Differences Between US and UK Universities

Studying in the US can be a very rewarding experience, but in order for you to compare it to a UK uni, you need information! In this section we give you some basic facts and make some comparisons for you between the two systems. There are over 3,000 colleges and universities in the US offering a wide range of subjects and degrees. On this website, we are really only talking about liberal arts colleges similar to Harvard.

You may have been wondering about what it actually means to go to university in the US, what the differences are, and how you can make comparisons to the UK. We have put together a simple chart to explain some of the differences. The language can be a little confusing, so we have added a glossary for you too! Here are some common terms explained:

College vs University

You may have heard Americans talking about “going to college”, which can be confusing, as they were definitely NOT talking about VI Form College! In the US, an undergraduate place of study is referred to as a College; the place where postgrads and researchers work is a University. But if the College is part of a larger institution that also has research and postgraduate programmes, it is usually referred to as a University. If you apply to Harvard, you apply to the College, but you would be part of the University.

There are some colleges in America that only cater to undergraduates, and also some colleges that have started to offer Masters courses or the occasional PhD programme, so if your aim is to go somewhere that has specialised research capability, don’t necessarily be put off by the “College” label.

Liberal Arts

Studying in the US is all about offering undergraduates the opportunity to continue pursuing their interests, both academic and personal, while also offering specialised subject courses. The term “Liberal Arts” refers to this approach to learning: typically, a college might have a set of course requirements in order to fulfil your chosen specialisation, and then a number of free slots to fill with elective courses.

At Harvard, about half of your undergraduate courses are in your chosen subject(s), and about a quarter are available for you to select anything that catches your fancy. There are thousands of courses to choose from! You would normally take about four courses per semester. You can explore all our academic courses online by clicking here.

Continuous Assessment

Just about every course you will take at a US uni will be marked individually, perhaps through an end of semester test, a paper, a piece of research, or a performance. Each of these grades goes into the hopper and contributes to your final degree grade. Most courses are only for one semester (even though they may be linked in sequence to other courses).There are no UK-style final year exams!

At Harvard, as in the UK, the undergraduate degrees awarded are the BA (Bachelor of Arts), or the BS (Bachelor of Science). The honours awarded range from Summa Cum Laude (meaning highest Honours), Magna Cum Laude, to Cum Laude. There is also a Grade Point Average (GPA) calculated so that you know where you stand numerically, and you can use the GPA to apply for postgraduate programmes in the US and elsewhere.

Freshmen, Sophomores, Juniors, and Seniors

In the four year programme at US colleges, each year’s students have their own label: