Honours vs. Honors: A Brief Guide to College in America

If  you see this guy on campus when dropping off your son or daughter; then go the other way. (Universal)

If you see this guy on campus, you may just want to head the other way. (Universal)

While the basic premise of learning stuff is the same, college in America is not like university in Britain.  It would appear the structure, lingo and traditions on U.S. and U.K. campuses are as prone to cultural nuances as any part of the special relationship.

Fraternities & sororities
Fraternities and sororities offer men and women respectively the opportunity to join what is essentially a social club for like-minded students.  The earliest recorded collegiate society is the Flat Hat Club fraternity, founded in 1750 at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia (of which one early member was future president Thomas Jefferson).  In those days, school authorities forbade social activities and the earliest fraternities were shrouded in secrecy, which is why many of them had covert passwords and handshakes—a tradition that continues in some societies to this day.

The first Greek-letter society was Phi Beta Kappa (founded in 1776 also at the College of William and Mary), which inaugurated the tradition of naming American college societies after Greek letters. Over time, Phi Beta Kappa evolved into the most prestigious honor society in the U.S., granting exclusive membership to the academic elite.  Since its founding, inductees have included 17 American Presidents, 136 Nobel laureates and celebrities such as Glenn Close, Kerry Washington and Rivers Cuomo.

Although the tradition of fraternities and sororities doesn’t exist at U.K. universities per se, there is a wide range of specialist social groups, usually known as “societies,” in which students may enroll. Some of my personal favorites include: the Assassins Guild of the University of Leeds (I don’t think they really kill people), the Hummous Society of the London School of Economics (sounds tasty), and the rather delightful Sheila and Her Dog Society in which Cambridge students get together to read children’s books in silly voices.

In order to be accepted into your chosen fraternity or sorority you must first pass a series of tests which often involve fun and challenging initiations such as riding a wildebeest through campus while eating your own pants and drinking cat piss all the while reciting the lyrics to “A Whole New World.”

Three years vs. four years
In the U.S., the typical degree takes four years to complete—as opposed to the standard three in Britain (with the exception of Scotland where most courses are four). And each college year in America has a cutesy name: (in chronological order) freshman, sophomore, junior, senior.

At most U.S. universities students are required to study a broad range of subjects during their freshman and sophomore years. It is not until junior year that they finally “major” in a specific subject. Whereas in the U.K., students specialize in their chosen subject the minute they set foot on campus.

College sports
College sports are hugely popular in the United States and the fierce rivalries between schools are matters of cardinal pride. What’s more, alumni often follow their college team for the rest of their adult life, meaning interest in games is huge. All big games are televised and the stadiums attract attendances that would put many professional leagues to shame.  The University of Michigan, for example, regularly attracts crowds of over 100,000 to their home football games and last September they beat their own previous record when 115,109 fans crammed into the stadium to watch them take on Notre Dame. That’s around 10,000 more than the record attendance for an NFL game (and, according to their stadium website, 5000 over Michigan’s capacity – must’ve been real cozy). To put all of this in perspective, imagine if Loughborough University played soccer against the University of Surrey and the game attracted more spectators than, say, Manchester United against Arsenal. That’s football crazy!

Sports scholarships are a big part of the college system in America and those fortunate enough to get one are spared tens of thousands of dollars in tuition fees.  Many of the big college sports: football, baseball and basketball being the major ones, act as a farm system for the professional leagues.  However, the system has often come under scrutiny for its treatment of the players who generate millions of dollars in income for their schools and receive scant reward in return, often living off just a few dollars a day (although to be fair, that’s what most regular students live off).

Spring break
Having borne witness to two spring breaks in Cabo, Mexico, I can reliably inform you that the occasion is exactly how one might picture it: pool parties aplenty, jello shots à go-go and sunburned frat bros puking in alleyways. It’s the best!

Two hundred years ago Cambridge University established a system for grading British bachelor degrees that has remained in place to this day.  At the top of the scale are Firsts, next are 2:1s, followed shortly thereafter by 2:2s, and finally there are Thirds. The problem with these classifications is that they’re awfully vague.  For example, two students may have both achieved a 2:1, but one of them may have scored 69.99%, while the other just scraped into the 2:1 bracket with 60%.  Moreover, anything from 70% upward would earn a First, so a student could score a whopping 30% less than a fellow graduate but both could walk away with the same top grade.

