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The Undergraduate Experience – USA, UK or India?

The Undergraduate Experience – USA, UK or India?

By  Kevin Gandhi 

Edited by Shambhavi Singh, Senior editor, The Indian Economist

We all agree upon the notion of global education being one of the most important aspects of life. However, over the course of this contentious debate, college education has been somewhat overlooked. What should be noted here is that it is only in college that one actually learns instead of blatantly ‘studying’. It is only through the whole college experience, that one can truly understand how the world works, and the entire real world scenario is made clear.

Now, making decisions about which college one should attend can be very daunting. Innumerable factors are to be taken into consideration. Through this article, therefore, I hope to provide some kind of knowledge and understanding that one should cop before actually coming to a decision.

In short, I have compared 3 main countries on their educational sectors taking into consideration 3 primary and root level parameters – The system, the admission process and the cost.

United States of America:

 The System:

The following 2 points are a very basic and brief overview of the undergraduate system prevalent in the States:

  •  To gain a basic undergraduate degree in the States, it typically takes about 4 years. The first 2 years of under-graduation are all about basing a foundation, expanding one’s general knowledge and most importantly understanding one’s area of interest. At the beginning of the penultimate year, one has to reveal his Major. A major, is essentially the specialisation that one wishes to pursue, and on the basis of this specialisation or major, the student is given a certified degree from the respective university in the specialised field selected.
  • The American college system is extremely flexible. It is usually expected of students to study academic subjects outside their intended field of study or their major. The premise is that the system wants to promote and cultivate a rounded individual who is comfortable with all mediums of academic literature. Therefore, it is not surprising if you find a campus with students majoring in math, but also studying music at the same time.

The Admission Process:

The United States of America is a diverse land with multifarious universities and colleges to choose from. Each of these has a common application system.

The admission process for most undergraduate studies in the States is through a portal known as the Common Application. This is a common medium for a student to apply to various colleges of his/her choice.

The criteria for admission differ from university to university, but the basic parameters that are tested are:

  • The SAT or ACT – These are globally recognized aptitude tests which more than 90% colleges in the States have set as a pre-requisite. Most colleges have a minimum cut-off set, which the candidates have to achieve in order to be eligible to apply to the college. The students usually take these tests in their final year of high school.
  • Essays – Various kinds of essays are required by each college such as a roommate essay or an essay on a given word, etc.
  • High School GPA/activities – Although more weightage is given to the aforementioned criteria, high school GPA of students is also taken into consideration. What is more important are the extra curricular activities, community service projects, etc. that the student voluntarily pursues. These help the colleges get a clear picture of the students’ leadership skills, responsibilities, communication skills, etc.


The cost is a major factor influencing college decisions today. It is of a major concern to most Americans, as well as international students. Compared to other countries, the tuition fee and college itself as a whole costs more than many can afford to spend in a lifetime. At the end of the 4 years, students are left with a hulking debt on their backs. Moreover, what is to be noted is that for international students, the fees turn out to be more than double of what the American citizens actually pay.

The cost statistics have been summarized as follows:

  • According to College Board, the average fee for a public university, including the out-of-state surcharge, is about $21,000 a year.
  • Another statistic suggests that about $20,000 can be easily taken into consideration to account for accommodation costs, food, books and supplies, transportation, etc.
  • The total therefore, is a jumbo $41,000 a year. This figure is of course an estimate – the actual figure may vary depending upon the type of university, scholarships granted, lifestyle of the individual, etc.

The United Kingdom:

 The System:

The following are the key points on which the UK undergraduate system is based:

  •  Typically it takes 3 years for one to gain a college degree from the United Kingdom. What is special about the UK college system is the fact that all the courses are more or less specialised. Therefore, from the very beginning, the course is a specialisation.
  • The first year of each course helps build a foundation to the course and the next 2 are spent on providing the students with an in-depth knowledge and understanding in their respective fields.
  • Obviously, since the course is more or less a specialised one from the beginning, there is no scope for further specialisations or majors. The curriculum is designed in such a manner that the students have options, but limited. Typically, each course has a few compulsory subjects that are directly related to the course. Now, to complete the set required number of subjects, apart from the compulsory ones, the students get to select a particular number of subjects from a given list. Therefore, the scope for diversification is limited, curbing flexibility.

The Admission Process:

Like the States, the UK too has a common application system. Students apply to universities through the UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) wherein each applicant has a profile consisting of all his details. The UCAS account of each student consists of his/her grades, a Statement of Purpose, and other relevant personal information.

