A Beginner’s Guide to Becoming an International Student

A Beginner’s Guide to Becoming an International Student

By Katie Ford

Since moving to the UK to do a master’s degree, I find that I’m often asked if I like university in the US or the UK better.  This is one of the hardest questions to answer about my experience in Cardiff because both systems have merit, and there are certainly things that I don’t like about each.  The best way for me to explain the pro’s and con’s of each is to break it down:

1.  Organization and customer service

The organization of universities in the States is far superior to what I’ve experienced in the UK, in my opinion.  By organization I primarily mean the administrative aspects of university.  I often am not entirely sure what I am meant to be doing with coursework, forms, registering, etc. at Cardiff, and these are things that would have been explained to a nearly annoying level at Susquehanna.  I have also mentioned customer service because I think that a lot of my issues with Cardiff have fallen into this area.  I find it truly amazing that it takes some offices at Cardiff over a month to respond to a simple question in an e-mail, where I would probably have a response in less than a week at Susquehanna.  With that being said, the difference in student population between my two universities is about 20,000 students, so Cardiff does have a bit more to handle.  It seems that universities in the UK just don’t have the same kind of people-pleasing focus that is so prevalent in the US, but I think that that’s also a huge culture thing as well- I’ve found most customer service in the UK to be a bit lack-luster.

2.  Teaching style

This might come down to the difference between a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, but I find the teaching and assessment styles to be very different in the US and the UK.  When I was doing my undergraduate degree, I was given many more assignments than I have in the UK.  This means that each assignment was worth less, so there was a bit of wiggle room grade-wise, but it also means that I spent a lot of time doing short papers, and had less time to focus in on a specific subject.  During my master’s at Cardiff, I had only one or two essays assigned per class, but each allowed me to focus on a topic I was very interested in, and gave me a lot more time to do more in-depth research.  My classes in the UK also met a lot less frequently than they did at Susquehanna, and I had a lot more time studying the course material on my own.  I personally liked this class structure, as I was able to do a lot at my own pace and focus on the things that I was truly interested in, allowing me to mold my degree into what I wanted it to be.

3.  Expectations

The expectations at universities in the US and the UK are generally the same: do you work, pass your classes, and get your degree.  But the expectations outside of the classroom seem to be a bit more diverse.  Undergraduate students in the UK are expected to be much more independent and mature than students at Susquehanna are.  Students in the UK begin their degrees in a specific subject from the start, and jump right into their course material.  Students in the US get up to two years to decide what subject they want to major in, and even then they’re often required to take many classes that don’t count towards their major.  This is completely unheard of in the UK- you choose where you go to university based on what you want to study, and you apply for that specific program.  If you decide you don’t like the university and want to transfer, you often have to start over.  The same goes if you want to change your degree program, most of the time that means dropping out and starting again the next year.  UK students really need to have their head on straight right from the start to avoid wasting a lot of time and money.

4.  Speaking of money…

The cost of university in the UK is much less than it is in the US.  The prices in the UK also vary depending on where you come from, much like the state school tuition rates you might find in the States.  For instance, I’m paying upwards of £3,000 more than a UK student is for the same degree, but that amount is still far less than I would be paying if I were doing my degree in the US.  Additionally, my course is only 1 year long, meaning that I only have to pay the cost of living expenses for myself for one year, where I’d have to pay those for at least two years if I were doing my degree in the US.  The degree I’m getting is comparable to any master’s in the US, and I will be in the job market one year earlier (fingers crossed!)


I am also often asked how to go about choosing a school in the UK for students who want to do an entire degree abroad.  It’s understandable to be a little lost on this subject, it’s hard to know which school will give you an internationally accredited degree, which will be a “good fit” for you, etc.  I was honestly a little fuzzy on the details before I started at Cardiff, not knowing how universities were ranked or viewed internationally.  Fortunately, I ended up choosing a university that is internationally recognized for their European Studies research and courses, but I’ll get a bit more specific on how to choose the right uni for you.

If you’re looking to do a degree in the UK, I’d start by checking out all of the universities in the Russell Group.  The Russell Group is the UK equivalent of Ivy League, but getting into these schools is definitely do-able- Cardiff University is in the Russell Group!  http://www.russellgroup.ac.uk/

If you’re looking to do a degree in Europe, in general, but need to be taught in English, there are plenty of other universities that offer courses, especially post-graduate courses, in English.  In Holland and Norway especially, you’ll find plenty of reputable universities that will have a wide range of offers in English.

And my last piece of advice… Make sure you talk to your undergraduate university’s study abroad office after you’ve narrowed down your choices to a handful.  The study abroad advisor, or someone, in that office will probably be able to give you some insight into your choices, and will be able to let you know if they’re internationally recognized, what kind of student support they might have, or at they’ll at least be able to point you in the right direction of someone who can answer all of your questions.

Going to Cardiff to do my master’s degree is definitely one of the best academic decisions I’ve made; it’s provided me the opportunity to travel, learn about a different culture, and it’s given me incredible insight and educational value that I wouldn’t have gotten if I’d stayed in the US.  Anywhere you go to study will have something different to teach you, and the things I’ve learned at Cardiff are invaluable to me.

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