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United Kingdom: Bristol Student Experience

Exchange Rates
As of 08/09/2010
U.K. (Pounds)
1 USD = 0.63 GBP
1 GBP = 1.59 USD


The University of Bristol is located in southwest England, about five miles from the ocean and roughly 110 miles from London. Bristol has about 600,000 people and has a small town atmosphere except in the downtown area. Bristol is a very active, artsy city that always has a lot going on. Bristol has the advantage of being both an urban city and a community committed to preserving "open field" recreation areas (e.g., The Downs and Leigh Woods). Get Venue magazine every time it comes out. It talks about everything going on in Bristol and Bath. Depending on your perspective, the weather is from mild to cold and wet. The University is located throughout an area called Clifton, which is one of the nicest and most expensive areas of the city. There is no single spot where the University is located; it is spread out and well integrated in the business of the city.

The climate is good compared with most of Great Britain, but still miserable compared with home (winter average temperature 5°C, 18°C in the summer). Some nights in December, the temperature went down to 0°C. It is not really cold until January or February and then it is very cold. Snows a little bit, too. You'll need a coat.

Bristol will most likely be nothing like you imagine. It being so competitive with Oxford and Cambridge, some of us naturally had visions of expensively dressed sons and daughters of aristocrats and rich people strolling about. Well, first of all, you can wear absolutely whatever you want. Secondly, most of the students are here on merit or a decision not to go to Oxford or Cambridge. Thus, there is quite a variety of people from all backgrounds here. The one thing that they do have in common is that they are in the top 2% of the student population of Great Britain. They, for the most part, are quite good at what they do, while also being rather lazy. This can be deceptive; if you keep up with the reading assignments and don't fall too far behind on your essays, life will be OK.


Many courses are year long and are based on lectures (one or two per week) and tutorials. A tutorial is like a seminar where you discuss a specific topic or text. In almost every case, you are required to write one to two essays each term for each class. (One essay for each four units.) Your grade can depend solely on essays and no examinations or solely final examinations.

In the science department, courses are broken up into segments, therefore most courses are not year long. You are expected to take a lab session in which you are given a choice of experiments that you structure and design. Instead of essays you are given problem sheets (2-4 depending on the course); tutors collect some while others are for our benefit.

When you are deciding upon the courses you are going to take, make sure you ask about prerequisites; if they don't feel you are prepared for the course, take their word for it. They know what they are talking about. On the other hand commitment and meeting the challenge can lead to success. You will most likely take second-year courses.

The major difference between the educational systems is the freedom which the British system offers. Most work is done outside of class with frequent essay writing for assessment. Also, examinations fall only once a year (except for science students who have exams each term and students taking first year classes who have mid-sessional exams on the first day of the term after Christmas break); thus preparation in forms of essay and reading is a must. You can't just attend lectures here and expect to pass. For the most part, studying is more like a 9 to 5 (or 6) job with evenings free.

It is easy to get distracted from studies here, perhaps easier than at home, so try to keep track of how much work you have to do. In the end, if you are really behind and have an essay due, just turn something in. It does not matter what it is, just so long as some writing gets turned in and it relates to the course. The tutors here are human and know what you are going through.

Read all catalogues and handbooks from Bristol very carefully. It will prevent possible confusion.

The university has only one Arts and Social Science library, but most of the departments in the sciences have their own library in the university district. All should be utilized. Also, the university is decentralized geographically, adding a certain character to Bristol which is not found on California campuses.

The only way to describe the difference in academic life is to tell you to try it out. Books could be written on the subject. Expect a lot of individual initiative and reading. Other than that, the adjusting is half the fun.


Bristol University offers an array of accommodations. Student halls (dorms) offer both meals and an easy way to meet other students who are mostly first year students. Smaller university houses offer good location, but the cooking is done by the student. There are also flats around the university to rent; they offer more freedom, but are more expensive than university sponsored housing. Usually those who live in the student houses are the happiest with their accommodation. They have enough people around to keep from being lonely, yet they are not as noisy as the dorms (where it is said that people party until at least 2:00 a.m.) and you still have all the freedom of living on your own. The Accommodation Office is extremely difficult to deal with and rarely helpful. If you have problems, be prepared to be very strong and stand up for your rights.

You can bring electric appliances, but remember there is a difference in voltage and you will have to use adapters. If you are in a hall or lodging, everything is provided and if you live in a house, it will come nearly completely furnished (including pots, kettles and other kitchen appliances). Read the fine print as some halls do not provide these kitchen items.


Depending on the fluctuating exchange rates, a student should bring at least $1,000-2,000 to start. There is plenty to spend it on; fees, deposits, cards and postage, plus incidentals which need to be purchased. The cost of living is higher (about 30% higher) than you might expect.

Use American Express travelers checks. There is an American Express office in close walking distance from the university. Do not convert dollars into pounds until your arrival in Bristol, except for what you might need in transit.

The Study Abroad Office in Bristol does an excellent job of opening accounts for students which are usually ready before they arrive. Go to Barclays Bank. Your name will already be on a list there. There are a number of banks in Bristol, some closely affiliated with the university. Banks are the same all over the world; it is just a matter of choosing one that you like. When looking at banks, ask if they will give you the invaluable Banker's Check card which is needed to cash personal checks everywhere, even other bank branches that are not your own. Most students don't have any trouble getting check cashing cards. All checks in dollars, whether personal or from banks at home, need to be cleared overseas before the bank credits your account. It usually takes two weeks and is not a big deal.

Banking is basically free for students. Just use your ATM card at any "Cashpoint" to withdraw money.


