Edinburgh vs. Boston: 3 Differences

Megan McClory is triple majoring in History, Anthropology and East Asian Studies with a minor in English at Brandeis University and studied abroad with IFSA Butler at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland for Fall 2016. She was an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler’s Work-to-Study Program.

Even before deciding to study abroad, I knew that the American university system is based off of the Scottish education structure. Some of the courses I signed up for, based on the syllabi, were even very similar to ones I had taken at Brandeis, my home university. And, of course, they speak English here. Knowing this, I wasn’t prepared for the differences between Brandeis University—and anywhere else I had studied in the U.S.—and the University of Edinburgh. If you’re thinking of spending a term here, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Less work

Studying in Edinburgh, there’s less work—on the surface. Don’t be fooled. Sure, there aren’t weekly tests, at least not in the humanities, and pop quizzes are out of the question in any of the classes I’m taking (which include a history class, an ethnology class, and a Chinese literature class).

You don’t even technically have to show up to lecture, whereas participation is 10%, 15%, even 20% of your grade at my home university just outside of Boston. Most of your lectures at the University of Edinburgh are large affairs, rarely any less than 30 students, and no one bothers with attendance. Tutorials, on the other hand, are a different matter. At my home university, we call them Discussion Groups. During the tutorial, a small section of the class meets together with the tutor for open discussion on the readings or the week’s lectures. Here is where it’s really important that you keep up with the work, even if no one is going to test you on the readings.

It’s important that you contribute during tutorials; for one, attendance is a thing here. You sign a paper and everything. But, more importantly, it’s really awkward if you don’t participate. The tutor will toss a question onto the table for discussion and in all three of my tutorials, they will stare at everyone until someone comments. They will wait you out, not saying anything, just watching.

The awkward silence increases and you feel it as a guilty pressure if you actually didn’t do the readings.



For me, the most shocking thing about the courses is just how short they are. Now, I’m just speaking for the fall semester at University of Edinburgh, so it might be unique here, but there are only 11 weeks of courses this time around. Starting a week into September and we’re done a week into December, leaving nearly a month for final exams. Most classes meet three times a week, with a fourth spot for tutorials.

When I say I feel like the time has flown, I think it’s fair to admit that a large part of it is there’s not really much time to fly.

Another thing worth mentioning, I think, is the distance between teachers and students (be aware that not all your lecturers will actually be professors; they’ll have the same experience and degrees as your professors back home, just not necessarily the title, which is used with a bit more respect here in the U.K.).

You’re treated as more of an adult here, capable of asking questions on your own and doing the work without a reminder for your own sake. That’s not to say they don’t want to help, it’s just that their primary occupation is as an academic rather than an instructor.

University of Edinburgh in the fall
There’s a lot going on, but campus is definitely beautiful as the term winds down.


None of my classes had a midterm; I don’t know anyone who had a midterm at the University of Edinburgh. I can’t say for certain about the sciences, but they don’t seem to be common here. Again, take caution. There were no midterms, but in the last three weeks of classes, I was just as swamped as I would be during mid-October with midterm essays due.

I’ve come to the conclusion that, although the word isn’t used, midterms are, in fact, a thing at the University of Edinburgh. Here, however, midterms seem to come right before finals, just as the class is winding down.

Usually, they take the form of projects and papers, hardly any different than a humanities major in the U.S. So, be warned – just as you’ll want to start thinking about studying for finals, you’ll probably be writing an essay. Or three. And maybe another project or two.

In the last few weeks of class, you’ll be very glad you kept up with the work.

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