The American system, on the other hand, is much more precise.  Students are marked on a GPA (grade point average), which is a cumulative score across their entire four years in school and shows students’ average grade to two decimal places, giving potential employers useful specific detail.  The GPA is worked out through constant tests, papers, midterms and finals during the academic year.  On graduating, Latin honors may be awarded to students that excelled: cum laude (“with honor”), magna cum laude (“with great honor”), and summa cum laude (“with highest honor”).

Taken from the Latin vale dicere (“to say farewell”), the title of valedictorian is bestowed upon the student who delivers the farewell speech at the graduation ceremony.  Traditionally, the student who performed the best academically delivers the speech, but in recent years many schools have begun electing multiple valedictorians so as not to hurt the feelings of the other smarty-pants.

Graduation, however, does not mark the end of your relationship with your chosen institution.  Until your last breath you will receive donation requests masquerading as newsletters.  You have been warned.

What differences have you noticed between higher education in the U.S. compared with the U.K.?  Tell us in the comments below:

See More: 
A Brit’s Guide to Understanding American High School Customs
Tippling Teens: What British Parents in America Need to Know
A British Expat Speaks: Five Life Lessons I’ve Learned from Americans

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Jon Langford

Jon Langford is a British expat living in NYC where he is often asked if he’s Australian on account of his Yorkshire accent. He is a freelance copywriter and journalist, and has been published in many sports and pop culture outlets including Major League Soccer, Time Out magazine, Inked magazine and Smitten by Britain. As bassist of alternative rock group The Chevin he has toured the world over, appearing on Conan, the Late Show with David Letterman and Last Call with Carson Daly. Follow him on Twitter at @Jon_LangfordNYC.
View all posts by Jon Langford.
  • Anne Tunnessen

    Valedictorian, despite the origin of the name, refers solely to the student with the highest GPA. In my law school, the valedictorian did not deliver an address (and neither did the one for my high school).

    • expatmum

      Many schools still have them deliver a speech.

  • gn

    Choice. In the American system, provided they meet certain minimum requirements, undergraduates typically get a very wide choice of possible classes to take (which may be totally unrelated to the major, if any). I remember the mixture of astonishment and joy I felt when, having just arrived in the US for my Ph.D., I discovered that I could enroll in Beginner’s Italian or Ballroom Dancing.

    • expatmum

      I can see that side, but as a parent, currently paying extortionate fees for my daughter’s college, it’s kind of annoying to hear her complaining about having to take a lab science when it’s neither her forte nor is she interested in it. They tend to enroll in such courses just to get them over with and given that they are also one semester long, it goes in one ear and out the other. It’s more of a taster than anything else and I resent having to pay for it when she knew her major before she even enrolled. Heck, she got a place in the specific school within the university right off the bat so she was in effect, declaring her major then.
      It seems a little paternalistic to me, to tell a bunch of 18-22 year olds what they should be studying. By all means, let them take different classes if they want to, but if they want to specialize, where’s the harm? (Rant over.)

      • gn

        British universities also tell 18-22 year olds “what they should be studying” — usually to a far greater extent than US universities. In my first year I had zero choice in what I studied: in subsequent years a limited choice.

        • expatmum

          But that was after you’d chosen your subject – you were allowed to choose the subject you wanted to specialize in and you weren’t made to study say, chemistry when your degree might be History. With my law degree, you’re right, the only choices I had were between things like Trusts, Family Law and Contract Law, but I made the initial choice to study law. IMO American universities remove a lot of choice for the first two years I think that people who are in college should be able to choose not to study subjects which have nothing to do with their intended major.

          • gn

            This sounds like a fundamental difference of philosophy with the entire US undergraduate education system, which emphasizes breadth.

          • Jwb52z

            Doing that would remove what many people believe is a good thing, namely being “well-rounded”. It’s the same reason, I think, they force high school students in the US who are not going to be college/university material candidates to still take subjects that they will never use in blue collar jobs.

      • John M

        Your student was supposed to learn about how it is we obtain scientific knowledge, not start on the road to being a science professor. Sadly, both the instructor and university do not understand this.

        • expatmum

          Goodness, I would have hoped that with fours years of science in high school that would be covered. (And her school did a great job with the sciences incidentally.) Surely that would be remedial at college? The subjects she took at college were much more specific.

          But my point (and it is obviously a cultural disagreement) still stands, that at 18-22 she should be able to decide whether or not she continues with sciences.

