What are the key culture changes between UK and US Universities?
December 11, 2006 3:56 AM   Subscribe

I've got the opportunity to do an American Exchange next Autumn from my UK University for about 15 weeks. What are the key culture changes that I'll experience? Of course, there's

This will be only my second time out of the UK, and am wondering what the key changes between UK and US universities are. I'll most probably be going to Southern Oregon, or a small chance of the University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire or Southern Maine.

I know that it's quite likely that I'll have a room mate (which I don't have at the moment) and have to share other facailities, but what other changes will I find? Will it be more restrictive than UK University? I know I won't be able to drink (not the biggest catastrophe ever) but any other key changes?

Finally, any comments about the usefullness of an exchange? I'm thinking it'll be a great thing for employers when I get a career on the basis I can survive in a foreign country for an extended period of time.

Anecdotes are especially welcome, and any university specific comments are welcome too!

Thanks for your input guys.
posted by philsi to Education (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I know I won't be able to drink (not the biggest catastrophe ever) but any other key changes?

Heh. If you go to UW-EC, you certainly will have opportunities to drink. I don't know what UK University is like, but I can't imagine that UW-Eau Claire could possibly be more restrictive, having grown up in that general part of the US and seen a lot of high school friends end up there.

And I think an exchange is going to be vastly useful to you beyond what future employers will think of you.
posted by limicoline at 4:55 AM on December 11, 2006

I've been told the key difference between the UK and US university experience is that in the UK, you attend lectures and have an exam at the end of the semester (or possibly just a huge comprehensive exam at the end of the program?), and in the US you are far more likely to have quizzes throughout the semester and a mid-term exam in addition to the final, with possibly some papers or a project tossed in as well.
posted by kimota at 5:07 AM on December 11, 2006

The key cultural differences you'll deal with will not be UK--US differences. They'll be YourUKUniversity--YourUSUniversity differences. The differences among university cultures and practices in the US are immense.

You will be able to drink at many social occasions, just not at bars and restaurants.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:11 AM on December 11, 2006

I'm assuming the reference to not drinking is the 21 age limit in the US compared to 18 in the UK. The impression we get in the UK is the 21 limit is stuck to much more strictly in the US than the 18 one is in the UK. I've been asked for ID in the US whilst in my 30s - I was never once asked in the UK, even aged 15.
posted by jontyjago at 5:14 AM on December 11, 2006

Right, jonty. But what that means in practice is that you drink at parties, not at bars or restaurants. I don't know any Americans who had undue trouble getting liquored up in college.
posted by dame at 5:42 AM on December 11, 2006

I've done a degree in both countries, and while it obviously varies by university, I found that UK universities are much more hands-off than their American counterparts. For a Briton going to a US uni, I would suggest to expect much more day-to-day work and, as already noted, a larger amount of mid-course assignments. I've also noticed that class participation is much more important in the US universities i've been to than the UK ones.
posted by ukdanae at 6:02 AM on December 11, 2006

Right, jonty. But what that means in practice is that you drink at parties, not at bars or restaurants. I don't know any Americans who had undue trouble getting liquored up in college.

Very true. Also, around a college, you will find different kinds of bars- some which religiously ID and enjoy finding fake IDs and some which accept a note from your mother. While I wasn't into the bar scene, going to the bars is not a big challenge once you meet a few people.

The restrictiveness of your classes really depends on what you're taking. As a science major, my lectures required no attendance beyond the tests. However, missing a lab or two was a good way to fail.
On the other hand, most of the humanity classes I took (English, philosophy, foreign language), had fairly strict attendance policies (miss > 3 == fail).

FWIW, I've yet to meet someone who regretted studying abroad. In my experience, locals are usually great about befriending foreign exchange students and inviting them along to functions.
posted by jmd82 at 6:03 AM on December 11, 2006

On the drinking, I think you may quickly find that many U.S. universities, contrary to what a 21+ drinking age would make you suspect, actually have a very alcohol-centric social scene, to a fault. As many students can't drink in restaurants or bars, they overcompensate by getting regularly shitfaced at parties. Obviously this varies depending on the school, and also between various social circles within schools, but more than one friend from the U.K. has described the typical U.S. college scene as being highschoolish.

In terms of classes, I suspect that if you're at a smaller college here, that you'll see more "handholding" than perhaps you're used to. The relationship between professors and students is also, IMO, more casual here than in the U.K.

It's difficult to generalize anything about the U.S. college/university experience, because it varies so widely. Someone attending a small liberal-arts college in rural Maine will have a completely different experience from someone going to a huge urban Uni. There is very little in the way of consistency or easy generalizations.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:47 AM on December 11, 2006

Can't say much about the drinking because I'm 25 and don't enjoy it much, but if you will have roommates and a sink in which to do washing up you will find two things.
1. Your roommates may not be compelled to do the washing up
2. If they watch you wash dishes and you don't rinse them, you will be marked as crazy. Our dishsoap is somehow different from yours, and so we can't just leave the suds on the plates.

Also, if you discuss "birds" in romantic context, American youth are unlikely to know you mean "girls" There will be other funny language differences, but you knew that.

Also, if you go out to eat, gratuity is expected to be added to the check. Find out all you can about that and don't pretend you'd never heard about it!
posted by bilabial at 7:18 AM on December 11, 2006

I'm from Eau Claire. I go to college at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, but I took quite a few classes at UWEC as a high schooler. I'm going to nth the alcohol-centric social scene.

Eau Claire has a pretty interesting local music scene.

