With studying abroad and travel so popular today, many Americans are venturing to the UK during university, either for a full three to a four-year course or just for a semester study abroad. And while you may feel like you know what to expect and just want to throw yourself into the culture, it’s important to prepare beforehand for the differences between American college culture and British uni life.
Whether you’re in the UK for six months or four years, these are our top tips for surviving British uni life as an American.
1. Take it easy with drinking at first
One of the biggest differences you’ll notice in British uni life is the amount of alcohol everywhere. While in the States most college students aren’t drinking properly until they’re 21, or sneaking by with a fake ID since high school, drinking is a huge part of the social life in the UK.
Whether it be a casual drink at the pub after classes, having a beer with dinner, or going out until you black out, this is a difference you’ll think you’re prepared for but it’ll take you by surprise when you see how locals drink and party. Instead of trying to keep up with your British friends, take it easy in the beginning — UK uni students have likely been drinking socially longer than you have, and you don’t want to have bad experiences in your first week there because you tried to keep up with them.
2. …but go out every night in Freshers’ Week
Definitely try to go out as often as possible in your first few weeks in the UK. You don’t necessarily have to be drunk every night, but partying (especially in Freshers’ Week) is a good introduction to British uni life, and a perfect way to meet new people from all around the world.
3. Don’t bank on homework grades (they don’t exist)
Academically, one of the most important differences you’ll notice in British uni life is the marking system for your courses. Instead of grades for attendance and homework, common at most American colleges and useful for boosting your average, at British universities you’ll normally have two to three pieces of coursework per module and then your final exam, which is worth most of your average in the class.
Instead of banking on homework grades, since they don’t exist, make sure you’re dedicating all your time and energy to your coursework so you don’t fall behind. British uni life can definitely be summarised by “work hard, play hard”; while you may be out drinking more than you’re to, you’ll also be spending more time in the library than you’re used to as well.
4. Watch and learn
Part of the reason why Americans can have a bad reputation abroad is because they don’t watch and learn; in other words, instead of observing and learning more about British culture, they try to compare it to things back home and comment on how “in America, …”. Don’t do this! While you’re in the UK, step back, avoid comparisons, and just learn about British uni life while you’re there experiencing it.
5. Visit your tutors
As we’ve mentioned about the lack of homework grades, British uni life is academically a huge leap from the American college one. Not only is the marking system different, but there’s also a difference in how professors grade your work and what tutors expect from your essays and other work.
In order to not fall behind, be sure to visit your tutors at least before you begin writing any essay or tackling any piece of coursework. However, it would also benefit you to visit them once a week to build a positive relationship with your tutors and be sure that you’re doing well academically.
6. Stop eating out so much
There is a rampant culture of eating out in America generally, and this just isn’t the case in the UK. While eating out is a way to be social and hang out with friends, in British uni life it’s more about meeting up at a pub or for coffee. Additionally, it’s way more common in the UK to cook for yourself and get takeaways once in a blue moon than eat out a few times a week. Instead of stopping by Pret every day, pack your lunch, learn how to cook more meals for yourself, and adjust the social habits that lead you towards eating at restaurants.
7. You have weeks for revision, so use it
Revision is definitely one of the biggest differences Americans will notice in British uni life. Instead of cramming in all the information for a test or exam a few days prior, or even the day before, in the UK you’ll find yourself with weeks to study for just a few exams.
While you may not feel like you need all this time to revise, use it! You’ve been given at least one to two weeks to revise for your exams, so ensure that you spend that time preparing as much as possible so that you’re confident you know everything on exam day. If you’re struggling and feeling like you don’t have anything left to revise, do past exam papers, read more secondary sources, and reach out to other friends to see how they’re revising.
8. Don’t phone your parents every day
This is a bit controversial, but as an American coming to the UK for uni, I noticed how independent my British friends were compared to the Americans. While I was used to phoning home at least once a day and texting my mum throughout the day, I noticed those around me were phoning home maybe once or twice a week.
However, this tip isn’t as much about distancing yourself from your family as it is about finding your independence. To adjust to British uni life where your peers will seem to be on another level of independence than you, try not to phone or text your family every time something goes wrong. If you’re unsure of what setting to do your laundry on, wondering the liquids allowance on a flight, or clueless about how to cook chicken, don’t immediately ask for help. Instead, try to figure it out on your own. Not only will this help you become more independent, but it’s also more satisfying!
9. You always have work to do
Similar to the long period for revision, in British uni life, you’ll always have work to do. Especially due to the lack of constant homework grades and fewer class hours, it may feel like you have loads of free time and weeks before your next piece of coursework to do, but this can lead you to getting behind and not putting in the proper effort on assignments. If you’re feeling like you don’t have anything to do, start doing research for your next essay, get your notes sorted for exam revision, and work ahead!
