Top 7 Differences Between Studying a Master’s in the United States vs. Europe

by Daniela Dandes

A big reason why people choose to study abroad for their Master’s is the newly gained experience. Together with the new academic lifestyle, living in another country and getting immersed in a different culture forces us to become more adaptable to our new environment. Our learning curve gets steeper and we gain more know-how in a shorter amount of time.

Take, for example, studying in Europe versus going for a Master’s degree in the US. The two experiences will have a very different impact on your development. Your skill-set and, most importantly, your mindset will be shaped differently by the various style influences and ideas that you will find on your journey.

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So should you pack your bags for the US or gear up for some time in Europe? In the end, the best way to understand if you would like to study on the one continent or the other is to compare the two options. That’s where we can help.

Here are the top 7 differences between studying for a Master’s degree in Europe versus the United States: 

1. Admission process - preparing your GMAT versus getting your documents ready

Even though each university and college sets up their own Master’s admission process there are certain details that generally apply to American and European higher education institutions and that differentiate the two.

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Admissions at American universities

Admissions to US universities require more effort from the student’s side than most European institutions. They generally have more requirements and ask for more documents during the application process You can even find a Coursera course specifically designed to help you understand what it takes to successfully apply to an American university.

Especially if you are an international student, you’ll need to add specific documentation and extra-language exams to your application to-do list. If you’re thinking of applying for a US study programme, start looking at exams such as the GMAT, GRE, TOEFL or IELTS. Most US universities consider these exams and documents as must-have prerequisites.

You can now apply with Studyportals to one of our partner universities in the USA and benefit from free application counselling. Consider one of the following universities:

Admissions at European universities

European universities usually require less documentation for their application phase. Some universities simplify the admission process so much that everyone that applies gets in the programme, without a formal interview for example. In that case, the student selection happens throughout the programme, depending on the programme difficulty and the student’s capacity to keep up with the coursework. If you are applying for a highly specialised programme (ex. an MBA), then you will need to bring in more papers that are specifically requested by your institution or pass an entrance exam.

You can always check out if your university from Europe is a Studyportals Official Partner and apply directly through us. Check out a few good options from Europe:

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2. Tuition fees – a big sack of money versus a university for every pocket

The amount of money one needs to pay for studies abroad is often the make-or-break factor in choosing a university. In the case of American and European universities, tuition fees represent an important differentiator for international students.

US universities are famous for their heavy price tag. The United States is one of the most popular study destinations out there, but it’s also one of the most expensive. Tuition costs typically range between $5,000 to $50,000 per year for international students. Also, the average annual cost of tuition fees at American institutions was estimated at $33,215 in 2016.

In the case of European universities, there are 2 essential factors that play a role in the final price tag of your Master’s degree:

  • Whether you are a European Union citizen or not
  • What country you want to study in

The biggest advantages that European universities have over US institutions is the price distribution and the tuition fees diversity. You can find universities that have a $0 tuition fee, such as those in Austria or Denmark. Or you can choose a Master’s programme at a considerably higher cost, for example in the UK. The flexibility in terms of your wallet offers a bigger selection pool for your choices. It makes you feel less forced into a particular decision, based only on your spending possibilities.

Don’t forget about scholarship offers both the in the US and Europe! 

3. Campus life - legendary dorms versus big city life

If you’ve ever watched a classical 90’s American movie, then you already know that student life in the US is marked by the importance of living in a dorm. Everything is centred around the campus. All sports activities, university facilities, extracurriculars are conveniently set up to be in close range to where students need to go for their courses. That means that when you apply for a US university, you pay extra-close attention to the kind of campus culture that your university harbours. Do you want a more study-focused campus, a very sporty one or just a place to make friends and have fun?

In Europe, even though campuses are made to cater to every student-related need, they are not necessarily the only or best hotspot for student activities. Cities that harbour universities offer more diversity when it comes to places that students might find interesting. Campuses in Europe focus more on the academic experience and on extracurricular support. If you are considering going to an EU university, then you should take into account if the city where you will be moving to is vibing with you. Do you like the pace there, are you excited by the opportunities that the city has to offer?

In the US, campus life focuses more on relationships and connection-building and informal experiences. That’s also the case because of campus location, usually sufficient on its own, rather than being part of a city. In Europe, it’s all about the overall experience with the place. It’s more common to find your campus closer or within a city, which means that students get to experience a decentralised student life. 

