Academic Difference: US vs. Australian University


In attending university both in the US and Australia, I have encountered several differences in my education experiences.  These span from cultural, to academic difference and have completely influenced and coloured my college experience.

I went to one of the top five universities in the U.S. and the top university in Australia, both for masters’ degrees.  Therefore, some of my opinions about undergraduate study will be skewed, but I can tell you many differences between these two graduate schools based on my experience.

Both schools have taught me invaluable lessons, challenged me in new ways and helped me to persevere and succeed.  I can’t say either was better than the other, but I can compare learning/teaching styles for masters programs.  Here are some of elements of academic differenc I found between the U.S. and Australia.

Hopefully this compare and contrast of my experiences is helpful for you to make your decision whether to go to university abroad or to stay where you are.  It isn’t meant to slander or praise certain institutions over others, and is just my personal experiences.


Academic Differences


1. Number of classmates: While this is all dependent on course and department, I had a much smaller cohort of classmates at my school in the U.S.  I knew, by name everyone earning a masters or PhD in my department there. In Australia, I knew people, but there were too many of us for me to make many lasting connections.

However, this may be an unfair assessment.  I studied Sociology in the U.S. and Communications in Australia.  Naturally, there would be more people who wish to attain a master’s degree in Communications than Sociology because there are more jobs in it.


2. Lectures/Tutorials/Seminars: Another academic difference is the way lectures are run.  In Australia, you have a lecture and a tutorial, each of which last for one or two hours.  Tutorials in Australia are often taught by PhD students or tutors and are made up of 10-20 students from the large lecture class.

In graduate school in the States, you often have seminars, which combine lecture and tutorial in one sitting throughout the week, lasting up to three hours (these are usually taught by the professor alone).

I wouldn’t say either one of these methods is better or worse, they’re just different.  This academic difference probably also has to do with the size of the cohort.  I am pretty sure U.S. undergraduate courses have a similar structure to the Australian method.  So perhaps they are not so different after all.


3. Grading: I was blown away by how different the grading system is in Australia as opposed to the U.S.  I have heard that Melbourne is different still from the rest of Australia, and that the University of Melbourne is different still.  In the U.S., many schools operate roughly like this: A+= 95-100, A=90-95, B+=85-89, B=80-84, C+=75-79, C=70-74, D=65-69.  Anything below 65 is an F.

At my Melbourne-based university, they gave out strange grades that sounded more like life threatening diseases than marks of success.  In Melbourne, H1= 80-100, H2A = 75-79, H2B = 70-74, H3 = 65-69, P = 50-64, N = 0-49.  While this leaves a large 20-point segment of success, I found it really strange.  I also thought it was weird that one could score so low and still receive a passing grade.

One would hope that these grades would be easily, internationally transferrable, however, I found that my grades in Australia were often lower, than what I earned at my American University, which is of a higher calibre on international rankings.


4. Theory vs. Practical:  Many people I have spoken to about education in the U.S. and abroad, say that education is more theoretical in the states and more practical in Australia.  In Australia, the coursework is designed to be more interactive and applied.  While this is somehow logical, it doesn’t firmly lodge the ethics or theory behind course materials.  I feel that both theory and practice are necessary to succeed; I just wish they didn’t have to be at odds with one another.


5. Class Materials: In America, we were given stacks of reading to discuss in the following class. These readings and discussing their main points lie at the crux of our class time.  We would also learn additional materials in class, but homework reading played a vital part in class.  Once we had read the works we were able to critically discuss them with each other and our professor.  This really cemented the learning process for me.  There was discussion and debate, and everyone was on the same page, so to speak.

In Australia, we were given less reading and reading was not often discussed.  Actually, many classmates told me they never did the readings. What we would learn in class and the readings we were supposed to read often didn’t relate.  Readings felt akin to independent study, while class time was group study.  Eventually I stopped reading as much of the class materials in Australia, since I felt nobody noticed if I did or didn’t.


6. Time: In the U.S. a Bachelors degree typically takes four years to earn.  There is also an associate’s degree in America, which takes two years.  In Australia, you can earn a bachelor’s in three years, with an optional fourth year to graduate ‘with honours’.  Masters programs in either country can last from one to three years.  The one I attended in the states was one year, while my Australian masters took two.


7. Undeclared v. Knowing: In the U.S. you can start university as an undeclared student. At many schools, you don’t have to know what you would like to earn your degree in until your second or third year.  Many of the classes which one is required to take during their first year of study are prerequisites and are more about a well-rounded course load than specific, major-oriented courses.  This gives students the opportunity to try a couple of courses they are interested in and to re-consider their study options after they have settled into Uni.

In Australia, students are meant to know what they want to study before they apply.  While of course, it helps to know what you would like to do before applying to a university; it is nice to have the option to be undeclared.  I mean it is pretty rare to know for certain what you want to do with your life at age 17, right?


8. Breadth of Classes:  In the U.S., high school students are required to complete a certain level of Math, English, Social Studies and Science.  In Australia, VCE courses require only English and Math for four years.  I think University mimics this formula.  While students are able to go into a more specialized field right away, there is not much required breadth for first year students earning their undergraduate degree (though, I could be wrong).



A graduate from Columbia University and a native New Yorker, Nico is now in Melbourne helping students here to realize their American college dream. Her understanding of U.S. higher education and experience in the Ivy League will guide you through both the SAT exam and the entire admission process.


  • Reply May 22, 2017


    In Australia a coursework Masters is really just the final two years of a Bachelor’s degree. In other words it is a shortened undergraduate degree marketed to overseas students.

    In Australia a “proper” Master’s degree (M.Phil) is a 1-2 year research degree with litlle or no coursework. It is basically a mini PhD.

    • Reply June 7, 2017

      Nicole Andersen

      That’s correct. There are a lot more options though, in Australia. I did a masters by coursework and also wrote a thesis (not the path well-trodden). Our bachelors programs in the U.S. are four years instead of three, so the work has shifted around a bit. There are less years of study required to attain a bachelors degree in Australia, however, in America you also have a two-year associates degree. Thank you for clarifying all that aussie_man!

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