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What are the differences between the UK and US college systems?

In Singapore’s international school setting, many families consider universities in both the UK and the US. At UWCSEA, 55-65 percent of the graduating class go on to university in either the US or the UK – despite the fact that just under 30 percent of them holds a passport from either country. In order to leave their options open (or hedge their bets!)  a reasonable percentage apply to university in both countries. According to the school’s university advisory team, this is not an unusual situation in international schools.

We hear from the UWCSEA’s team of university advisors about the major differences between the two systems, and ask them to debunk some of the myths and misconceptions.

UWCSEA Singapore
At UWCSEA, 55-65 percent of the graduating class go on to university in either the US or the UK.

What are the main differences between the two systems?

1. Commitment to course of study

In the UK, university applications are subject specific. This means that a student applies for entry into a specific course. If your child is UK-bound, they will need to have a good idea of the direction they would like to head in by the end of Grade 11 (Year 12) or the beginning of Grade 12 (Year 13) at the very latest.

At US universities, in most cases students apply for a place at the university, rather than in a specific course, and it is perfectly acceptable to arrive on campus without a clear idea about what they would like to specialise or “major” in.

2. Professional and specialised degrees are uncommon in US

The UK allows students to study professional degrees in the first instance, as a Bachelor degree.  Programmes such as the Bachelor of Medicine and the Bachelor of Laws are particularly popular.  Families will be also surprised by the breadth of offerings in the UK, with degrees available in specialties as diverse as Brewing and Distilling, Physiotherapy, Television Production and Puppet-Making.

In contrast, professional and highly specialised degrees are most often offered in the US as Masters or PhD programmes. It is possible to major in Engineering, Business or Architecture as a US undergraduate, but these programmes are not offered at all universities.

UWCSEA Singapore
Applications to join UWCSEA in August 2017 are now open – including to the three High School programmes: (I)GCSE, Foundation IB and IB Diploma.

3. Specialise now, specialise later

In the UK there are usually no general education requirements. Students take most of their classes solely in the area they applied for, with a few choices of electives. As a result, most degrees take only three years to complete, although Scotland requires students to take a wider selection of classes in the first year, and so Scottish degrees take four years.

In the US, Bachelor degrees take four years to obtain and most universities require that students sample courses in a broad range of subjects before specialising or majoring in one subject for the last two years. This flexibility makes it possible to major in two unrelated subjects and at some universities, students can design their own major to suit their particular interests.

While the approach in the US makes is very easy for a student to change their mind about what to specialise in, in the UK it is far less common (but still feasible) to change the original choice of subject to a related subject. There are also several combined and dual degrees in the UK that allow study in more than one subject, and liberal arts-type offerings are becoming more available.

4. Public vs. Private

The vast majority of the UK’s over 300 higher education options are government-funded rather than private, and are relatively large institutions, catering to both undergraduates pursuing bachelor’s degrees and graduate students in Master’s and PhD programmes. The average size of a UK university is 15,000 students, and after the first year many students live independently off campus in their own accommodation.

While the US has many large, well-reputed state universities, funded by American states, most of the over 4,000 higher education options in the US are privately funded and endowed. Liberal Arts colleges, which focus solely on undergraduate education, are often as small as 1,200 students and offer residential living communities for the entire four years.
Applications to US colleges and universities are processed by the individual institution, although there is a private application consolidator known as the Common Application, which has about 500 members.  That makes it easy to apply to many popular universities using a single online application, with individual supplemental essays for specific institutions

UWCSEA Singapore
For more on how to help your child through the university application process plus advice galore on how to support your child through this transition, head to UWCSEA’s blog: What Next? University Advice for Expat Parents.

And the admission criteria?

Admission in the UK is largely credential-driven, with UCAS publishing minimum requirements across different high school systems, including IB and A Level. For students who apply before they complete their final external exams, offers of admission are made conditional on attaining results that are consistent with anticipated grades. UCAS distinguishes between ‘UK and European Union residents’ and ‘other international students’, and admissions criteria and fees differ for these two groups.

The US has a holistic admissions process and considers a large range of factors above and beyond a student’s academic ability (as evidenced by the need to submit assessment grades since Grade Nine, anticipated grades and standardised test scores), including how applicants would enhance the diversity of the student body, what special talents or contributions they would make to a learning community, and in many cases, their ability to pay. Since each university’s institutional priorities are unknown and can change from year to year, the US admissions process is far less predictable than that in the UK.

For more on how to help your child through the university application process plus advice galore on how to support your child through this transition, head to UWCSEA’s blog: What Next? University Advice for Expat Parents.

Psst… UWCSEA’s team of University Advisors supports the students in the High School on both campuses through a personalised programme of advice and guidance as they explore university options around the globe. Last year’s graduating class is bound for courses in 18 different countries.

Learn more about UWCSEA’s High School programme and its focus on preparing for students for university and for life at our upcoming Open Days in September.

Applications to join UWCSEA in August 2017 are now open –  including to the three High School programmes, (I)GCSE, Foundation IB and IB Diploma.

Presented by, UWC South East Asia
Dover Campus, 1207 Dover Road |  6775 5344
East Campus, 1 Tampines Street 73 | 6305 5344

Want to know about how best to support your child during the transition to college?

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