Updated: Jan 28, 2021
Oxford and Cambridge in the United Kingdom, Stanford, MIT, Caltech, the Ivy League (and more) in the United States. Although these universities are often grouped together as some of the best educational institutions in the world – in reality - colleges in the UK and the US actually operate very differently – the details to which we will cover in this article.
Note: for simplicity's sake we will be referring to all top US degree-granting institutions as "Ivies" or as part of the "Ivy League" in this article.
See our article "what is the Ivy League" to learn more
University in the United States:
In the US students pursue what is called a ‘liberal arts’ degree: a Bachelors degree that has an emphasis on giving students a broad, foundational knowledge of various disciplines. Students choose their classes before each semester as opposed to in the UK where you choose your subject when you apply and spend the next 3-4 years doing a standard course.
Although you are essentially crafting your own degree – each US universities have their own "general education" or "distribution requirements" which you are required to complete. This ensures that you have at least some experience in various disciplines and so even though you major in a certain subject, you will leave university having had taken classes in the natural sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities - you may even leave fluent in a language or two.
“Its object, to qualify its students for personal success, and direct usefulness in life; And its purposes, to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence in behalf of humanity and civilization, teaching the blessings of liberty regulated by law, and inculcating love and reverence for the great principles of government as derived from the inalienable rights of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Leland Stanford & Jane Lathrop Stanford on the liberal arts programme at Stanford University 
What Does the Word “College” and "School" Mean in the UK vs in the US?
In the United States Universities are usually divided into schools by subject, for example Yale has 14 degree granting schools: the Yale Law School, the Yale Divinity School and the Yale School of Medicine to name a few. These “schools” have little autonomy from the University itself.
In the UK, many of the ancient universities, including Oxford and Cambridge are “collegiate universities”: the university is an umbrella organization for the various different “colleges” within it. These colleges are independent of one another and are self governing. Applications are made directly to a college within “Oxford” or “Cambridge” and each have their own subject departments, their own catering, accommodation and libraries. When applying through UCAS, there is an option to make an “open application” where the admissions office allocates you to a college themselves but considering how different each college can be you're better off researching and applying to your favourite.
Studying at Oxford or Cambridge (Oxbridge for short)
Unlike the Liberal Arts education which has a focus on breadth of knowledge, in the UK you spend your undergraduate life focusing on one subject, or less commonly two if your pursuing a joint honours degree. Although you do a set course for most of your undergraduate – there are options to choose your modules as you progress. After your three years Bachelors course you can spend one additional year and also gain a Masters degree making the UK higher education experience much quicker than a typical liberal arts programme.
Oxbridge in particular is famous for its personalised teaching style known as the tutorials/supervisions system – regular and personalised individual or small group teaching conducted by a member of faculty. These sessions are generally more academically challenging and rigorous than a standard lecture to help you graduate with a very advanced and in depth understanding of your subject - well prepared for any further educational pursuits.
What other factors are there to consider?
Grading – at Oxbridge there is an emphasis on your final exams when it comes to being assessed, whereas in the States you are regularly being assessed to earn “credits”- a certain number of credits by the end of your course are required in order to graduate.
Dormitories – in the UK it is typical to have a room to yourself whereas in the States you often share a dormitory with several other students.
Athletics – in the UK although there are plenty of options for intramural sports on campus, in general, there are no athletic scholarships available and sports play a smaller role in overall campus life compared to in the US which has a more predominant sports culture.
Vocational degrees – Unlike in the UK, there are no medicine or law programmes for undergrads in the States. There are “pre-med” or “pre-law” track courses you can do during your liberal arts programme but you will have to complete your undergraduate first as medicine and law school are only available at post graduate level in the United States. If you’re certain on your career path to become a doctor or a lawyer, it is much simpler (and often cheaper) to do so in the UK than in the States as you begin your course immediately.
Remember that all these universities are far from limiting when it comes to career options and postgraduate life. Try to figure out which institution suits your personal needs best.