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Applying to University: How A Hong Kong Kid Decided Between The US And UK System

Studying abroad US vs UK university
LearnPost Category - LearnLearn

This first-hand personal reflection from a PhD student should give you some insight on higher education abroad.

I was 17 and had narrowed it down to two universities: Duke University in the United States where I would pursue a liberal arts degree, or Imperial College London in the United Kingdom where I would study biochemistry. It wasn’t a bad position to be in, but I knew that my decision would significantly alter the trajectory of my life. Debating between an American or British university, the following four considerations helped inform my decision, and might even help give you some food for thought when your child is considering higher education.

School/City Culture

School culture was an important factor for me. Where would I live? Would I know anyone nearby? Will there be students like me? What would my life be like on campus? From my experience, my classmates who went to US universities lived in dorms (late-night pizza and conversations), developed a strong sense of school pride (paraphernalia and school sports) and participated in a number of student-run activities (a cappella groups and Greek life).

Classmates who studied in London, on the other hand, often lived in apartments with school friends from Hong Kong (early “adulting”), integrated with students from other colleges (University of London network), had the city as their playground (pub culture), and met many new friends with similar upbringings. For me, someone who spent their whole life in Hong Kong, I wanted a change away from the big city and liked the idea of a campus culture, so I made the decision to attend Duke in North Carolina, US.

Us vs UK University Life

Programme of Study

One of the most notable differences between universities in the US and the UK is their programmes of study.

When applying to the British system, prospective students apply directly to a major that is related to the subjects they take in secondary school. This means that students need to plan and select the right subjects to take in their A-Levels (British curriculum), IB Higher-Levels (International curriculum), or APs (American curriculum), 1 to 2 years ahead of time when they are 15 and 16 years old

Once accepted to a program, students often receive conditional offers. In my offer for Imperial College, for example, I had to achieve 6’s in my final IB Higher-Level subjects of Chemistry, Biology and Geography, with a combined IB score of 38 or higher. In the US, prospective students often apply to a school within the university (e.g., School of Engineering, School of Arts and Sciences), and work toward a major within that school. Students enter universities with an “undeclared” major. They then follow a liberal arts curriculum that requires them to take classes in different disciplines (e.g., taking a foreign language, a quantitative class, a writing seminar) and declare their majors at the end of their second (“Sophomore”) year. To receive a major, students must take a specific series of classes or total number of credits within their chosen field, which sometimes allows them to major or minor in a second discipline.

Entering university, I was not sure what I wanted to do with my life. I had excelled in the sciences but also enjoyed working as a tutor teaching English to primary school kids. I played with the idea of becoming a paediatrician, but also saw the impact that a teacher could have on a student. With such different interests, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to commit to a major at a UK university.

Duration of Study

In the British system, most bachelor degrees take three years to complete. Because students in the UK apply directly to a programme, every class works towards fulfilling their majors and they are not required to take classes outside their discipline. On the one hand, students who have a good idea of what they’d like to study can pursue professional degrees (e.g., medicine, law or accounting) in an expedited fashion (while saving a pretty penny or two). On the other hand, if a student decides to change their major in the UK, he or she enters the new programme as a first-year student again.

In the US, a standard timeline for earning a bachelor degree is four years. If students would like to earn professional degrees, they must then apply to graduate schools, which come with their own series of admission tests (e.g., LSATs, MCATs, PCATs) and requirements and can last anywhere from one to four years. Although students may also pursue graduate degrees in the UK, certain professions are more quickly realised in the British system than the American, such as medicine, dentistry, law, and pharmacology. With my interest in biology and chemistry, I thought that I might want to pursue a career in research or medicine. Still, I wasn’t fully convinced and decided the US system would allow me the flexibility to identify a career that interested me.

University Life


More than half of the top 200 universities identified by the Times Higher Education are located in the US or UK, which has made them very competitive and also very expensive to attend. Although US universities are generally more expensive, there is a lot of variation by the type of school you attend in the US (in-state vs. out-of-state, public vs. private), the subjects you study in the UK (an average humanities degree takes 3 years to complete, whereas medical degrees can take between 5 to 7 years), or the general cost of living (big cities vs smaller towns). While US university costs can range from $29,000 to $75,000 per year, UK universities can range from £10,000 to £35,000. Still, UK university costs are relatively moderate in comparison, especially because most students graduate sooner.

They say hindsight is 20/20. I chose to go to Duke, embraced the school culture, took pre-med classes, majored in psychology, minored in education, became certified to teach elementary school, and graduated in four years (and met my wife! Although I’m pretty sure that’s not just a US thing). I became a teacher and returned to Hong Kong to teach for six years. Now I’m back in the US pursuing my PhD in education – fulfilling my life’s work as I advocate for the educational needs of marginalised communities; yet looking back, my friends and I find it almost comical that I nearly studied biochemistry. Who knows how my life might have panned out if I had become a biochemist in London?

All images are sourced via Unsplash.

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