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On Being Educated Abroad

Even though the United States and England have close cultural ties, there are major differences between the two countries. When I was accepted into the First-Year Study Abroad Experience as a freshman, my parents and I worried about how I’d adjust to everything—especially the education system.

All sorts of questions ran through my mind: What are the differences between a tutorial, seminar, and workshop? Will professors expect me to spell “flavor” like “flavour”? With all the work, will I even have to time explore London?

The study abroad team at Arcadia is incredible and will provide a lot of useful information during orientation, but I thought I’d share my perspective and give you a peek as to what to expect, since I’ve completed FYSAE and am just about finished a full year of study at University of Westminster through Arcadia’s global media major.

Here’s what I found.

Prepare for Less Individual Attention

At Arcadia, I have a close relationship with my teachers because of the small class sizes. I’m able to set up meetings with professors to get extra help or feedback on assignments. Most universities in England have larger classes, which means less individual attention. Without constant feedback from the professor, initially it was difficult for me to figure out how I was doing academically. I had to rely on my classmates for advice and help. When I was really in a rut, I would contact my advisor at Arcadia for guidance.

Classes Are Structured Differently

Classes at the University of Westminster typically are four hours long and meet only once a week. Though last semester, one of my classes, “Magazine Project,” ran eight hours. It was split into two sessions—a lecture in the morning, covering topics such as feature writing and magazine design, and a workshop in the afternoon, during which we created our magazines.

For classes that aren’t project-based, following lecture you might have a seminar or tutorial (smaller classes that address lecture topics in depth) instead of a workshop. Take advantage of these smaller groups. The teachers can answer your questions and help you with your assignments. Seminars usually are more discussion-based, so this is the time when other students and I work together to answer questions. I also talk to seminar teachers to get comments on my essay outlines.

Don’t be intimidated by the seemingly epic length of classes. Professors do allow breaks so students can get some coffee or snacks or go for a smoke.

Sixty Percent Is Pretty Good

If you’re anything like me, getting a grade less than 90% is the end of the world. I was heartbroken when I got a 63% on an assignment in my business class. It wasn’t until the classmates around me complimented my score that I remembered the different grading system. In the U.K., they believe that students should be awarded points for work, which is different from the U.S. system, where points are deducted from grades.

Here’s how grades would typically convert from U.K. to U.S.

70-100 A
60-69 B+/B
54-59 B/B-
42-53 C
38-41 D
0-37 F

This table is taken from the Fulbright Commission’s U.K. and U.S. Grade Conversion Guide.

Fewer Assignments Means More Responsibility—and Fun

In England, usually you have one midterm assignment and one final assignment, both of which can be in the form of a paper, presentation, project, or exam. This means that your grade is based solely on these two assignments—homework and class participation do not factor into final grades. Professors won’t hunt you down for a late essay or for not turning in an exam. In England, students are responsible for their own learning.

Since I’m at a media school, I usually submit papers and projects, which are two of my strengths. For papers, generally professors are fine if you use American spelling. I rarely have homework, which means more time to explore London. Often classes have reading lists with recommended books. You should definitely read the core text, but they won’t really check if you’ve read the other books. However, it’s always a good idea to read some of them because they’ll help you on your paper or exam.

All these changes affect students differently. Some find the UK system easier while others have a hard time adjusting to the lack of assignments. My advice is to introduce yourself to the professor beforehand and explain you’re an international student. Professors can help explain assignments and give you tips on how to succeed in the class.

College vs. University

Don’t make the mistake of introducing yourself as a college student while studying in England. One time when I was trying to enter a museum exhibition, the ticket collector asked me if I was in college. I said, “Yes,” and almost ended up with a group of teenagers before explaining I was a student at the University of Westminster.

In the U.K., college and university are not synonymous. Students usually enter university after college, where they take A-level exams, which are like our SATs. College is different from high school in the U.S. because students only take three to four classes, most of which focus on their potential major in university.

An Overall Focus on Independent Study

Learning in these two different environments—at Arcadia University and at the University of Westminster—has helped me become more resourceful. I can create a good rapport with professors and collaborate well with my peers too.

The English system forces you to do more independent work, which can freak out some students who are more comfortable with structured learning. But I know that when I enter in the professional workplace, I won’t have someone telling me exactly what to do all the time. I think my experience here, in England, has prepared me to be more proactive and self-reliant.

Do you have any questions about studying abroad? Feel free to leave them in the comments and I’ll try my best to answer them.