Study Abroad-Differences Between the UK and US School System

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Since I just finished my Autumn term at University of Essex in England, and I was on exchange from Northern Arizona University with this whole study abroad experience, I thought it would only be right for me to discuss the major school system differences between the U.K. and the U.S. for those who are curious or wanting to study abroad themselves.


  • Semester/ Term Length Differences:

One of the biggest differences I found between the U.S. and the U.K. was the semester, or “term”, lengths for the school year. In America, we usually start school in August (some in September ), get a break for Christmas, then start back again in January through the month of May (or June for those who started a month later). Usually, we would also get a break in March for about a week or two. In England, we started school at the beginning of October and went until December 19th. They start back again in January from my understanding, get a month break for Easter, then go until June or July.

  • Grading System Differences:

The grading system was my absolute least favorite part of this whole exchange thing. In America you go from 0-100% (see picture below), and I strive for 90-100 at all times. In England, they say they also go from 0-100%. However, nobody gets above an 85, which qualifies as an A back in the States, and most people get 60 and above if they’re doing well. This confused me to death. If it’s out of 100, why not just make it possible to get above an 85? So unusual.



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Something that really annoyed me while I was abroad in regards to the grading, was that Tanner and I (and all the NAU students) were not on Pass or Fail systems while studying at the exchange university. That meant that our grades actually came across as the equivalencies of A, B, or C etc. and either helped maintain or ruin our GPAs, which affected our scholarships. Everyone else that came from other countries to England were on Pass or Fail, which meant that they needed to get a grade as low as 40 etc. in order to get the class credit. This was horrible since we couldn’t really enjoy our experiences abroad as much, since we had to get accustomed to the grading system and do a lot more work compared to everyone else that came on exchange.

  • Homework and Coursework Amount Differences:

Alongside the grading system, something I found incredibly pressuring and hard to adapt to was the amount of coursework and exams in England. Back home in the States, regardless of what class you’re taking you either get 2-3 tests and a final exam, 2-3 essays and a final exam, and some worksheets or a project in-between. Therefore, by the end of the class your grade is truly earned and shows how well you know the material. This is somewhat great and annoying. It’s great because if you have no clue what format or expectations your professors have, you can mess up on the first assignment a bit and then kick butt the rest of the class to the best of your ability and understanding. It’s also kind of bleh because you constantly have homework for each class and you’re always busy. In the U.K, your whole grade is based on one essay or two, or one exam, or one exam and a presentation etc. Therefore, you have tons of free time, but only 2 assignments to base your grade off of. To me, that’s not an ideal situation because two assignments, in my opinion, don’t show how much you learned in the class at all. Moreover, if you mess up even a little bit on one of them, you don’t receive a high grade or you might even fail the class. So if you have a freshman, or “First Year” kid, and they have never written a college paper before or took a difficult exam and they mess up the format etc., they are already going to receive a bad grade on the essay, and therefore a bad grade in the class.

  • Exam Board vs. Professor :

Speaking of grades, or “marks”, and exams, something I also found slightly unusual was the fact that none of the assignments, be it exams or essay etc., are graded by your professors in England. They are graded by random individuals who make up an “Exam Board”. To me, this was hard to understand because I usually ask my professors lots of questions or email them in order to understand the material etc. By the end of the class, when they have graded my assignments, they see my improvement or lack of improvement. I get feedback on why I received the grade I received, or since most of the exams in America are multiple choice AND written response, I find out the percentage (grade) I got on my exams from a professors page on a grade website. It’s easy and to the point. With an exam board, I fear that the opinions will clash, that they don’t know my previous work and cannot compare my understanding of one paper with another, and they also don’t know the work I put into the assignments. I also worry that the board will be biased. I’ve had professors in the States that gave me good grades and bad grades, but it was a relief to be able to discuss my marks and feedback with them, whereas with an Exam
Board I could never do that. Also, you don’t even get your grades back until February of the next semester in Europe. So if you study abroad and need to prove you passed those classes for your GPAs and scholarships, beware of that. NAU slightly explained this but they didn’t really make students aware that it could really hurt your scholarships etc.

