5 of the Biggest Academic Differences in the USA

By Lara Bradley, University of Colorado Boulder, USA

In many ways, the US education system is really different from the UK’s- and while you might not be thinking about academics very much right now, knowing these differences could help you adjust quicker and concentrate on all the other things you can do in college.

1. There is different lingo for everything.

For the first couple of months, talking to an American about college felt like taking to an alien. To start with, 1st, 2:1 and 2:2 mean nothing here. Instead, your class grades are converted into something called a GPA, which stands for grade point average. GPA’s range from 0.0 (lowest) to 4.0 (highest). The grading scale is also very different- here, 60% is barely a pass. In fact, if you want to get an A in the US, you need to get upwards of 90%. If you do really well in your classes, you could get a place on something called the Dean’s List, which is a list made up of the top 10% of college students. Also, your degree subject is called your Major, and students commonly graduate with a secondary subject focus called a Minor. Grades or marks you get within your classes are referred to as credit and finally, instead of first, second or third year, college students are either a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior. 

2. There is way more variety in the classes students take.

This can vary from degree to degree (or rather, major to major), but here students have to take a variety of classes to even graduate. For example, a Business major might need to take some History classes, a Psychology major may need to take some Physics, or a Political Science majors have to do some Spanish. This means that a lot of classes have a wide variety of people with different academic backgrounds, which makes for a very interesting mix of ideas. In general, students have much more flexibility in the subjects they can choose, which is something I highly recommend taking advantage of. Of course, remember to discuss any classes with your academic advisor, but dont be afraid to take advantage of the options here and branch out. When else could you get the chance to study Russian folklore? 

3. There are more contact hours.

In the US, students generally take 4-5 classes a semester, which comes to about 10-12 contact hours a week, depending on the type of class you take. Class structure also varies a lot, and rarely ever follow the same lecture/seminar schedule an we have in the UK. Exactly what your classes look like will very based on the class size (while most of mine have been around 30 students, others are over 200), but will often have a more casual teaching style and more class discussion. Importantly, for most of the classes attendance and participation is mandatory and counts toward your grades. However, there are almost always built in absences which means you can miss a certain amount of classes without it affecting your grade. I have generally found that the larger amount of contact hours is balanced by less work out of class, but this varies too. Just remember not to overload your schedule or take unnecessarily hard courses with large workloads- your year abroad is about more than just academics, so remember to leave space for exploring and socialising too. 

4. The classes are graded very differently. 

Gone are the days of the exams that are worth 60% of your grade. As mentioned above, you get credit for just turning up. I have found that assignments are often smaller and easier, but need to be submitted more frequently. Professors often set weekly journal entries, quizzes and graded annotations, and presentations and group projects are also more common. Longer submissions (such as essays or exams) do affect your grade but don’t have anything close to the same grade weighting as in the UK. Strangely, none of your work is submitted anonymously either- you name is on everything you hand in. Obviously professors aim to grade impartially – but technically there’s no way of forcing this. This means it doesn’t hurt to try and build a good relationship with your professor. Furthermore, if you’re struggling or need to top up your grade, going to office hours, attending essay support sessions and asking for extra work can help you gain extra credit, which goes towards your final grade. I’ve found all this makes it easier to do well in my classes than back home in Manchester, but this will depend on your own preferred style of learning. Sometimes the endless submission list can look daunting, but it’s important to remember that you’re here to have fun too. Missing some assignments or submitting late doesn’t affect your grade that much- in fact it’s so common that most professors will drop a number of your lowest scores anyway. 

5. A lot of the bigger assignments wont look anything like the work you have been submitting in the UK.

Forget the standard 2000 word essays you’ve been writing in Manchester. Here in Colorado, very few of the essays I am assigned have required any research or referencing, and when it has, it has been strictly confined to the assigned course readings. Any essay that does require the usual browsing-for-hours-on-Jstor is considered a ‘research essay’ and you are given multiple weeks or even months to work on it. In fact, many of the end of semester assignment are neither exams or essays, but creative “final projects”. Last semester, one of my classes required us to create a comic strip, and this time around I’m submitting a customised version of the “guess who?” game. This can be really fun, but definitely threw me off to begin with. However, I’ve really enjoyed putting what I’ve learnt into practice in these strange ways. 

The college system here definitely different, but I think the flexibility it has given me has allowed me to have fun and explore without worrying about school. The quicker you learn to adjust to the system, the easier it becomes, so I hope these tips can help someone get to grips with this new style of education. For me, one of the best things about doing a year abroad here has been taking classes that push me outside of my comfort zone. Although there’s so much else to experience here, a lot of your time is spent in college and choosing classes you’re interested will make you experience 1000% better.

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