York Times also released commentary on US university rankings in 2023.

Reach out to our expert US admissions team who can guide you through your decision-making process, as well as through your application so that you get your offer!

Sporty universities vs liberal arts institutions: finding your fit

Liberal arts colleges distinguish themselves from larger public universities and private institutions like Ivy Leagues through their unique approach to education. These four-year undergraduate institutions provide a well-rounded curriculum that encompasses the Arts, Sciences, Humanities, and Social Sciences. 

By offering a broad-based education, liberal arts colleges equip students with a comprehensive understanding of the world, preparing them to navigate complexity, diversity, and change. This educational philosophy sets liberal arts colleges apart from their larger counterparts, emphasising a holistic and interdisciplinary learning experience.

Some of the best Liberal Arts Universities include:

  1. Williams College
  2. Amherst College
  3. United States Naval Academy 
  4. Pomona College
  5. Swarthmore College

You may notice there’s some crossover between Liberal Arts colleges and little Ivy Leagues. 

On the other hand, some universities in the United States champion sports, and consequently excel at them. These institutions provide a unique environment for student-athletes who aspire to excel both academically and athletically. Oftentimes, these universities prioritise sports programmes and offer extensive resources and support to their student-athletes. As a student at a sports university in the US, you can expect a rigorous balance between your academic studies and training, with a focus on time management and discipline. 

Sporty universities often have top-notch athletic facilities, dedicated coaching staff, and access to sports science and performance technology. You will have the opportunity to compete at a high level in intercollegiate sports, representing your university and building valuable teamwork and leadership skills. 

Additionally, sporty universities often provide robust academic support services, including tutoring and flexible class schedules, to help student-athletes succeed academically while pursuing their athletic goals. Overall, attending a sports university in the US offers a unique and rewarding experience, combining a passion for sports with a quality education.

Some of the best universities for sports include:

  1. University of Michigan
  2. University of Florida
  3. University of Connecticut
  4. University of Texas at Austin
  5. Duke University

You may notice there’s some crossover between sporty universities and top public universities.

It’s important to note that some Ivy League schools are considered to take on a Liberal Arts approach and/or be great for sports. So, make no assumptions that one “type” of university sticks to that box alone. Consider all of the factors mentioned when researching universities that you’re interested in and they may surprise you!

Reach out to our expert US admissions team who can guide you through your decision-making process, as well as through your application so that you get your offer!

Societies: fraternities and sororities

Unlike UK universities, US universities carry a culture of fraternities and sororities. This is commonly known as Greek Life, which is a unique aspect of the university experience in the United States. 

Fraternities are social organisations for male students, while sororities are for female students. Most US universities will have multiple fraternities and sororities for students to choose from. Joining a fraternity or sorority offers a sense of community, lifelong friendships, and opportunities for personal growth and leadership development. Hence, it can also open up many opportunities for networking. 

However, fraternities and sororities have also received a lot of criticism for enforcing hegemonic gender norms, hazing and clique-ness. Getting into a fraternity or sorority often means you have to “audition” by attending events and being selected or rejected from joining the group which can lead to exclusiveness and selectivity. Keeping up with these clubs can also be expensive as there’s sometimes a membership fee, as well as the fees of tickets to events and outfits.

Greek Life often involves a range of activities, including social events, community service projects, and academic support. Members of fraternities and sororities form close-knit bonds and create a network of alumni connections that can be beneficial for future career opportunities. 

While Greek Life is not a mandatory part of the university experience, it is a popular and integral part of campus culture in many US universities. It is important to note that each fraternity or sorority has its own values, traditions, and recruitment process, so it is essential to research and understand the specific Greek organisations at each university.

Not all US universities offer fraternities and sororities, so if you’re keen on joining one or want to avoid them, ensure that you check what your preferred universities offer. For example, Middlebury College has societies instead of Greek Life which are mixed gender and boycott the selective nature of fraternities and sororities as well as hazing. 

There are also some Greek Life that actively aim to represent minority groups and challenge problematic fraternity traditions. For example, Alpha Phi Alpha is the oldest and largest African American fraternity group, belonging to Cornell.

Finances: tuition and funding

UK universities typically have lower tuition fees compared to US universities. The tuition fees in the UK vary depending on the university, ranging from approximately £15,000 to £30,000 per academic year or more. On average, US tuition costs range from around $25,000 to $40,000 per year, with higher amounts exceeding $50,000 for popular private or prestigious universities.

In the UK, undergraduate tuition fees are set by the government, while in the US, tuition can vary significantly between institutions as many of them are private and have no limits. 

Aside from tuition fees, it’s important to consider living expenses such as accommodation, food, socialising, and travel. The costs will differ depending on the location of your studies, with major cities generally being more expensive than smaller towns.

Scholarships and financial aid are available in both countries to support students.

