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Studying Abroad: Differences between Spain, UK and USA
In today’s ever more competitive scramble for jobs graduates need something that separates them from the rest. From core skills and competencies to speaking different languages graduates need to think about having more than one string in their bow.
One of the best ways to set yourself apart is the challenge of taking part in an exchange program at an overseas university or for the more adventurous leaving your home country to complete a full degree abroad.
Studying abroad not only allows you to discover new ways of learning and thinking but it enables you to gain skills and experiences you would never have had if you’d opted to remain at home. Learning a new language, making new friends from all over the world, experiencing and adapting to new cultures, ways of life, cuisine and much more. While it can be a challenge, the vast majority of those who take the plunge and study abroad find it to be a deeply enriching experience – myself included.
Before you book your flight and pack your bags you will no doubt have many questions about studying abroad and wonder how different the experience is compared to university in your home country.
So let’s have a look at some of the differences between university education in Spain, the UK and the USA. I’ve chosen those three largely because I’m English and went to university there so know the system well. I took part in an Erasmus program in Spain as part of my degree and have worked at a couple of international colleges in Madrid. I have many cousins at university in the USA too so have a good understanding from them of what university life is like there.
According to a report by the European Commission, Spain was the number one choice of destination for Erasmus students in 2013-14 with almost 40,000 hitting the Iberian nation. With Spanish being the second most widely spoken language in the world, Spain is a popular choice for those outside of Europe too.
- Student-lecturer relationships are less formal
Spanish people are famous for their friendliness and one of the first things I noticed when I studied in Spain was the more informal relationship between the students and lecturer. They made an effort to know everybody’s name – something that didn’t happen when I attended university in the UK - and were always approachable. I immediately felt at ease and welcome at lectures despite not always understanding what was going on.
- A different grading system
In the UK, I was used to the concept First, 2:1, 2:2 or Third grading system when our coursework or exams were assessed. In Spain, there are two grading systems. Student’s performance is based on a 10-point system. 10 with distinction: "Matrícula de Honor", 9-10: "Sobresaliente", 7-8.9: "Notable", 5-6.9: "Aprobado" and 0-4.9: "Suspenso". When a student has passed a subject according to this 10-point scale, their grade is converted to the following 4-point scale and recorded in their transcript of records: "Matrícula de Honor" – 4, "Sobresaliente"- 3, "Notable" - 2, “Aprobado"- 1.
- Learning model
Traditionally, the Spanish university system has been based on memory-based learning. The lecturer would reel off his or her facts and when it came to exam time, the student would have to repeat back as much of the course they could remember without doing much analysis. It was something that took me a while to get used to coming from the UK where the focus is more on analysis and developing your own opinions. That was then. Many universities in Spain are becoming more modern and adopting a much more varied approach that develops a number of key competencies so students are equipped with the core skills needed to success in the workplace whether that be in Spain or abroad.
- Seminars can be lively affairs
Spaniards are not afraid to voice their opinions and nor are they are quiet bunch. That combination can make seminars a fairly interesting affair with students raising their voices to be heard over each other. If you’re a polite Brit like me, you won’t get a word in edgeways.
- Large lecture halls with hundreds of students
Typically, American university students, like those in the UK, have fewer contact hours with professors compared to their Spanish counterparts. Lectures in the US tend to take place in large halls with hundreds of students present. Weekly reading material is given out and students are expected to complete the work in order to take part in seminar discussions and follow lectures. When it comes to grading students at the end of the year, a number of factors are taken into consideration other than just the final exam. These include: class participation, results of the midterm exam, research papers and short exams or quizzes throughout the semester.
- Emphasis on sports
The US is famous for college sport and indeed those who make it onto American Football or basketball teams are like celebrities. Just like in the films, the facilities at many universities are outstanding and comparable to some of the top sports stadiums in Europe. Sports teams have a cult like following within the student body at each university with thousands turning up to watch games, making for an incredible atmosphere.
The cost of university tuition can be sticking point as fees are pretty high. The government has very little control over what universities charge in the US. A typical four-year bachelor’s degree at a private university costs around $29,000 per year while some of the more prestigious colleges charge up to $50,000 a year. Loans and scholarships are available but graduating from a US college generally means starting professional life riddled with debts.
Those looking for some independence when they leave home for university could be in for a shock when they arrive in the US and find themselves in a dorm with one or two other people. You better hope they don’t have any bad habits! Many first year and international students prefer living on campus however as it means there are no transport costs to get to university. Living on campus also means close proximity to cafes and restaurants and many universities offer very reasonable meal plans.
- Independent thinking is encouraged
One of the key differentiators between the UK and other university systems around the world is the emphasis placed on independent learning and the development of core skills that will last a lifetime. Students are encouraged to develop their own thoughts and opinions and back them up through research. Make sure you learn how to reference your sources when writing essays from day one – plagiarism is taken very seriously!
- Broad degree programs
Many employers in the UK look at the skills you learn at university rather than the actual degree itself which lends itself to students being able to enjoy great flexibility with their choice of degree. Bar a few exceptions such as medicine, students can choose to study from a wide range of options not necessarily related to what they will end up in career wise. I studied Politics and International Relations and have ended up in marketing, my brother completed a degree in Philosophy and now works as a lawyer. University in the UK is about gaining a set of core skills that employers then polish up through graduate fast track programs.
- You are responsible for your own study
In some countries, professors do what they can to help students get through their degree as it is their job to ensure their grades are good. In the UK, professors take no particular responsibility for your academic success or failure. Mid-term quizzes or tests aren’t designed for them to track your progress but more for your information. It’s up to you do turn things around if you’re failing.
- Clubs and societies
Part of the experience of attending a UK university is getting involved in the many clubs and societies run by students and supported by the student union. While sport is a major emphasis at US universities, in the UK the clubs and societies cover a wide range of interests and activities. They are a great way to get to know like-minded and to try new experiences you may never have thought of before. Each university is of course different so societies vary greatly. In my time at university in the UK, I was part of the student newspaper, the backpacking society (we would travel to Scotland, Wales and other areas in England to climb mountains), the ski club and skydiving society.
Universities vary greatly and every student will also have their own unique experience wherever they end up, but I hope these points give a greater general understanding of some of the key differences. Do get in touch if you have any questions!