  • Accommodation Differences:

In terms of accommodation, I don’t know which country I prefer. In the States, freshmen have to stay on campus and pay a ton of money to share a room with someone (read my post on How to Get Along With Your Roomie hollaaa). In England, if you stay on campus you pay less and get your own room as well. I’m a bit biased in terms of luxury, since I stayed in the Honors rooms at NAU and every Uni in America makes the Honors dorms the coolest and usually the biggest as well. So when I got to the Towers (see pic below) at Essex I did not know what to expect since they were the oldest dorms at Essex too. I was pleasantly surprised though, and everyone in England gets their own room like I stated, and  that was a nice bonus in my view. In England you also live in a “flat” with 14 other people or so, and I was a bit nervous because I keep my living spaces (kitchen, living room) clean, and there are no personality quizzes to match you up with the other 14 people. Basically, everyone could either be messy, loud, gross etc. you name it. Thus, I was a bit freaked out when I heard about this. What’s nice though, is that our RA ( shoutout to Rachel Gover, the coolest lady around) had us make an agreement about living conditions and everyone pretty much stuck to it except like 2 people.

See more about Essex Accommodation in my “Moving into the University of Essex” blog post.
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My shared room at NAU.
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Ernest Calderon, the Honors dorm I stayed in last year.
My room at Essex before I finished decorating it.
I also had a nice desk and giant shelf space, alongside a dresser with loads of space.
  • Degree organization:

In America, most degrees are based upon the subject you want to study, such as Business Management or Computer Science. Alongside those , we are required to take “Liberals” , or classes that have nothing to do with the degree we have. At NAU, we have to take 2 political classes, 2 ethnic studies based classes etc. to become more “cultured”. I really enjoy this aspect of college, because if you’re not sure about your major, you get room to explore everything you could potentially major in anyway. Also, it really does help you see the world in a different way and to appreciate the other types of degrees out there. In England, if your degree is in Economics, then you’re in the Economics department and you only take courses related to that. I find it too specialized and very limiting in that way.

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  • Night life and general life style:

Since in England the drinking age is 18, one can imagine the differences on the college campus there vs. in America. Something common with England universities (and from what I hear most European universities) is the fact that there are campus bars in the middle of the squares. I was really intrigued by this. People would go have a drink before a lecture or after, and it would not be seen as a big deal at all. In America, you legally cannot have alcohol on the campus grounds, especially near a classroom, and you have to be 21 to drink it or buy it. Also, you’d never hear of a bar or night club on a college campus.  I like the European system better compared to the U.S., obviously, because nobody felt pressured to drink, people were really classy about it, and it made for great socials with organizations and clubs. Something else I found great was that during the week and during the weekends,students would gather in the central campus of the universities and go to the night club together, or just have music playing and dance and chat. Yes, there are also night clubs on the university campus, and they are awesome. I went a few times, and I enjoyed it to an extent. It does get quite sweaty, and the drinks are too expensive. Other than that, I would highly recommend going to these things.

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SubZero, the night club at Essex.
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Campus Bar at Essex.
  • Office hours for Professors:

The office hours for Professors are the only things that I found exactly the same for both the U.K. and the U.S.. Regardless if they will be grading your assignments and exams or not, the professors were always eager to help or explain things to you in England, just like in the U.S. They weren’t as friendly as all the American ones I’m used to, but they were pretty awesome regardless ( and I actually had 2 American professors at Essex). Ultimately, I think a professor in any country appreciates when a student takes the time out of their day to visit them in their office and try to clarify the subject and the material that they are learning. However, most students I talked to that were confused about the material like I was, were really shocked that I went to office hours? Maybe it’s not seen as common, but I noticed every single professor gave out their office information during the first week of classes.


Anyway, I hope this post helped and informed some of you out there that might be studying abroad soon or that were curious about the school systems. If you have more questions, leave a comment and I’ll get back to you!

-Giulia 🙂



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