The American College Experience


With the help of countless cups of Starbucks, an embarrassing amount of Tangfastics and one to ten bottles of wine, I somehow managed to drag, haul and claw my way through exam week so I could finally go home to a fridge full of good food and a warm bed with my favorite companion, a Game of Thrones book. After a few days of eat, sleep, Netflix and repeat, I emerged from my cozy cocoon to catch up with old high school friends who were home from college. (Yes, we call them colleges, not universities, in the U.S.) Though I love St Andrews and would never regret my decision to run as far away from lovingly overprotective parents as possible, I always wondered what kind of college experience I would have received if I had stayed in the States. After several days of research, a.k.a. laughing at my friends’ cringe-worthy stories of walk of shames, 9am labs while still drunk and trips to the hospital, I had a few ideas about how the land of red solo cups differed from dear old Scotland.

John Belushi in Animal House
John Belushi in Animal House

It comes as no surprise that regardless of which country we’re talking about, drinking is the most popular pastime for students. However, the legal drinking age in the U.S. is 21, and the illegality of underage drinking does change the drinking culture at American schools. Unlike at St Andrews, where the Union is full of bars and a cherished old tradition includes a weekend of excessive drinking, the kids at U.S. colleges keep their beer in their dorm rooms and the parties in their apartments and frat houses. Though most colleges are somewhat lenient about the underage drinking on campus, getting caught a few too many times can still mean expulsion. At the end of the day, the activity is illegal and as such, a risk factor does exist. Thus, Americans’ reputation for binge drinking and shot downing is born. Drinking at home always brings a slight feeling of rebellion, and students approach it with the idea that, if they are going to get caught, it better be a night worth the consequences. Though friends do get together and have a few casual beers such occasions are less prevalent than blackout drunk nights.

While at St Andrews, I’ve managed to cultivate a taste for wine and whiskey, and no, not just cheap Tesco wine and Fireball. Thanks to Luvians and some friends with a passion for whiskey, I can tell my Talisker from my Glennfiddich, and I know Sauvignon Blanc is my weakness. In the States, you drink what you can get.

At many U.S. colleges Greek life dominates the social scene with fraternities and sororities often hosting the biggest and messiest parties on campus. A night out in St Andrews often means stumbling from bar to bar until the eventual poor decision to venture into the Lizard; in the U.S., parties look more like a crowded affairs in sticky, beer covered frat houses, guys and girls grinding everywhere. Finally, St Andrews is very fond of its formal events, never short on balls, black-tie events or champagne socials whilst at most U.S. colleges such formal events are much less frequent.

Surprisingly, college is not entirely about partying and the ability to down 12 shots is not enough to earn you a degree. In the U.S., most colleges require students to take general education courses, modules that cover a wide range of subjects from English to math to a variety of sciences. Most first and second year students spend a good portion of their time taking these basic courses in addition to courses required for their major, meaning they often have as many as five to seven classes a semester. Students attend lectures throughout the week in giant lecture halls, much like we do in St Andrews; students also meet once or twice a week in smaller groups, comparative to the tutorials and labs we attend.

Colleges in the U.S. tend to test their students more frequently during the course of the year; approximately three midterm exams are taken during the semester and some classes assign homework or other weekly assignments to make sure students aren’t slacking. Final exams still count for a large percentage of the final grade, but it’s not quite as weighty as final exams are in St Andrews. Furthermore most colleges also don’t have a revision week, which means that final exam studying needs to be done continuously throughout the year (or during one hellish weekend).

An example of a fraternity house at the University of Illinois
An example of a fraternity house at the University of Illinois

Many of my friends were surprised I had a flat already as a second year. Though most upperclassmen tend to start looking for off-campus housing in the U.S., a lot more students stay on campus in university housing or halls at least for their first two years since external housing is often expensive or far away from campus. Alternatively, many students move out of dorms into Greek life housing, pledging a fraternity or sorority and moving into their houses their sophomore year.

Anyone who has experienced meals in halls their first year has probably heard study abroad students complain about the quantity of food we receive. In the U.S., students are usually given a meal plan, a specified amount of meals per week or a specific quantity of credits with which to buy meals. Though most colleges have specific times for meals, like in St Andrews, the window usually spans about 2.5 hours and food is served buffet style. Once students pay to enter the meal hall, they can eat as much food as they want, though this varies from college to college. Meals are also usually served in a dining hall that is independent of halls of residency, so students have a wider variety of locations to choose from when it comes to deciding where to have a meal. There is no running for seconds when a bell rings or going hungry because you missed dinner by 10 minutes.

Of course, every college is different and the experiences of my friends in the U.S. may not represent all American colleges; likewise, St Andrews is certainly not a stand-in for all other U.K. universities. Still, there are definitely some major differences in the way we drink, eat, live and test. No matter where you are however, the need for midnight pizza is universal. That we can all bond over.


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