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What do you mean, I have to study?

February 16, 2013

When you study abroad, somehow the whole “study” part doesn’t occur to you.  At least for me it didn’t.  Sure, you register for classes, get your schedule, and you drag yourself to your lectures.  But until your professor tells you have an exam in a week do you realize, “Oh yeah, I’m actually in school”.

It’s so funny because every person I’ve talked to while I’ve been here has told me the same thing: school is not the highest priority during your time in England.  It would be wrong of me not to take this advice so many kindly offered, right?

But it really is true.  In all the years I’ve thought about moving to England, I’ve never really had the image of me sitting a library…until now.  As I’ve become adjusted to the British university system, I’ve noticed some key differences, but many things are quite similar.  Let’s break it down:


First: College (American) = University (English)

If you say college, many Brits think you’re referring to their equivalent of high school, so you may get a few confused looks.

Structure of Progression

In England, the school year runs from September to June.  They have three semesters:    autumn (September to December,  the month of December off, then spring term (January to April), the month of April off, and then and a summer term (May-June) that is dedicated strictly to doing revisions (aka studying) and taking exams without any scheduled classes.   Here’s a general comparison of school years between America and England:

English Education Years

American Education Years

1.  Early Years (ages 3-4)

2.  Primary School (ages 5-11)

3.  Secondary school (ages 12-16)

Student can then choose to enter the the job market or move on to higher education.  If they do, this is the typical route they follow:

4.  Sixth Form (ages 16-18) during this time, students study 4 subjects of interest and finish by taking exams known as A-levels.  Typically, the grades from these determine university placement.

5.  University (3 years)

6.  Graduate Degrees:

Master’s (1 year)

Doctorate (3 years)

1.  Pre School (ages 3-4)

2.  Kindergarten, grade school, middle school (ages 5-13)

3.  Junior High (ages 12-14)

4.  High School (ages 15-18)

Students can then choose to enter the job market or move onto higher education.  If they do, this is the typical route they follow:

5.  College (4 years)

6.  Graduate Degrees:

Masters (2 years)

Doctorate (4 years)


When you first look at it, it’s quite interesting to see how different our schooling systems are – I never knew that was the case!  I particularly ove getting asked about how American high school is – you know, football games, cheerleaders, groups sitting at specific tables.  It’s funny that this is usually how it’s portrayed in movies, but it’s not too far off from how it really is.

Style of Classes

Being at university in England has definitely been different than my studies at home.  Here, professors (more commonly lecturers) are typically looked at as “guides” to learning, rather than the main source of acquiring information.  For instance, at home, I typically learn the most from in-class lectures and am only tested on what is covered within that time.  However, here, you are expected to be fully reading the material covered in and out of the classroom.  Meaning you actually have to read the textbook and have an understanding of the information in it, rather than just getting by with memorizing powerpoint slides.  The main idea most of my professors have mentioned is that if this is your chosen program of study, you should be interested in knowing as much as you can about it.  I get the concept, but I’ve gotta work on it!  It’s scary to know that a question can show up on an exam covering material you have never talked about in class…I really need to start reading my textbooks.  SPEAKING OF TEXTBOOKS – It’s very abnormal to buy books – most are available from the library so students just use those – I definitely do not miss spending hundreds of dollars on books that just serve as paperweights and coasters on my desk  😉

Also, you’ll see from the table above that university here is finished in 3 years.  This is because what we called “gen eds” (general education requirements) are non-existent.  Students typically come in after sixth form and have narrowed their choice of study down to one field.  Double majors and minors don’t seem to be as common, at least among the students I have met.  It’s not better or worse, just different.


Each university year used to cost £3,000 (about $5,000), but just this year it was changed to £9,000 (about $14,000) a year – something that, as can be imagined, caused a HUGE uproar with students.  This may still seem super cheap compared to American schools, but scholarships for academics and athletics aren’t really common in England.  Also, you’ll notice that here, student discounts are EVERYWHERE!  The movies, shops, bus/train tickets, EVERYWHERE.  Definitely something I’ve gladly gotten used to.


As regards to grading goes, your mind will explode when the 70 you got on your paper is an A grade.  They call them marks, and everything 70 and above is considered a first mark.  This continues down the spectrum, and a passing grade is a 40.  If you were to get anything in the 90s on a paper, you would be considered an expert on the subject, most likely up to the level of someone with a Ph.D.  It’s quite confusing sometimes, but don’t worry too much.  Just know that a 70 is an A – works for me.

Exams aren’t as frequent as they are at my home university, either.  It’s pretty typical to just have 1 or 2 assignments throughout the year and then a final at the end that is worth 80% of your grade.  Which is why using the summer term strictly for revisions is extremely important…Did I mention that I have to get on that?

I can say, though, that being exposed to a new education system has broadened my way of learning.  I never was a textbook reader, but now I find myself more engaged in the subject matter and feel like I have a better overall understanding of it.  Additionally, I’ve been able to recall information I’ve learned weeks after I take the exam – something that doesn’t really happen when I simply cram for tests a few days before back at home.

School – It’s really all the same!

I will say, though, that despite the difference in school structure, students still dread going to class, they still pretend to look at powerpoint slides in class while they’re actually browsing Facebook albums, and we still complain about how much work we have to do without actually ever doing it.

Personally, I have noticed that British students seem to be much more concerned with getting good marks than American students.  According to the friends I’ve talked to, showing an employer poor marks in university is worse than having not have attended at all.  YIKES.  In the States, I feel like it’s quite the opposite, and the focus seems to be more on just earning a degree than achieving a high grade point average in it.

In all, school is school – and now I should probably get back to studying…






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