Two years ago, when I first started planning to go to grad school in England, I had a friend who was studying at St. Andrews University in Scotland. I also have several friends from Scotland and England. I asked them all a bazillion questions, and they were kind enough (and patient enough) to answer them all. Their help was invaluable.
Yet there were still some things I wish I had known before I left—less obvious things that I didn’t even think to ask about, or things the uni should have told me but didn’t.
So if you’re thinking about studying abroad in England, here are some tips you might find useful as you plan for the best educational experience of your life. (Note: These tips are mainly geared toward Americans. If you are from another country, your experience may be slightly different.)
Using FAFSA Funding
Getting a university education in England is ridiculously affordable compared to getting the same in the US, even as an international student from a country with a weaker currency. I was able to get a Masters degree from a top university for a what I would have paid for a single semester at many American universities. Most of their Masters programs are only a year long, too, which means it’s even cheaper when you consider that you’d be paying more per semester for more semesters if you went to a domestic school.
That said, I recognize that it’s still not cheap, and you may need to take out a loan like I did. If you aren’t independently wealthy and you do need to apply for FAFSA loans to cover your school expenses, your first step should absolutely be making sure you can use FAFSA funds at your university of choice.
I originally had my heart set on attending another UK institution, and I was devastated when I found out that I couldn’t use FAFSA money there. I almost gave up on the whole idea altogether, but I felt like it was what I was supposed to do, so I kept looking for a way to make it happen. Lucky for me, FAFSA has a lot of information about studying internationally, and they even provide a useful Excel spreadsheet listing lots of international schools and whether or not they accept FAFSA funds. I would HIGHLY recommend starting your grad school planning with this list so you don’t watch all your hopes and dreams get dashed right before your very eyes.
In the end, it worked out for me and I’m 100% satisfied with my experience at Newcastle University, so if the uni of your dreams doesn’t take FAFSA, never despair. You’ll either find a way to make it work, or you’ll find a university that’s even better.
Getting a Visa
The process of getting a visa is pretty straightforward, and the the UK Immigration website has a lot of useful information about the process. However, I still had a few questions, and their “customer support” was a little less than helpful. It was in beta testing when I used it, so hopefully it’s better now, but if you need to contact them, be prepared to struggle to find a way to contact them, and then to wait for an answer for a long time when you finally do figure out how to contact them.
I also had a bit of a panic with my university taking their sweet time sending me my CAS (Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies) number, which I needed to apply for the visa. Don’t be afraid to hound them for a date, and follow up if they don’t send you your CAS in a timely manner. Getting things timed right is a bit tricky because you’re only allowed to apply so far in advance, but you’ll definitely want to give yourself plenty of time to get the visa sorted. This requires a visit to a biometrics center, shipping your documents to the embassy for approval, and then time to get your passport and visa back before you board a plane.
Speaking of which…
Don't Fly In Via Dublin
I REPEAT: DO NOT FLY IN VIA DUBLIN. Unfortunately, this may mean that you’ll have to pass up most of the cheaper flights, because they’re all routed through Dublin instead of mainland Europe. But if you fly in via Dublin, you will not pass through immigration control, your visa won’t get stamped, and your university will get their knickers all in a knot because you’re not in the country legally. My uni didn’t bother to tell me this until after I’d had my plane ticket booked for four months already and there was no way to change my flight.
I had to fix the problem by leaving the country within the first three months and reentering through a channel that would take me through immigration control. (That was the first time I went to Portugal, though, so it wasn’t a total loss…) And then when I came back into the country and explained the situation to the border agent, he laughed and said the university didn’t know what they were talking about. So I complained to the university and they said the border agent didn’t know what he was talking about, and now I don’t know who to believe. So unless you want a heap of trouble like I had, just pay a few hundred extra bucks and fly in via Paris or Dubai or wherever else they’re routing people these days.
(Or don’t, and use those few hundred extra bucks to go somewhere really cool within 90 days of arrival—but if you tell them I told you to do that, I’ll deny we ever had this conversation. There’s also the risk that they won’t actually let you back in…)
Apply for Housing as Early as Possible
I’m suuuuuuper lazy when it comes to looking for housing, so when my university guaranteed housing for all international students, I didn’t even bother looking at any lease agencies. I very quickly regretted that decision because I ended up in a complex I really did not like. (Apart from my flatmates—they were all awesome!!) Part of that was because I applied to the school kind of late, and housing assignments are made in the order of acceptance. So if you want to live in uni housing, make sure you apply early so you’re at the top of the waiting list. That way, you’ll be more likely to end up in a flat you like.
If you are a graduate student, definitely opt for postgrad-only housing. Those undergrads are cute and all, but they’re noisy and like to party at all hours of the night. And when they get drunk (which they do frequently), they’ll ring your doorbell at 4 in the morning when they’re trying to get into the flat below you and then yell at you when you tell them to go away, or they’ll punch out a window when they forget their keys and scream like a banshee when they break their hand instead of the glass, or they’ll sing sea shanties as they walk up the stairs to their flat and struggle to get their own door open. Not that I know any of this from experience or anything…
Setting Up a Bank Account
Chances are, one of your international student induction activities will include a lecture on how to set up a bank account. This is what they’ll tell you: You’ll need your passport and your CAS letter to open an account. Some banks charge a monthly fee, and others charge a boatload of money to accept foreign transactions (such as transferring money into your account from home so you have money for groceries and rent…). Huzzah, throw a party, we’re done.
What they won’t tell you is that the bank in your student union isn’t always the best choice for students, and that closing your account at the end of the year requires you to be there in person. The latter was a problem for me because I traveled through Europe for 6 weeks after I finished school, and I didn’t want to get hit with the ridiculous foreign transaction fees my home bank charges. But it’s now five months later and I’m still struggling with my bank.