Bring what you would normally wear at home, but make sure that you bring along warm clothing. Buy your umbrella here and leave your shorts at home!

  1. Sports equipment (rackets, cleats, etc.) depending entirely on what you play; there are a lot of sports clubs here. When it rains and is windy, it is best to have a raincoat!
  2. Books. There are many good used bookstores and libraries, but you may want to bring the essentials of your subject (reference books including a dictionary). Also, any old essays/papers and notes from the basic courses in your subject to use as references. Whatever you bring with you, you will have to ship back to the States.
  3. Music: Bring a discman and mini portable speakers or an MP3 player. Don't bring CD players if it can be helped. They don't work with the electrical current and be forewarned that CDs are at least twice as expensive here.

What to Buy Here:

  1. Buy rechargeable batteries here! Saves lots of money.
  2. A coat.
  3. Towels and sheets
  4. Used bicycles are cheap, but you will use the bus and walk more often.


Your feet and a bicycle will get you everywhere you need to go in Bristol. Most places are within walking distance and it is a good way to get to know the city. The city bus system is also excellent by our standards. The coaches and train system are pretty good and offer discounts to students (well worth the youth card). Another cheap mode of transportation is through the Free Wheelin' Society. They will connect you with someone driving to the city of your choice and your fee is a percent of the gas bill.


Eating here is no problem; most pubs serve excellent food for a moderate price. You will find McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King, Subway, and Starbucks everywhere. You can find every kind of restaurant that you want, but it isn't cheap. The Chinese food is different from what we are accustomed to, but less expensive; and the pizza places are not bad. Go to a kebab or fish and chips shop for cheap food.

Bristol has a shopping district in the city centre and a modern mall on the outskirts of town. There are many bakeries, but few green grocers and butchers. You will probably shop at Sainsbury's.

Sainsbury is a huge supermarket. It closes at 10 p.m. most nights and is open Sundays and you do have to bag your own groceries. All Days is a small convenience market open 24 hours - like 7-11.

Post offices are located throughout the city. The Royal mail is efficient most of the time. Writing letters to the U.S. can be expensive, but getting letters from home is usually well worth it. E-mail is fabulous. Get e-mail addresses from friends at home and open an account when you arrive. It's free and fast.

If you live in a hall, washing facilities are provided at a nominal cost. Otherwise, there are a number of strategically located launderettes throughout the city. The cheapest one is in the student union but at times there may be a wait and some of the dryers do not work well.


There are about 350 "societies" in Bristol that do everything imaginable. You won't have any problems in finding a social or athletic club to join. It's a good way to meet people, too. Although students will find plenty of opportunities to practice their favorite American sport (except baseball), we suggest that you take advantage of some of the British sports, e.g., rugby, squash, and cricket. Many of the halls have teams in most sports and social clubs for various interests. Try CockSoc (Cocktail Society), Fine Film Society, or The Chocolate Society.

The Bristol University Union offers students just about anything they are interested in terms of sports and clubs. The union also sponsors vacation trips; last holiday a number of Americans traveled to the Australia.

Other leisure activities include opera, theatre, ballet, concerts, cinema, local nightclubs, pubs or simply walks around the surrounding area. Bristol has its own medieval cathedral and castle ruins. There are also many historical places that you can go to for a day, London is only three hours bus ride from Bristol, and a scenic bike path connects with Bath.


The best way to meet the Brits is to be yourself. People in Bristol are not anti-American and if you are nice to them, they will be nice to you. Bristolians have their own unique accent.

Dialects are not a problem; they are an adventure. Your ear will adjust quickly enough (though you may have a hard time with Scots), as will your tongue. They say that many of us now speak in "Anglicized American!"

Do not become obsessed with the cultural differences. These differences offer a point of conversation and interest. Be lighthearted about it. Cultural differences can be a point of great interest to both countries.


  • Academically, begin reading your reading list as soon as possible. Also figure out the university library system quickly, it is very easy and the librarians are very helpful.
  • When you first get here, buy a map of Bristol and explore. Just walk around and get lost. It is the best way to get to know the city.
  • Remember to keep an open mind and try to empathize with British views. Do not have a dogmatic outlook about your country vis-à-vis the world. Remember you are here to learn about new cultures, not to disseminate yours. Have fun.
  • Don't buy extra passport photos. You can get four for roughly £2.00 over here. Small machines for these are all over the place.
  • Try to join a club or "interest" group; it is an easy way to meet lots of people.
  • Buy a mobile phone--it's the cheapest and most convenient way to make and receive local calls.
  • Above all, just be your wonderful student-self. I think students all over the world are pretty much the same. They like to party, try to avoid work, and are always behind.
  • Keep in mind that the more you know about Britain before you leave California, the more rewarding your stay will be.
  • Although it might not seem so at first, the Brits are some of the nicest people you will ever meet. Just be outgoing and friendly from the beginning.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for essay extensions if you need them. The professors are overly understanding.
  • If you are a smoker, be prepared to spend $4 per pack for American brand cigarettes. This may be an excellent time to kick the habit! (Months before coming). Good luck. Quitting smoking in Europe is like sending a recovering alcoholic to Oktoberfest!
  • For American news, you can keep up to date on the internet or most newsstands will carry USA Today or the Herald.
  • Review American Government, History and Geography. It can be very embarrassing if Brits know more than you.
  • For students who decide to live in the Stoke Bishop area, be prepared to walk around 4 miles everyday roughly 2 miles each way. There are coaches available, but the expenses can add up.
  • Go to choral Evensong at the Cathedral at least once. It's beautiful.