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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 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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Filed Under: College, Guide, University
By Jon Langford