Research your banking options thoroughly and pick the one that’s best for your situation. Also be sure to understand the closure procedure and any fees. (I would recommend against using Santander, but that’s just me…)
Don't Panic Over Grades
The first grade I got was a 65, and I nearly died. I thought, “This is it. I’m going to fail grad school, default on my loan (because who wants to hire a flunkie?), and live in a cardboard box for the rest of my life. I. am. ruined.“
And then my flatmate Mo laughed at me and told me that the grading system is different, and that my grade of 65 was, in fact, the equivalent of a B+ in the US.
Thankfully, the Fulbright Commission has a handy chart that shows you exactly what the conversion is. I used that thing all year long to understand my grades, and it made me feel a whole lot better about life.
Another tip when it comes to homework: Use Scrivener to write your papers. I bought it to use for writing my book, and quickly saw the benefit for using it for school, too. You can write, store research and notes right in the program itself for easy access, rearrange sections at will, and it’s better than Microsoft Word in many respects. I love using it.
Food! Glorious Food!
One of my very favorite things about England was not having to go grocery shopping at the actual store (unless I went to the market, which was also awesome). I could pop online, order whatever I wanted, and then have it delivered to my door—and sometimes to my very kitchen if the delivery driver was extra nice. No more lugging bags and bags and bags of groceries up the hill to my flat, or taking up extra seats on the bus with my groceries like a jerk. My flatmates and I would coordinate and order all our groceries at once so we could split delivery fees (which are only a few pounds anyways), and it was awesome. I have definitely missed that since I got back to the States.
Also, if you’re going to cook using your favorite recipes from home, you may want to bring your own measuring cups and spoons. Not only was it difficult to find measuring cups in the first place, but the measurements are slightly different. A British tsp, for example, is about 20% more than a US tsp. They also have this strange thing called a “dessert spoon,” which I still don’t understand…
And of course, don’t forget to convert your American recipes to centigrade, unless you want to end up with burned cookies.
Prepare for Cold, Wet Weather
I mean, everyone knows it rains a lot in England, but I didn’t really understand what that meant for my wardrobe. For one, I quickly came to appreciate the fact that skinny jeans and tall boots were more than just a fashion statement—they also prevented you from arriving at school with soggy shoes and jeans that were wet up to the knees. It’s also windy, so umbrellas are pretty much useless. You’re much better off just getting a comfortable waterproof coat with a deep hood that won’t blow off your head. And if you’re going to spend a lot of time outside (at farms, for example, or hiking), it would be wise to invest in a pair of waterproof pants, which you can just slip on over your trousers.
(A side note about fashion: My friends tell me that it’s illegal to go to the store in your pajamas. I don’t know whether that’s true or whether they were pulling my leg, but you probably won’t be going on any midnight runs to Walmart in your PJ’s. That’s partly because there aren’t any Walmarts in England—they’re called Asda—and partly because everything closes by 10 at the latest, but whatever. No PJs in public.)
You may also want to invest in a warm blanket because (1) the duvets provided by your university accommodation will probably be kinda useless, (2) storage heaters have to be turned on 24 hours in advance, and are therefore pretty useless unless you know in advance that you’re going to need it, and (3) you’ll want something to keep you warm while you sit at your desk doing homework. You won’t just use this blanket in the winter, either. You will use it all year long.
Make Friends and Make Memories
At the end of the year, some friends and I were comparing our experiences studying in Newcastle. I seemed to be the only one who truly enjoyed my time there, which was so sad to me. I thought a lot about it after that—these weren’t pessimists, nor were they the sort of people to complain about things without warrant. So why did we have such vastly different experiences in the same year?
I came to the conclusion that my positive outlook on the year was thanks in large part to the solid group of friends I had in the YSA group at church. They welcomed me in and gave me welcome diversion from school work. We went on many grand adventures together. We were very close.
My friends, on the other hand, had no such group. They had friends, of course, but they didn’t seem to have a “family.” It wasn’t the same.
So my advice here is to get involved. That doesn’t have to be through a church group like mine—it could be a community service group, a university club, or a student representatives group. Find a local band you like and make friends with the other people at their gigs. Attend university events (which can also be a great way to see the country and participate in activities for cheaper than you’d pay on your own). Host a game night. Do whatever you can to find your people, whoever that may be.
But then don’t be afraid to have solo adventures when no one else is available to play. Many of my adventures were just me and my camera, and I still felt okay about it. I think the trick—as in all things—is to find balance.
A Few Extra Tidbits
- Prepare now for the awful torture known as “separate taps for hot and cold water,” which is pretty much the standard for most sinks in England. Apparently, there’s a valid reason why they have one tap for ice cold water and another for boiling hot, 3rd-degree-burns water, so you may want to practice the “tap dance” ahead of time. You can thank me later.
- Americans and the British may technically speak the same language, but it doesn’t always feel like it. For example, zucchinis here are called “courgettes” over there. Sidewalks are called “pavements”, sweaters are called “jumpers”, and cookies are called “biscuits”. Oh, and the Hokey Pokey is the “Hokey Tokey,” in case you were wondering.
- If it has a “w” in it, it’s probably silent. For example, Alnwick is “Anick”, Fenwick is “Fennick”, and Cheswick is “Chesick”. And things that end in “burgh” aren’t pronounced like “iceberg”. It’s more like “burra,” so Edinburgh is “Edinburra.”
- Look up—the architecture is breathtaking, but the best bits are usually above head level. If you appreciate the fine things in life, keep your eyes pointed upwards and you’ll have the best view in the world.
What questions do you have about studying in England? Ask in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them for you!