top of page

Overseas university spotlight: University of St Andrews (UK)

One of the most appealing aspects of studying in the UK is the history and tradition of its universities, many of which have been teaching for centuries.


The University of St Andrews is no exception; founded in 1413, it's the third oldest English-speaking university in the world after Oxford and Cambridge.


It's also one of the most popular institutions for students from the U.S. and recently outranked both Oxford and Cambridge as the number one university in the UK (The Guardian, 2023).


Perhaps one of the most important UK ranking systems though is the National Student Survey, which provides feedback about the student experience, and in 2022, St Andrews also achieved the highest mark for student satisfaction of all UK universities.


From its centuries-old traditions, to its flexible course structure, to its historic and charming seaside location, and much, much more, it comes as no surprise that students are happy.


Here are some of the highlights from my visit to campus in February 2023!


University of St Andrews clock tower

St Andrews


About an hour north on the train from Edinburgh, the town of St Andrews is perhaps most famous for being known as the home of golf.


Tourists come year-round to play on the famous Old Course.


I stayed at the Rusacks Hotel, which had a beautiful breakfast view of the course.


Beautiful room at Rusacks Hotel
Beautiful room at Rusacks Hotel
Breakfast view at Rusacks Hotel
Breakfast view at Rusacks Hotel
The Old Course at St Andrews
Swilken Bridge
Swilken Bridge
The Old Course at St Andrews
St Andrews Links Clubhouse

The town itself is home to only 22,000 residents (including the university's 10,000 students) and is basically three main streets with a number of cobbled alleys.


Because it's so small, it's common to run into classmates and professors in the shops and around town.


Downtown St Andrews
College Street in St Andrews
Downtown St Andrews

And because of its seafront location, it can get a bit windy, but the beach walks are tremendous ('Chariots of Fire' was also filmed here)!


St Andrews beaches
St Andrews beaches
St Andrews beaches

My dad's side of the family came from this region of Scotland, so I find it absolutely breathtaking and moving walking through the 12th century ruins of the St Andrews Cathedral and the 13th century ruins of the castle.


St Andrews Cathedral ruins
St Andrews Cathedral ruins
St Andrews Cathedral ruins
St Andrews Cathedral ruins
Seaside St Andrews
St Andrews Castle ruins
St Andrews Castle ruins
St Andrews Castle ruins
St Andrews Castle ruins

Locals seem to be unfazed by the wind and cold of February though; these two had no qualms about going straight into the water, whilst I bundled up!


Swimmers braving the cold water in St Andrews

Campus and traditions


The University of St Andrews doesn't have a distinct campus per se; its buildings are very much interspersed across the town, with the most famous ones located around St Salvator's Quad.


St Andrews clock tower

Right in front of the bell tower, there are initials of 'PH' in the cobbles to mark the site where a 24-year-old Patrick Hamilton was burnt at the stake in 1528 for his Protestant beliefs.


Patrick Hamilton burn site

Supposedly, the fire burned for six hours, during which time Hamilton put a curse on any future student who stepped on the very place he burned.


Nowadays, students must avoid stepping on these initials for fear of failing their degree.


Unlucky students can reverse the curse though if they do happen to step on it; however, this involves running into the sea at dawn for May Dip (which most students do anyway!).


Can you spot Hamilton's 'face' looking down from the bell tower?
Can you spot Hamilton's 'face' in the stone looking down from the bell tower?
St Andrews clock tower
St Andrews clock tower
St Andrews clock tower at night
St Andrews at night

Another St Andrews tradition that students love is academic families, where third- and fourth-year students 'adopt' freshers to welcome them into university life.


Students often end up not just having an academic mom and dad, but they may also end up with academic cousins, siblings, aunts, uncles, stepparents and more.


Then, on Raisin Weekend, the 'children' are dressed up by their academic parents and sent to the Quad for the annual foam fight.


It's called 'Raisin' because far back in St Andrews' history, children traditionally gave their academic parents a pound of raisins as a thank you for their support.


Perhaps the most famous St Andrews tradition though is the red gowns, first introduced post-Reformation when 13- and 14-year-olds attended university.


They would attempt to go into pubs and be served alcohol, so the gowns became a sort of mandatory uniform that would prevent them from being served.


Students in their red gowns in front of the library
Students in their red gowns in front of the library

Nowadays, you can tell what year a student is in their degree based on how the gown is worn: first-years wear them fully on, second-years wear them off their shoulders, third-years wear them on one shoulder and fourth-years wear them on their elbows.


Martyrs Kirk Research Library
Martyrs Kirk Research Library

Another really cool building from the university is the Martyrs Kirk Research Library, which used to be a church.


St Andrews postgraduate library
St Andrews postgraduate library

It's now a postgraduate student library and special collections reading room, housing a number of medieval manuscripts and materials.


Note: St Andrews students don't need to buy any textbooks; everything is available in the libraries or online.