If you end up in Eau Claire, feel free to send me an email. We can set up a Metafilter meetup. Actually, if you have any questions about Eau Claire in particular, feel free to send them my way.
posted by adamwolf at 7:26 AM on December 11, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the input so far. Thanks esepcially to adamwolf - I'll keep you in mind if I don't get the opportunity to go to Southern Oregon.

I didn't mean to make a thing about the not drinking issue: I was using it to illustrate one cultural difference between the UK and US (thanks to jonty for clearing that up!)

Keep 'em coming!
posted by philsi at 8:02 AM on December 11, 2006

I remember a British student at my college having to learn this: In the US 'trousers' are called 'pants.' What you call 'pants' are called 'underwear' here. Don't know if this still an issue, but it was the source of much confused hilarity then.

Also, if you end up in Wisconsin, get ready to be very, very cold.
posted by Sara Anne at 9:39 AM on December 11, 2006

For detailed comparison between British usage and Amercian usage, read Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions; it's fantastic. There will be some language differences big enough that Americans won't understand at all what you're talking about; this will be part of the fun. (For example, the word "uni" is not understood in the US. All university or small-college programs that end with a bachelor's degree are called "going to college". The US is called "America", not "the States".)

I'm guessing that you will be like catnip to the ladies; American women love a British accent.

Oregon will be rainy, never super-cold, and will have lots of outdoorsy mountainous activities. Wisconsin and Maine will both be colder and will have snow for a reasonable percentage of the winter.

If you're only coming for a semester, you will probably just be getting settled in when it's time to leave. If you can stay for the full year, you will probably get more out of it (eg you'll have more chance to travel in the States on school vacations).
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:53 PM on December 11, 2006

Grading scales are different. Although, the grading scale is usually more shocking in the other direction. From my understanding, int he UK it is rare to get above an 80. In the US, it is not uncommon to score in the 90's. It usually breaks down (in the US) to 100-90 = A, 89-80 = B, etc. I guess what you should keep in mind in this case is that a score of 70 or 80 is not as impressive as you may be used to.

Usefulness of the exchange? It will undoubtably be a socially growing experience for you. I'm not sure if the US will be that impressed with the "exoticness" of America compared to the UK, but that might just be a misconception on my part.

And, seconding LobsterMitten, if you take the time to talk to girls (or you know, guys) you are interested in, they most likely will be smitten by your accent. Enjoy it and ride it out.
posted by piratebowling at 3:07 PM on December 11, 2006

Southern Oregon University is in a very rural area. You’ll be hundreds of miles from the nearest big town, and odds are good your entire life will revolve around campus activities as a result.

Though Ashland, Ore., has more culture than many small towns its size. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is headquartered there, and it's spawned a decent sized arts and theater scene that goes well beyond the bard. Between the university and the liberal literati, there's a decent rotation of authors and interesting cultural events that pass through town, though nothing that would compare to what you'd find in a big city.

The mountains are beautiful. If you’re in to outdoor activities you should have lots of amazing opportunities, as well. I'm pretty sure there's downhill and crosscountry skiing within a reasonable drive. There are hiking and camping and canoeing, rafting and kayaking opportunities. The Oregon Coast is a couple of hours away, chilly and untamed and worth a visit. If hunting or fishing interest you, there are abundant opportunities. No semester in Oregon is well spent if you don't spend at least one night under the stars and away from civilization. Even if it's just car camping (drive to the camp site and pull out a tent), it needs to be done.

The Rogue Valley, where SOU is located, has lots of good locally grown food, some good cheese, and I they make really good wine and beer, there, too. If you appreciate quality booze for more than just intoxication, it's worth making friends with someone over 21 to help you gain access to that stuff.

Marijuana use is much more widespread in Oregon than anywhere else I’ve ever been. I suspect it will be easier for you to get high than drunk at local parties. It grows strong and green in the trees out here.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 3:46 PM on December 11, 2006

Grading: Most US universities have inflated grading systems (with exceptions for things like engineering, I suppose). A's are much more common than firsts and you might have trouble scoring lower than a B if you study humanities.

US students take a relatively diverse bunch of courses each semester. A sociology student, say, will still have to take some math classes, literature, and sciencey stuff on the way to his degree, so unlike the UK (at least my experience) you'll have a lot of different faces in each of your classes.

I found British courses to be much less burdensome than in the US. As mentioned before, you should expect more hand holding. Going to class is a much bigger deal. Some professors will even take attendance and penalize your grade simply because you didn't show up. They are also more likely to want to be your friend. You might get more busy-work depending on the class size (I'd pick giant lecture hall classes if I were you. They're less likely to take attendance or to have assignments, leaving you with time to travel around).

A lot of US schools are building/converting student housing where you don't have to share a bedroom, so you might ask about housing options. Just make sure you get out of your room if you have one to yourself.

Depending on the school you end up at, the (American) football season could be a huge deal. In my experience in the UK, sports weren't a big concern for most of the campus but football defines a lot of American universities in the fall. Make sure you tailgate and hit a few games. It's a quintessentially American experience.

(Also, drugs are a bigger deal to US authorities than in the UK and they might just send you home, so be careful with them)
posted by jaysus chris at 4:21 PM on December 11, 2006

In the UK you might say "revising" to mean that you were looking over your notes on a subject in preparation for an exam.

The word cannot be used that way in the US. In the US you would say "studying" or "reviewing" to describe that. And you would use the word "revising" only to describe what you do to change the first draft of a paper/essay to the second draft.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:58 PM on December 12, 2006

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