The Australian school experience is actually quite different from the American school experience.

On first arrival, most American students might get excited to see that they only need a 50% to pass, and rather than having constant homework and quizzes, their entire grade is based on just one exam and a major essay. American students get excited because there’s a bar on campus, which for obvious reasons is an impossibility in the United States.

Most American students are drawn to studying abroad in Australia because they don’t have to learn a new language, among other things. But there are still plenty of struggles involved in studying, even when the language barrier isn’t an issue.

University of Sydney campus
University of Sydney Quadrangle

Course Structure

The first difference that American students going to an Australian university will notice during the first week is in the course structure.  At first it’s exciting to see that you only have one or two big tests and an essay.  After a while, though, you come to appreciate how much American schools continue to hold your hand by making you do these little assignments and taking quizzes, reminding you that you need to attend class on the regular, read the book, and actually learn the material.

For certain types of students that had been raised into this system, the Australian way is much better in that it’s self-directed.  For an American student it basically means a whole bunch of goofing off during the semester and then a very hard, very intense push to learn all of the material at the end before the major project or test.

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Atmosphere on Campus

The second is more of a difference in atmosphere.  In America, everyone lives on or very near to campus, eats at the same dining halls, and generally visits the same haunts as the next student.  If you need to finish a project, it will mean staying at the library until it closes at 2AM and then trudging up the hill to the dorm.

Australian students usually choose whatever university closest to their home has the best program for their major instead of the free-form selection process that American students take.  Here, the majority of the students live at home, sometimes commuting 2 or 3 hours by train both ways on the days that they have class.

The University of Sydney is a massive school, but you’re only going to see a small fraction of the 50,000 students there on any given day.  Since only a small number of students lives on campus, students leave to take meals or to go home whenever they want.  It’s also a bit harder to make friends as the vast majority of the students evaporate after 5 or 6 and you might never see the same person twice if they’re not in your classes.

Students relaxing on the University of Sydney campus
Students relaxing on the University of Sydney campus

School fees

Finally, there’s a major difference in how you pay for school, which translates into the attitude toward university and uni life here.  The university seems to be much cheaper here, but that’s really because you pay per class that you take.  As you only need a relatively low grade to pass, the incentive to go above and beyond can be quite low in some cases.

In addition, a lot of extras are thrown in with American schools that you learn to appreciate later on: a meal plan, an activities fee, gym fees, and numerous other things that you wouldn’t have thought you had to pay for because they’re included in the cost of tuition in America.  Here, it’s a more “a la carte” attitude, so students can be very nonchalant about classes or, depending on how much they’re paying in activities fees, for sports clubs, or for being a member of the gym, they’ll be much more invested, quite literally, in their campus experience.

It’s definitely different, the university system in Australia.  It’s a lot more work in some ways and a lot less work in other ways.  It’s certainly not a walk in the park, but you can do reasonably well if you keep on top of assignments and put in the effort.  I can’t say that either the American system or the Australian system is better; “it’s not wrong, it’s different.”

University of Sydney campus building
Photo by: Tommy Banks, Stonehill College

Georgia DuCharme was a student at the University of Pittsburgh and a TEAN Featured Blogger. Georgia studied abroad with TEAN in Sydney, Australia.

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