4. Learning approach and teacher interaction - supportive versus independent

It’s commonly known that US universities focus on relationships and supporting students, while European institutions are a place for wisdom and critical thought. These two approaches can be easily seen in how professors interact with students.

Courses and grading in the United States are made to foster a granular learning style. That means that a student has far more touch points with their teacher and peers than in a European university. Professors have also more office hours dedicated to students who need help with their assignments and course material.

In Europe, universities employ a more individualistic learning style. You can find courses that sum up hundreds of students at a time, lectures can be viewed online and the examination usually takes place at the end of the course. Also, European institutions pride themselves with teaching their students ways of thinking, rather than focusing only on knowledge-sharing.

You should reflect on your own learning style and needs. Are you a person who values managing their own time or do you work better on a fixed schedule? Do you learn faster when you are constantly stimulated by assignments or do you like taking your time to study? 

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5. Course structure - more options versus a solid base for everyone

When you enrol at an American university, the probability that your courses will be structured based on a major and a minor are very high. As the University of Chicago puts it, “Just as the Core provides the foundation for addressing key intellectual questions, one’s major program of study is intended to provide a depth of knowledge and sophistication in a defined field of study. Minors permit students to use their free electives with intellectual effectiveness and precision—to take a cohesive set of courses that complement studies in one’s major or to explore an unrelated area of intellectual interest.” In this way, US higher education institutions emphasise the importance of your self-exploration and ownership

European universities tend to take a more traditional approach to their course structure. Masters at most European institutions have a predefined list of mandatory courses that one needs to follow. That is because there is more emphasis put on laying the foundation for students, and allowing them to take ownership on expanding their horizon, especially via research projects. A great deal of European universities offer one-year academic programmes on a Master’s level. This aspect contributes to the need for a solid base when it comes to the available curricula.

Bonus: In 2018, you will find more European universities, especially in the UK, offering programmes that employ a US-style structure, based on majors and minors. Start your search and apply in the UK.

6. Exams - spread throughout the year versus everything at the end

As we mentioned above, European universities practice a more individualistic learning style. Taking exams at these institutions also reflects this attitude. Most universities have a one-major-exam-per-course, that usually decides or weighs in heavily on the final grade for that course. The exam typically lasts between 1.5 and 3 hours and is held at the end of the semester. These kinds of exams try to evaluate your knowledge of the course material in one swing. In case there is an oral exam, that usually lasts for 20 minutes. The upside of this approach is that it gives students more flexibility to learn according to their own learning style, rather than imposing it on them. Most professors also provide auxiliary materials, that complement the course. This helps students get more depth on the subject that they are following.

In comparison, US institutions pride themselves with a steady, slower-paced support system, that goes on throughout the whole semester. A student in the US usually has multiple grading points throughout the semester, such as quizzes, individual and group projects, presentations, and tests. The professor in charge or a teaching assistant (TA) has the obligation to grade each intervention and add it to the overall contribution of the student towards the course. This supportive approach allows the professor to give timely feedback to the student. It also allows the teacher to get a better sense of what needs to be covered again in future lessons.

Bonus tip: Do take advantage of the consultation hours offered by teachers, whether you will be studying in the US or in Europe. Aside from diving deeper into your subjects, these extra-hours allow you to gain more insight into what the professors are looking for in your exam. 

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Travelling - enjoy your campus versus road trip to Paris, anyone?

When you’re studying abroad in the US, you should go for a traditional road trip with your new colleagues. Take the time to drive down to places like the Pacific Coast or go on Route 66. Experience the different lifestyles of Californians versus true New Yorkers. Join local festivals and parades to get a more in-depth feeling of the culture.

One of the biggest perks that international students mention about studying in Europe is the freedom to go to all the popular hallmarks on this continent. Enjoy a quiet morning walk along the Seine in Paris, try out traditional Eastern European food and drinks, dance at Belgian festivals, go to a typical German village and hike the highest mountains of Austria, Italy or Switzerland. There is no activity that you can’t pursue during your studies in Europe!

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The world of international studies is your oyster!

Give yourself the time and reflection space to understand what you want to go for. Studying abroad has been called by many as an important, life-changing moment. So why not take full advantage of the opportunities you have laid ahead? Whether you will choose to study in the United States or at a university in Europe, make sure you take full ownership of your experience. Because the result of that will be absolutely worth it. 

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