The British University System: Studying Abroad in England
University-level courses in the United Kingdom are taught in English, but few other similarities exist between British and American universities. From grading to scheduling classes to choosing a major, the Brits do things their own way. But, hey, you were the one who decided to study abroad to experience something different, right? Studying in the U.K. offers the chance to soak up another culture without having to soak up another language.
British students planning to attend university begin specializing in an academic subject while they still are in high school. Students choose their university majors essentially during the years that are equivalent to 11th and 12th grades in the U.S. In 11th grade, students study four or five courses and take the first round of exams, called A levels, before proceeding to a second year of advanced A-level study in three subjects. Students emerge from these two years of study with the equivalent of what is considered advanced placement or freshman-year credit in the U.S. Therefore, in England, most university degrees are completed after only three years of study rather than four.
Students apply directly to a university's academic departments (such as history or biology) for admission to bachelor's degree programs. The specific academic department makes admission decisions, not a centralized admissions office. For students entering an English university, majors are determined when they apply, and they're permitted to take only courses that are within their majors. As an applicant to an English university, the department in which you plan to study reviews your application and admits you. Additionally, you can expect to study in no more than two departments at most British universities. Some universities, however, have become more flexible and are allowing study abroad students to study in multiple departments at the introductory (first- or second-year) level.
Because of the preparation U.K. students go through before arriving at university, many first-year courses at British universities equal courses at a U.S. university's sophomore year level, especially where languages, science, and math are concerned. As a visiting student, the university may allow you to take only first- and second-year courses. Be aware that second-year courses match junior-year courses in the U.S. British universities often limit admission to final-year (third-year) courses to students with extensive backgrounds in their respective fields of study.
Learning the ropes
Your attendance is expected at lectures, discussion groups, and lab practical classes. You need to realize that in England, much of your academic work is left up to you. Professors often provide lengthy reading lists at the start of their courses, and you then decide how much reading you complete each week. Professors usually refrain from giving give you specific reading assignments for each class. What, when, and how much you read for the course is entirely up to you.
Lectures may be organized in such a way that the professor covers or highlights specific topics, but you, through your independent reading, are responsible for covering the topic's broader content by exploring recommended texts on the reading list. Professors assume that you're continuously reading on your own, and so can contribute to classroom discussions and pass an exam at the end of the course. In general, there is much less hand holding in British universities, on both an academic and a personal level. Students are assumed to have adult independence and responsibility.
Although the amount of reading is entirely up to you, you need to understand that a final exam may be the only means of assessing your progress in the course, and believe me, cramming a semester or year's worth of reading into two or three weeks isn't a very wise idea.
Making the grade
Although courses at American universities typically offer several chances to improve your grade — a midterm exam, final exam or final paper, quizzes, and periodic writing assignments — universities in England generally focus on just a few papers or exams that count for all or most of your grade. Although smaller essay grades may contribute to your overall grade for the course, the final exam, project, or paper usually counts most in determining your final grade.
British universities assign percentage grades to all courses and you need to consult your study abroad program, host university's international student office, or home university to find out how to translate the grading scale of your British university to the grading scale at home.
You are responsible for completing the same amount of work as a British student. This includes taking exams! Do not take courses pass/fail because your home university won't be able to factor a passing/failing grade into your overall grade-point average (GPA). Additionally, the definition of a passing grade may differ between your home and host universities.