Advice on UK Uni choice

My D received offers to study biological sciences at Imperial, UCL and Durham, but is having difficulty deciding which to firm. She likes the idea of being in London but we have heard mixed things about the uni experience here as well as the quality of teaching. We worry that Durham is not particularly well known if she should decide to return to the US for further study/work.
Looking for insight particularly into US student experiences at these universities.

Hi hurlz13, I also recently got accepted to the same 3 unis to study biology/economics, congrats to your daughter!
I don’t know if this helps, but the biology lab that I intern at has a few European scientists and when I asked them for advice, they told me that Imperial was hands down the most reputable.
Among them is a person who actually attended Imperial for his PhD, and according to him, Imperial offers more and better research and intern opportunities then the others. He strongly recommended the school to me citing the good location (by a museum and a park or something) along with the prestige and academic quality. He told me that I shouldn’t even consider UCL or Durham if I had the opportunity to go to imperial.

In my experience (mostly through LSE), the major London colleges do feel a bit more impersonal than counterparts with more spacious and enclosed campuses. As between Imperial and UCL, both are highly regarded, although Imperial probably has an edge in terms of prestige and renown.

Imperial and UCL are both located in great neighborhoods, but with different vibes. UCL is located in Bloomsbury area (near King’s Cross and British Museum) while Imperial is based in South Kensington at the southern edge of Hyde Park and next to Royal Albert Hall. Neither is inherently better or worse - It really depends on your taste and preference.

If your DD doesn’t mind the hustle and bustle of a large city, London is a great place to study. Highly cosmopolitan, with a lot of interesting people passing through and debates taking place. She will never be bored!

Durham is well-regarded and popular with UK students but I don’t know much about it.

Thanks for your reply!
It seems both UCL and Imperial are quite highly regarded but the course at UCL appears to offer a bit more choice - especially since D is interested more in cell biology/genetics at this time. Reputation is important as she may want to return to the US for further study/work, but it doesn’t seem there is a huge difference in that regard for biology as much as something like engineering.
Did the person who did his PhD at Imperial also do his BSc there? We are curious about the undergraduate experience as we’ve heard the pressure is higher at Imperial with less time for social interactions. Also, are the undergraduate research opportunities better at Imperial or is that more at the graduate level? UCL states they guarantee research opportunities for all BSc and MSc level students?
The tuition difference as an internal student is also considerable so we are considering that as well.

Thanks! She is drawn more to the city though both neighborhoods sound like they would be enjoyable for her. Durham is kind of falling out of the running at this point but not entirely.

Hi OP,

I think this is just the tough decision your daughter will have to make:

Does she want a typical campus experience at the expense of superior international prestige? Or vice versa?

The London universities will hardly give any campus experience, while Durham will give an Oxbridge-imitation campus experience.

As for the strength of the universities in the field of biology and overall reputation, it will be ridiculous to say Imperial is way ahead of UCL. That just does not fly.

Imperial might have a slight feel of superior “prestige” to UCL because it is harder to get in; because it is a prestigious totally STEM university with a far smaller intake than UCL.

But when it comes to reputation (aka what an entity is known to have achieved), then UCL is superior to Imperial significantly.

As for strength in biology/biosciences research, they are on par. There is no way Imperial is “far better”. It has a concentration of quality, but UCL has just slightly diluted quality because of the far larger size and scope of its biosciences research activities. There is hardly any quality you will find at Imperial that you will not find at UCL in biosciences research.

Durham is a bit futher down the line in Biosciences research; its strength in natural sciences is more Chemistry and Physics.

Be aware that students for all the London unis can and most likely will end up living miles away from the ‘campus’, especially after first year. Our British friends’ kids are living a tube ride away from classes, plus a much longer tube ride away for sports and athletics. I also know people in first year dorms with kids from other London unis, not just their own school.

Durham is a collegiate uni, with a large residential focus. Your college (like a dorm) is your home, even once you live out, and people have a great affinity for their college many years out. It is much more of a traditional uni experience than London, and will likely be a lot cheaper on room, board etc.


Thanks for your reply –
That was our general impression about biology/biosciences at UCL so it is nice to hear it confirmed. Your input on Durham is helpful.

Thanks @CollegeMamb0 !
We have read this about London unis – do you know if there is still a sense of community within the university? I think if there is some sense of community then she will do well there. She is interested in some of the societies she has read about as well as the possibility of playing on a soccer team

@hurlz13 - yes, there is a sense of community. Halls should have social committees to organize events, and if she gets involved with sports and societies she will find her group.

A friend’s daughter is at one of the London unis and is on a sports team. It seems to be more about socializing and drinking rather than the actual sport! But she has lots of fun and has made bonds for life.

Is your daughter a self starter, independent and able to advocate for herself? There is no hand holding for students in the UK

You may want to ask the specific question about London unis sense of community on The Student Room, which is the UK version of this site. Additionally, I would also search for ‘Day in the Life’ vlogs of students in London to get an idea of what life is like.

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Thanks so much!
Yes - my D has all of the traits you mentioned. She is already on TSR including following all the applicant pages for the unis she has applied to. She has also watched several day in the life vlogs (and continues to search for more).