10. Immerse yourself in British television
As an American in the UK, one of my favourite things about British uni life is mindlessly watching British TV shows with friends. My personal favourite is “Countdown”, but I also love “The Chase”, “The “Great British Bake Off”, and “Come Dine With Me”. It’s a perfect way to learn more about British culture and find some new favourite shows!
11. Love your degree
At British universities, you’ll only really be taking classes in your degree subject or ones that are similar, unlike American colleges where you’ll still be taking math, a foreign language, sciences, and history sometimes all the way through college, even if you’re an English major.
With this being the case, make sure you love your degree if you’re studying at a British uni because it’s all you’ll be studying for the next three to four years. This isn’t to pressure you, but more to encourage you to follow your passions and interests, rather than choosing a subject that would be more suitable for career prospects but that you’ll dread studying for the next few years.
12. Don’t be glued to other Americans
An easy way to American students abroad is to look for the pack of Americans because, more often than not, Americans are glued together when studying abroad. This makes sense as there are cultural similarities and things already in common, but you won’t truly experience British uni life if all your friends are American, and it means you’re not allowing yourself to get out of your comfort zone and make other friends from all over the world.
Don’t totally avoid any other American you meet abroad, but don’t only stick with them, either. Instead, try to get to know everyone around you, get out of your comfort zone, and be friends with people based on what they’re like and the things you have in common, not simply because of where they’re from.
13. Adjust your academic standards
I arrived in the UK for university as a former straight-A student in high school, feeling like the stereotypes about not doing as well in university as you did in high school wouldn’t be true. However, I struggled academically in my first year at a British university more than I ever had in high school, and I began doubting how I got accepted to my university and whether I belonged there at all.
This is common for most Americans studying abroad because the academic standards are so different. While the British students around you have been under these standards throughout school, and they were all graded by similar standards in GCSEs and A Levels, AP standards in the US don’t even compare, and you’ll notice a difference in what tutors look for in your essays, exams, and projects.
You should not only visit your tutors to help bridge this gap and make sure you’re on the same page academically but also try to adjust your academic standards. There is so much you’re adjusting to as an American abroad, so try not to put too much pressure on yourself in your first year to get perfect marks. Instead, try your best, learn from your mistakes, and seek help if you need it!
14. You’ll survive without a roommate
It’s common not to have a roommate in the UK; however, many Americans worry that they’ll be lonely without a roommate and opt to have one. While this totally works for some people, in reality, not having a roommate doesn’t equate to loneliness at uni, since most everyone around you won’t have a roommate either.
If you’re hesitant about having a roommate, don’t do it! Living alone is a great way to develop your independence, and you’ll end up developing a close relationship with your flatmates anyways.
15. Sports aren’t everything
While most of American college life revolves around sports games and being involved with a sports team, this isn’t the case for British uni life. Although you can get involved with a sports club and find a strong community of friends while staying in shape, there’s not nearly the level of competition as there is for American college sports, and students don’t go watch and hang out at sports games in the UK like they do in the US.
Instead of Saturday football games, tailgating, and basketball season, British uni life centres more around society events and nights out. You can still stream NFL games on your laptop if you’re missing this part of home, but definitely be aware that sports aren’t the be-all-end-all of your social life when you arrive in the UK.
16. Prepare for solo travel
If you find yourself with more British friends than American, chances are you may not have a lot of travel buddies. While many of your friends have been living in the UK for their whole life and may have seen a good chunk of Europe already, you’ve just arrived and probably have a whole bucket list of countries to check off and visit.
Don’t let this get you down, though! Instead, prepare yourself for solo travel so you can see these places on your own time and budget without having to beg your friends to come with you every time. It can be scary and lonely at times, but it’s worth it to visit the places you’ve been dying to see while you’re in Europe, and there are tons of resources out there for solo travel advice.
17. Get comfortable with casual drinking
A lot of British uni life revolves around casual drinking, which is a big difference from American colleges where you struggle to get alcohol with a fake ID so you might as well get drunk every time you drink. This isn’t to say you don’t still go out at night and party at British unis, but it’s common to hang out at the pub with your friends for a few drinks and not be drunk.
That being said, get comfortable with casual drinking, and don’t feel like you need to get drunk every time you start ordering alcohol. Not only is this an unhealthy and expensive habit, but it’s also counterproductive to a lot of casual hangouts with your friends at British unis.
18. You don’t have sororities to make friends
This is sort of self-explanatory, but when I first made my decision to study in the UK for university, many of the reactions I received were those of concern, with people wondering how I would ever make friends without being in a sorority and that I would be missing out.
However, similar to the point about roommates, an absence of Greek life doesn’t mean an absence of a social life or opportunities to make friends because no one is in greek life. Instead, British uni life usually sees people joining societies or sports clubs to make friends, or meeting more people in classes and student halls. So, if you’re nervous about making friends at a British university, just try to keep involved and you’ll be fine! You don’t need sororities to have a social life.