US vs UK Education System

I am privileged enough to have studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford and a Masters in International and Development Economics at Yale, hence I have gained some perspective on the differences between the UK and US education system. My sister and friends also studied at top American universities (UC Berkeley, Harvard, MIT, etc) so I was always eager to find out the similarities and differences between the two systems.

To summarize:
Although the US universities ask that you submit a course preference in your Common Application, there is considerable freedom to select your courses, provided you meet the basic prerequisites. To graduate you need to complete around 30-40 courses, the compulsory ones being the courses required to complete your major, and electives. If you are feeling hardworking, you may also find the time to do a second major/minor.

For the UK, particularly Oxbridge, you spend all your time going in-depth into your course of study. If it’s Physics, all you do for 3 years is Physics. You may attend lectures for other fields of study such as Economics, but given your own course requirements, you will probably not have enough time. And attending lectures without doing the coursework and having someone to moderate your learning is probably ineffective. Trust me I have tried it – and it’s hard to keep the motivation up when there isn’t a way to measure your learning outcomes.

It seemed to me that the core modules in the US tended to be much easier than the core modules in the UK; however that should be caveated by the fact that the most difficult elective modules in the US are of such a high level that only the best will be able to handle it. The issue is one of selection: you can graduate with a high GPA if you select easy modules. And many a student will be tempted to select this option. However, I believe that college education is meant to train your mind and develop your thinking processes, so do avoid the urge to select easy courses to artificially pump up your GPA. Employers, based on my experiences and the experiences of my peers, look at the headline i.e. which university you graduated from. It is more rewarding to challenge yourself by going for more difficult courses, surrounding yourself with the best and brightest, than to aim low.
After I graduated from PPE at Oxford, my masters in International and Development Economics at Yale was a breeze. That was how difficult PPE was as a course. I attended perhaps half the tutorial lessons at Yale and 1/10th of the lectures and spent a lot of time travelling to New York, Boston, Miami, California to visit friends, and to Peru, which was my first sojourn into Latin America. This was because after my first semester, I had almost guaranteed that I would pass my masters (requirement: 1 Distinction, average of High Pass out of 8 modules; 1st Semester grades: 3 Distinctions, 1 High Pass). Unlike the UK system where the grades are determined by a final examination, the system of continual assessment allowed me to relax a little after I had achieved good results in the first semester, and to pursue interesting off-topic elective modules such as “Culture of Postwar Japan”. As someone who is an avid reader of Japanese authors such as Haruki Murakami, this exposed me to many other literary icons and their unique styles of writing. I also enjoyed watching videos of movies made by the legendary Akira Kurosawa.

To end off, as someone who’s always been keen on a broad based education in classics, literature, culture and the sciences, if I could turn back the clock, I would probably have chosen an undergraduate education in the US, and then specialise by doing a masters in the UK in economics or finance, instead of the other way around. To make the best decision about your university education, you need to understand the type of person you are, and how you like to learn. I hope this helps to clarify some of your doubts and if you need someone to talk to, please email enquiries@qconsultasia.com.
Cheers, Andrew

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