Now that she has offers from 4/5 of the schools she applied to, choosing one has become the challenge. I think it would be so much easier if she could visit, but that has just hasn’t been possible this year with COVID – hopefully in the spring

Thanks again for your input!

I should have asked this in prior reply, but do you know any kids at Imperial and what the general atmosphere there is. We have read/seen a lot of comments about the high pressure atmosphere and high work load there as compared to the other London unis, but again it is hard to judge without being able to visit her department etc
Thanks again!

Hi there - we don’t know anyone at Imperial I’m afraid. Perhaps some of the other ‘Brits’ do? @collegemom3717 @Twoin18 @Conformist1688

Lots of unis will publish their course requirements and syllabi online, which will include assignments etc, so you can look up the requirements?

Also - are the comments you’ve readcomparing like to like? Imperial is sciences and engineering which will have more contact hours, unlike History at UCL which will have more independent study. I would dig a bit deeper.


So we pretty much have tried to compare like to like with a focus on biology/biosciences – it can be hard to really get a read on though. We haven’t looked at the assignments so we can try that for sure. Most of the comments seem more general to be honest – mostly a sense around the student body feeling pressure with limited time to engage in societies etc.
Was just curious if you or others know someone actually there and what their experience has been like. Here again, it would be really helpful to be able to visit :slight_smile:

Imperial is more like upper east side, whereas UCL is more like midtown/downtown NYC. Both good neighbourhoods to be in their own way. Though, as others have mentioned, she will not live there, but commute. It’s a more grown up way of life.

Durham will be a very different experience, more small-town, intimate, more teenage than grownup.

I would put happiness before reputation - if she feels she might be unhappy in one particular setting, she may not do well enough for grad school.

And if she is from a competitive high school, with lots of AP classes, I wouldn’t worry about the work load, rather about whether she can handle the independence.


Thanks @Tigerle

She is trying to figure out where she would be happiest and finding it difficult without visiting. She is not so concerned with the reputation of imperial vs ucl as both seem very good for biosciences. She is not as concerned about the setting but more about “the vibe” as she says – the type of student and general atmosphere. She is smart, independent, outgoing and has managed 4 AP classes at a time (they take 6 classes per year at her school) while scoring well on the exams. But she is also a pretty easy going, laid back type of person who doesn’t want to find herself surrounded by stressed out peers. We are trying to figure out if the comments of pressure and oppressive work load at imperial are founded or if they come from a minority of students. And I’ll just say again…we really wish we could visit!

The Student Room has a number of threads on quality of life at Imperial (I imagine the same exists for UCL). On level of stress, I think that depends to some extent on what an individual is used to. A couple of years ago, I came across commentaries by Andover alum attending US colleges at that time and distinctly recall a couple of them saying their Ivy League college was actually not very stressful because of their previous experience at Andover. Similarly, my D recently mentioned that she’d heard that although Oxbridge is generally quite stressful (8-week terms!), it typically hits students from comprehensive state secondary schools hardest at first because the rigor comes as a (near-)complete shock whereas students from academic private schools might be more used to the pressure and pace.

When I was studying in London many many years ago, I actually lived in Bloomsbury (not far from UCL) and loved it. A few years ago, I found a flat in the same neighborhood for the daughter of an old friend who was going to spend her year-abroad at UCL - she loved it as well. As a student, I found the Bloomsbury neighborhood to be more interesting and exciting than the area surrounding Imperial (although Hyde Park is very pretty) and I also liked the fact that a variety of University of London colleges (Birkbeck, UCL, SOAS, RADA, LSE, King’s, etc.) are situated in or adjacent to Bloomsbury - I made friends with people studying at different U of London colleges and attended events/lectures organized by different schools. Of course, Imperial students can also do this but it would probably require greater effort.

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IME, it was the US students who elevated stress culture into an art form, while the UK students, while moaning about it, would rather downplay their academic efforts. I’m not sure which way it goes if a course has a lot of internationals - I haven’t studied every culture, though I imagine that Asian student culture, for instance, would be rather “work hard but don’t moan about it”.

Also in my experience, though admittedly partly second hand, it’s US schools which are relentless in piling on the mandatory assignments, whereas UK students have more leeway in how they organize themselves, as long as they are ready for the high stakes exams at the end (of the term, semester, year, course, depending, but not daily or weekly). If you ace your exams, effortless brilliance is fine.

It’s more about how she handled the pressure of having to produce 5s in all her AP exams, rather than how she handled stress throughout the year at her US school that counts. If the former didn’t faze her, she’ll be fine at all of these schools.

Also, I would personally prefer Bloomsbury to Kensington, too, but that one is definitely a YMMV thing.

To a US visitor, Kensington might feel instinctively safer. But London is in general a pretty safe city.

And, and I think this is my last comment on the matter, because I feel snark coming on: any pressure that gets UK students to cut down on their drinking I’d consider a good thing. /snark off.

That one might actually be a bigger problem at Durham. See teenage vs. grownup.

Is she ready to be a grown up? London, hands down.