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Tips From My Experience Studying Abroad at St. Andrews

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Wherever you end up studying abroad, know that your academic journey will be just as new as your cultural experiences. Different educational systems have different credit loads, teaching pedagogy, and structure, which is useful to understand as you navigate the semester. For instance, students in the UK tend to specialize in subjects a bit earlier than we do in the US, so introductory classes might be a bit more challenging than you’d expect. Although I tried to prepare myself, I have still been surprised by some things here at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Here are some thoughts about my experience and tips for future students.  

My experience  

One major difference at St Andrews is the grading scale. Most assignments are graded out of 20 points and you only need a 7 to pass (35%). From 7-10 points is a “third class” score, from 11-16 is a “second class” score, and from 17-20 is “first class”. From the other students I talked to, most people shoot for second and first class grades. This style of grading takes some getting used to, since getting a 15 out of 20 (75%) is initially scary, although it is considered a good grade. In the UK more generally, a “B” is considered a good grade, even if you’re used to getting straight A’s back home.  

Another major difference is the course structure, which all of my classes followed. Each course has lectures, often in large theaters or halls, and also small group sessions called tutorials, where there is more discussion and individualized instruction. Lectures occur several times a week and tutorials occur once a week. However, upper level classes tend to meet more infrequently, with the majority of the work occurring on the student’s own time.  

 For me, this different structure has the greatest impact on my math classes. Back home, I typically attend tutoring or office hours when I get stuck on a concept or a homework problem, but at St Andrews this is mostly replaced with “examples classes” and “tutorials”, mandatory scheduled small groups which alternate week by week in addition to normal lectures. Examples classes are like heads-down study time where you can work on practice problems and raise your hand to ask for help from a professor. At tutorials, which have even fewer students than examples classes, your tutor will go through and do problems on the whiteboard. The tutor is usually a graduate student or a professor.  

Before coming to St Andrews and the UK more generally, I had heard that there is more of an emphasis on independent study outside of classes, and I have certainly found that to be the case. Although the instructional time is still pretty robust at St Andrews, at times I find myself wishing there were a tutoring program like I was used to back home. This has taken some time to adjust to, but now I think of examples classes as pre-set tutoring time. Although it’s not as one-on-one or individualized as I’m used to, it’s my only chance to ask questions and get confusion cleared up.  

Some tips as you embark on studying abroad:  

  1. Triangulate: 

As you register for classes, as you pass through the semester, and as you run into academic issues, you should have three points of contact: your university advisor, IFSA advisor, and your home institution. These three people will help you understand what classes you need to take, what classes you should take, and how the credits and grading will transfer to your home university. 

  1. Think about the classes you take: 

Although I had to overload on credits because of my major requirements, I decided to take two introductory classes to cover some GE’s, and it made my semester a lot more pleasant than trying to do all of my math classes at once. Also consider what classes will be more difficult at the location that you’re studying abroad at– for instance, I have heard that language classes in particular are difficult in Scotland and the UK, possibly because students studying a foreign language tend to be majoring in that language, and may have specialized in the language early on.  

  1. Identify resources: 

Find out– is there tutoring, or is the emphasis mostly on in-class work and independent studying? If there is tutoring, consider signing up early in the semester. If not, try and strategize how you can make in-class instruction work better for you, attend office hours with your professor, and even consider reaching out to tutoring services back home if you really need the extra help. 

  1. Make studying efficient– but also interesting: 

Being efficient at your work means that you have more free time in the long run to enjoy being abroad! But studying can also be a way to experience university life. Create a routine for yourself, or have fun exploring campus by trying a new study spot every week. I have made some good friends at St Andrews by striking up a conversation with someone sitting next to me in lectures and making a study group. Top tip: suggest getting pizza or grabbing coffee after you’re done hitting the books! 

  1. Find other study abroaders to get inside knowledge: 

If you’re able to, I highly recommend talking to other students at your home university who have studied abroad at the university that you’re heading to. They’ll be able to give you honest opinions–ie, what to expect for your grades, what classes to avoid and in what ways academics are different from home. If not, it’s still worth befriending an upperclassman at your university abroad to hear their thoughts, just like you might back home. Bonus points if they’re American and can speak to some differences in the education system.  

Of course, studying abroad is about more than just your grades and academics, but your courses will still be the backbone of your experience at your university. With good planning and grit, however, you can counter academic culture shock and make the most of your time abroad.  

Liann Bielicki is a student at Claremont McKenna College and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of St. Andrews in Fall 2022. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-To-Study Program.