          • Lindy

            As someone who gave up on college because of a fundamental inability to pass upper level math classes – classes that had precisely zero to do with my music major. I completely agree. (with the benefit of hindsight and some research I wonder why no one, myself and my parents included, thought to have me tested for a learning disorder. Self diagnosis only but I think I have a pretty clear cut case of dyscalcula.)

          • expatmum

            My daughter has that (since 3rd grade diagnosis) and it has been hard for her. However, because it has been diagnosed for so long, she is allowed extra time if she needs it. She is also now a Junior and is finally able to concentrate on her “real” studies.

  • M.

    Not choosing a major till your junior year is not strictly speaking true. It depends mostly on what major you want to pick, but I know for my university the teaching degree is so rigorous, that if you do not have that declared by the second semester of your freshman year you are going to be hard pressed to graduate on time. I was an undecided major for a long time, but I was expected to have one chosen by my sophomore year.

  • expatmum

    One thing I’ve noticed that’s a huge difference is housing. In the US nearly everyone shares a room with at least one other student. I can’t think of anything worse and every one of my American friends has at least one “roomie nightmare” story.
    My daughter is currently doing study abroad in Europe, with her very own bedroom in a student house. After 2.5 years of sharing, she is grudgingly admitting that it’s nice to have your own space when you need it. IMO it often adds stress needlessly to the college experience. Again, a cultural difference.

    • rampantwhistler

      I noticed this too when I lived in on-campus housing in Ireland during my post-grad. I lived with five other students, but we each had our own little room and bathroom and shared a kitchen and common area. It felt much more like sharing an apartment than living in a dorm.

  • Aurelas

    As an American who wanted to study at Bailliol but had to settle for local community college and one state college, I am curious what the differences in the course work are beyond being able to study nothing but what you are actually trying to learn. This article speaks as if the constant tests and homework of the USA are not the norm in the UK. Is this true? Because the stress of trying to get 4 twenty-page research papers written by the same day, each on a completely different subject, while studying for finals and completing daily and weekly assignments for the same classes, actually drove me so crazy I had to quit after several years. If there is an alternative to that sort of thing I would love to hear about it!

    • AC

      I’m American but I did my undergrad at the University of Edinburgh and am currently working on my masters. Comparing Scotland to the US there’s a big difference in terms of what we’re graded on. Each of my undergrad class grades (in humanities, to be fair, and I know its different for other programmes) were solely based on two essays and one/two exam(s) (as well as an end dissertation for the degree itself). There were no marks for things like homework or class participation, so we weren’t graded on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis. However, comparing it to my friends studying in the US it seems like while US colleges ‘draw out’ the stress over grades through the year, in Scotland this crazy tension is more condensed to the few weeks around the simultaneous essay/exam deadlines. So are there differences? Of course. But the basics are similar and the real devil is in the details.

  • Simon Says

    As an American, I must take up for our system. We prefer well-rounded people that can converse about all subjects, simply knowing about one subject is ludicrous. It is very hard to talk to someone that can’t focus on more than one idea. I went to Ole Miss (yes, one of the best Universes on the planet) and we had to take stuff I would have never chosen, but I am a better person because of it. If I had stuck to my major and studied nothing else, I imagine I would be a complete bore at any social occassion. One more thing, the premier honorary society is Phi Kappa Phi, not Phi Kappa Beta.

    • Jwb52z

      For many people, stereotypically, they think of Phi Beta Kappa as the “best” society and it’s portrayed as such in popular culture.

  • Kim

    The thing about studying for your major varies from school to school. I’ve found that more private institutions have you complete your general requirements in all subjects before starting your work for your major. I attend a public state university where I began classes for my major (art) and for other areas right away. So for example, this semester I have studio art and art history, and I also have science and finance classes at the same time. Again, it all depends on the school.

  • Kim

    Also, taking classes in a variety of subjects may change your mind about your major. I know people who have changed their majors after taking a class in a completely different subject. Most universities let you switch majors as many times as you’d like.

  • JC

    Costs, Costs, Costs… UK was up in arms about having to pay tuition in the thousands. US response… welcome to the club.’

  • Simon Says

    LMAO, being both Sigma Pi (social) and Phi Kappa Phi and Golden Key (academic), I find this even more hilarious via the second reading. We don’t do “much” hazing anymore, though we did when I was a kid many, many years ago. I still follow my College teams’ activities with zest.