A University in the UK usually has the following criteria for admission:

  • High School grades – High school grades are of utmost importance while deciding the outcome of a potential applicant. Certain colleges set a minimum cut-off, only after achieving which, is an applicant eligible to be admitted.
  • Personal Statement – This is an essay written by the applicant explaining his achievements, why the college should take him, why he has selected the particular college, etc.  A lot of weightage is given to this too.
  • English Language – For most international students, an English language test is also required. Most Universities here accept the IELTS as a credible test; however, some may even accept the TOEFL test.
  • Activities – A student’s extra curricular, services, etc. are scrutinized to list applicants with leadership skills, etc.


The cost of an undergraduate degree in the UK is somewhat cheaper as compared to the States primarily because of the fact that the degree is obtained in 3 years instead of 4. However, living expenses in mainstream cities such as London is off the charts. The costs have been summarized as follows:

  •  According to a recent HSBC report, the average tuition cost per year for international students is about $30,325. For home students, it is about $14,850, which is much cheaper.
  • Next, come all the other expenses. An estimate from UK’s NUS (National Union of Students) states that the annual living cost amounts to about $19,490, which is inclusive of accommodation, food, leisure, travel, etc.
  • This sums up the total to about $49,815, which although cheaper than the United States, is still quite high.


The System:

The Indian education system has been shaped from the Gurukul System that was followed in earlier times. The following points are the essential elements of the Indian education system:

  • The undergraduate study in India is 3 years long and is substantially rigid as compared to the USA or UK.
  • Most degrees that are offered are often generalised and not specialised. For example, for commerce students, the typical degrees available for them to pursue are BBA, B.Com or Economics. All of these degrees offer specialisations, but only in their final year of study. Overall they are quite general in nature. Now specialised courses do exist but they are very few in number as compared to the others and not many reputed universities offer them under their umbrellas.
  • The curriculums are typically extremely rigid wherein the students are given no options whatsoever and are compelled to study whatever subjects are offered under their respective courses. All subjects are compulsory and if an individual wishes to pursue a course in another field, he has to do so outside the university.

The Admission Process:

Now unlike the States or even the United Kingdom for that matter, India has no common application process for undergraduate study. An individual has to apply to different colleges with different application profiles. This whole system, however, has been modified in the Union Territory of Delhi in 2012, wherein every college under the Delhi University has a common application process.

Most colleges admit applicants on the basis of the following 3 criteria:

  •  Grade 10 State Examinations – The board examinations of different states is considered to be one of the most important marking criterion. The most credible boards are considered to be ICSE, CBSE, and now IB.
  • Grade 12 State Examinations – The most weightage is given to these examinations. A student takes these examinations in his/her final year of High School. The most reputed boards are ISC and CBSE in the country. Almost every college sets a minimum cut-off for these exams that a student must obtain in order to be eligible to apply for the college.
  • Entrance Tests and Interviews – Quite a few colleges also have their own entrance tests and interview sessions. However, this is course-specific and in such cases, the State level Board examinations may or may not be taken into account.


The cost of studying in an Indian University has been kept minimal in order to provide a good quality education to people from all economic backgrounds. Another reason for the low tuition fee can be that the education sector in India has not boomed yet. The educational infrastructure in India is not even close to being developed on a general note.

The cost summary has been stated as follows:

  •  Typically public universities charge about Rs. 10,000-20,000 a year but Private Universities can charge up to about Rs. 2,00,000 per annum only on tuition.
  • The cost of living can be upto Rs. 4,00,000 a year inclusive of accommodation, food, leisure, travel, etc.
  • This makes the grand total of about Rs. 6,00,000 ($10,000) for a Private University or about Rs. 4,20,000 ($7,000) for a Public one. Of course, this figure has been calculated on the basis of my own expenditures and experience, and may vary from person to person and college to college.

A brief analysis:

Keeping in mind all of the points mentioned above, it is really hard to decide as an Indian student, whether to pursue further studies abroad or not. The cost in India is very menial as compared to the USA and UK, however, the quality of life and education abroad is undoubtedly superior as compared to India. Therefore, before making such a decision, the cost-benefit analysis should be done in detail such that no wastage of resources occurs. Moreover, an individual should first look at what interests him/her and make decisions accordingly. Also, as Indians, there are way too many psychological barriers present in terms of family, traditions and culture that hold us back.

Kevin is a second year, undergraduate business student at NMIMS University, Mumbai. His hobbies include listening to bands such as Coldplay and Oasis, writing, going on nightly runs and occasionally playing the guitar. He has also participated in various Model UNs across the country. He loves to travel and is an enthusiastic supporter of the Kolkata Knight Riders. 

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