Education in the UK vs U.S.

Education in the UK vs U.S.
A comprehensive overview of the difference between boarding schools in the US vs. UK.
Photo courtesy of EF Academy

The education systems in the U.S. and UK are ranked among the best in the world. With an emphasis on employing highly qualified teachers, providing students with opportunities for success inside and outside the classroom, and offering tailored support, the academic experiences offered at boarding schools in the U.S. and UK have their fair share of similarities. Still, some differences ultimately distinguish education on each side of the Atlantic Ocean.

1. Academics

In the UK, students often follow the A-Level academic program in their last two years of secondary school. This program culminates in internationally recognized qualifications, which means that it’s possible for A-Level students to apply to and attend universities in the U.S. or other countries. But A-Levels are the standard pathway for entry to university in the UK. With the A-Level program, a student will focus on just three or four subjects that are related to what they would like to study at university, and then they apply to a specific field or program in line with their A-Level studies. In the U.S., students can follow the well-known IB or AP programs, but in addition to those qualifications, they can also receive a high school diploma.

This video offers an overview of Bethany School.

To earn a high school diploma, a student in the U.S. will have to meet the academic requirements set by the state’s Department of Education. These requirements include all subjects – maths, science, humanities, English, and arts- and additional electives. This means students gain exposure to a wide variety of subjects and courses before university, which allows them to discover what they are passionate about while they learn and progress through high school. The high school diploma can be earned in two to four years. In the U.S., this academic program leaves room for co-curricular activities that take place after school, which leads us to the second difference between U.S. and UK schools.

2. After-school activities

A traditional American high school education typically involves playing on a sports team, joining a club, taking on a leadership role or engaging in community service. In fact, participating in these sorts of activities is strongly encouraged not only because of the skills students can develop by complementing their education with experiences outside of the classroom but also because American universities place great value on these after-school activities. Participating in one or several activities can strengthen a student’s application and make them stand out to admissions officers.

Across the pond, there is less emphasis on this aspect of a student’s high school education, particularly in sports. However, participation in co-curricular activities, especially ones that go hand-in-hand with a student’s studies (think: math club, debate or theater) are encouraged. In the personal statement that is part of the UK university application, co-curricular activities can play an important role in demonstrating relevant work experience that shows an applicant’s enthusiasm, knowledge, practical skill, or scholastic aptitude in a particular field. Additionally, students in the UK can earn points by completing certain qualifications in music, dance, community work, and sports. These points, known as “tariff points,” will also strengthen a student’s university application.

3. University preparation and guidance

University preparation at boarding schools in the UK and U.S. is an important part of a student’s high school education there. Some truly internationally-minded schools will offer “transatlantic” university guidance for students studying in the UK who want to attend university in the U.S. and vice versa. Generally, a boarding school will offer university guidance that is geared toward the country in which the boarding school is located. That’s because the application and acceptance processes in the UK and the U.S. are quite different and thus require specific knowledge and expertise. In the U.S., students apply to seven to 10 universities – some are schools with requirements that the student knows they have passed, and some are target schools where the student meets the requirements. One or two are dream schools that the student would like to attend but have very high requirements that the student does not necessarily meet. In the spring of their final year at high school, students receive offers from universities they apply to and they can accept one offer, making their decision and informing that university by May. In the UK, students apply to four or five universities and will receive “conditional” offers, depending on the scores they will receive on their A-Level (or IB) exams. These results become available at the end of the summer. Once students receive their offers, they must declare that it is their first choice to a university. If they meet the conditions of the offer, then they will go to that university in the fall. The ideal boarding school is one that is part of an international network and has schools in both the UK and the U.S. This would allow students to benefit from university guidance related to both parts of the world.

This video offers an overview of Westbourne School (Sheffield).

When it comes to making a decision about where you would like to attend high school, consider your own interests and hobbies. Are you someone who knows exactly what they would like to study at university and what career they would like to pursue? Or are you someone who would like to use their high school experience to explore different subjects and do more outside of class to prepare for the future? Some schools, like EF Academy International Boarding Schools, allow students to switch from one country to another between programs to allow them to experience both countries and education systems.

Whether you decide to attend boarding school in the UK or the U.S., you will enjoy learning in a world-renowned education system. At the end of the day, your academic experience will be what you make of it.

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