St Andrews historical collections
Sir Isaac Newton writing
Sir Isaac Newton writing
Transactions of the American Philosophical Society
Benjamin Franklin's writings

In terms of housing, St Andrews offers a mix of contemporary and ancient halls, standard vs. ensuite and catered (meal plan) vs. self-catered; however, all of them are within walking distance of the university.


First-year international students are guaranteed housing in the dorms if they apply by a certain date, but it's worth noting that after the first year, off-campus accommodation can be a bit difficult to come by right now.


This is due to a housing crisis not uncommon across UK cities currently.


Many students are sorting out their second-year flat in the first semester of their first year to be safe.


John Burnet Hall, one of the smaller dorm buildings
John Burnet Hall, one of the smaller dorm buildings
McIntosh Hall
McIntosh Hall
Common area in McIntosh Hall
Common area in McIntosh Hall
Dining hall in McIntosh Hall
Dining hall in McIntosh Hall
Dining area in McIntosh Hall
Dining area in McIntosh Hall

The University of St Andrews Students' Association is a great place to hang out, join a club or society (such as the oldest debating society in the world) or shop the university merchandise.


University of St Andrews Students' Union
University of St Andrews campus shop

I was fortunate to watch a performance by the St Andrews' A Cappella society.


University of St Andrews A Cappella Society

Right next to the union is the only nightclub in St Andrews, Club 601.


To get in, students need to provide both their normal government ID and also their student ID, which makes it a safe place, as it's not open to the public.


University of St Andrews nightclub

And yes, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Prince William and Kate studied, met and fell in love there!


So what's next for the university?


Currently, St Andrews is in the process of building a new business school that will open in 2026-27 after acquiring land from a local high school.


It will be the first college to be established in St Andrews since 1747!


University of St Andrews - Academics


As an American, I sometimes find it hard to comprehend just how old some things are.


The year 1413 sounds like a long time ago, but if you actually break it down, it was 610 years back!

At this time, the University of St Andrews was founded on the University of Paris model, and because it's an ancient university, it has the added quirk that students graduating from a humanities program receive an undergraduate Master of Arts (MA) degree.


Nowadays, St Andrews has four faculties: Arts, Science, Medicine and Divinity.


Sara Cavalieri, founder of College Apps Abroad

Arts students can expect to spend about 12 hours in class per week, while science students will be in class around 24 hours as week.


Either way, St Andrews has a 12:1 student to staff ratio on average and quite possibly the best support for American students that I have seen at any overseas university.


From well-being support to career readiness, resources for students include:


  • CareerSet: instant resume optimization

  • Interview360: students undergo mock interviews tailored to the job they're applying for and receive instant feedback

  • Saint Connect: a platform to expand one's professional network

  • Coffee Connect: matches students with an alumnus for an informal virtual coffee; run twice a year to take the stress out of students having to make their own connections

  • Work shadowing programs: 1-7 days of experience with alumni over winter/summer breaks (unpaid)

  • GoinGlobal: platform to help students find work abroad or in their home countries

  • Summer Internship Scheme (4-6 weeks over summer)

  • Professional Skills Curriculum (PSC): program of workshops to build employable skills like managing a team, leadership, project management, presenting, critical and creative thinking

  • Vertically Integrated Projects (VIPs): research project across disciplines and degree levels


St Andrews is also the only university in the UK that has a dedicated North American Opportunities Manager, who provides country-specific resources, such as job search support in the U.S.


This may be in part due to the high number of U.S. students on campus (American students made up 43% of the total student body in 2022-23 and 49% of the undergraduate student body).


Nevertheless - in short, St Andrews just really gets it.

Another benefit is that tuition is fixed for the entire four years of studies, and scholarships are offered on both a merit and need basis, which is unusual for a university outside the U.S.


In terms of degree programs, one that's particularly unique is the BA International Honours degree run jointly with William & Mary in the U.S., where students spend two years at each institution and get degrees from both at the end.


The Faculty of Divinity is also excellent, ranked in the top 20 theology departments worldwide, and its building and grounds are stunning.


University of St Andrews theology building
Outside the University of St Andrews theology building
University of St Andrews theology library

Divinity was actually the founding subject of the university.


Students study topics like church history, world religions, ethics, biblical languages, societies, politics & religion and more, and the St Andrews Encyclopaedia of Theology is considered the go-to online resource for this subject around the world.


University of St Andrews theology building

Many students who have come to St Andrews to study another course and took Divinity classes as electives actually found themselves switching their entire programs of study to this field.


University of St Andrews theology building

Divinity students also have the benefit of being able to study abroad at the Hebrew School in Jerusalem or the Centre for Islamic Study in Germany as part of the degree.


Outside the University of St Andrews theology building

During my visit, I also had the opportunity to attend taster lectures in chemistry, which has been taught at St Andrews since 1811, and earth and environmental science.


Both disciplines have very small cohort sizes, creating a strong community feel.


Besides golf, Scotland is also the home of geology, and there is an extinct volcano two miles away that science students get to visit.


It's worth noting that most of the science buildings are taught in more modern facilities about a 10-minute walk from the main part of town.


The sun does come out sometimes!
The sun does come out sometimes!
University of St Andrews science buildings