Cultural factors to consider before making a decision

US universities can differ greatly from one another depending on their location, activities available and academic flexibility. If you want to attend a US university, you have lots of choices when it comes to these topics. Let’s dive in:

Location, location, location: urban vs rural settings

It goes without saying that the location of the university you choose drastically affects the university’s culture and campus life. Here are a few reasons how/why:

  • Different states can feel like different countries as they have different landscapes and weather. For example, Chicago goes through extreme seasons and can have winters averaging minus twenty-five degrees. Whereas, Los Angeles rarely dips below twenty degrees (even in the winter). Similarly, the north coast of America is generally more plush and hilly than the west coast, which has a more desert landscape.
  • Different states can also have completely different political stances and laws. For example, marijuana is legal in some states whilst not in others, and gun control can differ too. Some states are extremely religious and this is interwoven into university teaching, campus and culture, like the University of Notre Dame. You should consider whether your preferred university is in a red or blue state and the laws and regulations that impact it. It’s great to experience culture shock but it’s also good to be prepared for it and gain an idea of what you’re comfortable with.
  • Being in a city like New York City is a lot more expensive than going to a university in Alabama when you consider daily costs, like transport, food and entertainment. 
  • Transportation is also important to consider. In New York and Chicago, you’ll have easy access to the subway and can rely on it to get around independently which makes travelling very easy. However, Texas has its own transportation systems which are less widespread and connected. Moreover, in rural areas, public transport becomes far less frequent and reliable. It’s also worth noting that trains are generally used less in the UK than in the US, hence most people rely on buses and cars. 
  • Beyond transport, universities in rural locations have fewer amenities and utilities around. There is nothing open beyond 6 or 7 pm, meaning there are no activities or places to get food. This won’t be a culture shock if you’re from a rural area of the UK but it can be if you’re from a city. 

Reach out to our expert US admissions team who can guide you through your decision-making process, as well as through your application so that you get your offer!

Extracurricular activities and sports: a different approach

US universities often have larger campuses with extensive facilities, such as sports stadiums, recreational centres, and a wide range of student clubs and organisations. UK universities tend to offer various student societies and clubs but they usually have smaller campuses and fewer extracurricular amenities.

Generally, US uni culture is more embedded in societies and sports and extracurricular activities. Hence they might have more regular sessions and/or events, as well as more funding.

Academic flexibility and general education requirements

The choice of degree programmes available, as well as how you can combine your major and minors relies on your chosen university. Your contact hours and lesson structure can also vary depending on the institution. Hence, it’s important that you make no assumptions and do your research to ensure that you’d be fulfilled with your chosen university’s academic flexibility.

Of course, education requirements vary depending on the university as well. Most US universities accept IB, and many gladly accept A level. How US universities convert your UK grades can differ as some will convert your A level and GCSE to a GPA, or weighted GPA, and others will try to assess them in the context of the UK grading system. Similarly, some US universities require SAT/ACT scores, whilst others are test-optional, and some will not consider standardised test scores.

It’s also worth noting that the minimum grades expected from applicants can differ wildly depending on the quality and competitiveness of the institution.

Need help to achieve high enough GCSE, A level, IB or retake grades? Or you may need to reach a certain SAT or ACT score. The Profs are here to help!

We also have previous articles on the SAT and ACT.

Comparing and contrasting US universities

As established, US universities can differ greatly from each other and might not fit into the general assertions of US vs UK universities.

University culture is important and you need to understand it so you’re sure about what university you like, and it being the right choice for you. For example, you wouldn’t want to choose your university based on reputation alone, and then clash with the culture and hence struggle to be happy or achieve good grades there, and potentially wind up pulling out! 

Below is a quick run-through of a few US universities and what you can expect from their institution, campus and culture:

HarvardYaleStanfordCornellMITNYUUniversity of CaliforniaUniversity of MichiganWilliams College
Type of university:Ivy League & private. Ivy League & private.Private.Ivy League & private.Private.Private.Public.Public.Little Ivy League & private & liberal arts.
Student population size25,2655.11,934.17,246.25,582.11,934.58,226.294,309.52,065.2,224.
Average class size:12.12.20.Below 30.20.25-35.Below 39.Below 20.Below 20.
Colleges: main colleges which have 3-15 colleges of their own.19.3.
Residence:On-campus residence is guaranteed for an undergraduate’s full degree.On-campus residence is guaranteed for an undergraduate’s full degree.Offers on and off campus.2-year residential requirement.On-campus residence is guaranteed for an undergraduate’s full degree.Living on campus is optional.Living on campus is optional.Living on campus is optional (most do for one or two years).Students are required to live on campus for the duration of their degree.
State:Massachusetts.Connecticut.California.New York.Massachusetts.New York.California.Michigan.Massachusetts.
Democratic (blue) or Republican (red) state:Blue.Blue.Blue.Blue.Blue.Blue.Blue.Blue.Blue.
Greek Life:No Greek Life system on campus. However, there are privately organised sororities and fraternities. There are also ‘final clubs’ for more wealthy and connected students.A small number of fraternities and sororities, but they’re not officially recognised by Yale.Stanford is home to a Greek Life system with a number of nationally recognised fraternities and sororities.Cornell is home to a Greek Life system; it reportedly has  50 fraternities and sororities.MIT is home to a Greek Life system; it reportedly has  43 fraternities and sororities.NYU  is home to a small but vibrant Greek Life system, with about 10% of its student population participating in it.UC is home to a large and lively Greek Life system, with each of its 10 campuses having its own fraternities and sororities recognised by the university.Michigan is home to one of the oldest, largest and strongest Greek communities in the nation. Hence, it has fraternities and sororities recognised by the university.Fraternities were banned by Williams College in 1962, meaning students could not join or participate in fraternities whilst attending Williams College. Williams College does not appear to have any sororities.
Traditions:The Game, Yardfest, ARTS FIRST Festival, Global Day of Service and Commencement.YSO Halloween Concert, The Game, Dwight Hall Bazaar, Holiday Dinner and Spring Fling.Battle of the Bay, Fountain Hopping and the Wacky Walk.Dragon Day, Heated Hockey rivalries, Slope Day, and so much more on the Hill.Brass Rat, course numbering, ‘smoots’, and Tim and the beaver.NYU Reads, Club Fest, NYU International Education Week, MLK Week, Solidarity Week, Strawberry Festival and Commencement.Dead Week, Pajamarino, Celebrate UCI, the Crossing of Scholars Bridge, Spring Splash, Snoopy’s Fall Festival and Undie Run.Championships, pushball, inter-class carnivals, the winged helmet and Michigan’s Marching Band Step Show.Mountain Day, Reading Period, Winter Carnival and Darties.
High-performing sports team/s:Harvard Crimson Football team.Yale heavyweight crew. Yale’s football team is also high-performing.Stanford women’s tennis team.Cornell wrestling; Cornell’s running team is also high-performing.The most successful clubs at MIT include taekwondo, triathlon, wrestling, ultimate frisbee, rugby, and cycling.Men’s basketball and women’s golf.Men’s basketball (UCLA).Michigan’s Wolverines football team.Men’s crew team, women’s golf, and tennis for both.

Please note that sports teams at US universities compete under the NCAA hierarchy of divisions: D1, D2 and D3 (with D1 being the most competitive). D1 typically comes with more tuition benefits and D1 athletes have more chance of becoming professional athletes. So, you should check what division the sports team/s you’re interested in at your chosen university competes in. 

You should also note that not all US universities offer a graduate school as well as an undergraduate one. Moreover, whilst many offer both, the graduate population can often be much smaller, and hence there are fewer spaces available so acceptance rates will be more competitive.

If you’re interested in some of the universities above, remember to look further into them as this is just the tip of the iceberg! Similarly, if you’re interested in other universities then keep in mind that research can’t be underestimated. Ensure that you choose somewhere that fulfils your needs and wishes. It’ll be harder to be happy and succeed at a university you don’t gel with.

Overwhelmed by the amount of US universities there are to choose from? Unsure about what’s the right choice for you? 

There are a tonne of wildly different US universities with a completely different system to the UK, and even the decision-making process differs because there are so many new factors to consider. Don’t rush your decision and make sure that you have all the relevant facts. Reach out to our expert US admissions team who can guide you through your decision-making process and your application so that you get your offer!

Making the right choice: your next steps as a UK student

As mentioned, researching and comparing US institutions as well as planning ahead for applications and considerations is crucial. Here’s a quick tick-off list:

  • Research and compare: find the perfect match for you based on your priorities, hobbies, interests and learning style etc.
  • Attend in-person or online open days to get a better feel.
  • Network with current or previous students via LinkedIn and Facebook so that you can ask them important questions!
  • Plan ahead regarding your application and approach. Create a list of everything you’ll need to provide, tests you might need to take and/or text you will need to write along with deadlines. Create a plan of how best to complete this, as well as achieve the entry requirements. 
  • Receive guidance from one of our US admissions experts!

University admissions are our expertise. Plenty of our tutors have graduated from top US universities and/or worked on admissions there. Benefit from our tried and tested guidance and become another one of our success stories here!

Consult The Profs

When choosing a US university, make an informed decision with the guidance and support of The Profs. 

Our team of education experts can provide personalised advice in choosing what universities to apply to, as well as how to successfully get your offer/s. Our team can review your application materials, help you highlight your strengths effectively and offer assistance throughout the application process.

We have a US admissions team dedicated to your success, and we have a proven track record of helping our students receive offers to top-tier universities including Harvard! Reach out today.