How's College In Sweden?
What is university life like in Sweden? I’m no university administrator, but here is an exchange student’s take on how the Swedish university system works. I’m just talking from my perspective as an exchange student from San Francisco studying at Linnaeus University in Kalmar, Sweden. These are their stories (Law and Order: SVU sound):
- The schedule system is run by weeks, and semesters are 20 weeks each.
- Students usually take one course at a time.
- Each course has a course pace around it. 100% pace means five weeks, 50% means ten weeks, 25% is the whole damn semester.
- The credit system here is based on hp. No, not health points. It’s the European Credit Transfer System!
They’re more like points you earn after completing a big course assignment. So you would get one point for a research paper, two points for a group presentation, and then 4.5 points for the exam. These points will add up to 7.5hp which is equivalent to 3 units back at San Francisco State University. The ETCS allows students to earn the units throughout the course, while in the U.S, the units are earned at the end if the student reaches a passing grade percentage.
During the Fall of 2016 here at Linnaeus University, I took the following courses:
15hp courses are also common, which is like a SFSU student taking one 6 unit course over two semesters. The Business Environment course was worth 15hp but the structure of the curriculum was divided in half.
The first five weeks were about internationalization and business models, which accumulated 7.5hp in assignments and projects. The final five weeks were about Russia and European businesses in the current geopolitical climate. And like the first five weeks, research papers and a written exam added up to the last 7.5hp of The Business Environment course.
My Initial Fears
Normally, students in Sweden take courses amounting to 100% - 150% pace of the course load. However, the circumstances of being an exchange student meant having to take three courses concurrently. During the beginning, I worried about the weight that a 267% course load would bring to my first semester studying abroad. I thought,
I was being a bit dramatic. I survived with the help of Google Calendar and because academia in Sweden is not horribly demanding. For a lot of exchange students, we were confronted by the fact that we had plenty of free time to work on group projects and to study.
Even with the 267% course load, which meant sometimes having nine hours of lectures in one day— There was always enough time to be rachet in Kalmar.
In the U.S, some of us are taking five to six classes with consistent back-to-back lectures MWF, TTH, or both. All while doing extracurriculars and/or working part-time. Most of the times, lectures in the U.S are mandatory and are where students would turn in assignments or learn key materials that would be on the exam.
A worry I had, in addition to the potential overload of courses, was that I would be forced to miss important lectures due to the concurrency in my course schedule. Luckily in Sweden, all lectures are assumed to be not mandatory unless stated in the schedule.
Lectures here are usually around three hours, but the Swedish love to have breaks which I totally appreciate. And these breaks are like 10-15 minutes! In the U.S, you would get one five minute break if the professor feels like it.
The flexibility provided by the university system really allows exchange students to prioritize what they’re studying. Courses don’t have a set schedule for lectures. One week you could have three a week or the next week you’d have two lectures. This is on the principle that you would have more time to work on studying independently and to also complete group projects.
And I mean, let’s be honest… When you’re abroad trying to enjoy the time of your life dipping it and doin’ it, going to lectures may not be on the top of your to-do list.
A cheap train ticket to a weekend in Copenhagen is slightly better than missing a Friday lecture on internationalization. I know it’s studying abroad and not travelling abroad. But when the lecture slides are uploaded online and the lectures are straight off the textbook (that you spent a ridiculous amount of money on), let’s think about the opportunity cost.
The Grading System
The grading system here is how I would describe my farts: a sweet breeze. This is the Swedish grading system:
Swedish professors are pretty lenient when grading papers and projects. They definitely will rip your ass apart when providing feedback on you or your group’s work. It’s definitely about learning and improving yourself as a student rather than just getting a grade. I mean come on, there’s an FX grade. That means you fucked up hard but also made some type of effort that the professor is willing to give you a pass if you do an extra assignment or something.
It’s like having 69.8% on your financial accounting course at State and having to beg your professor to just give you a pass because at least you attended the lectures (almost) everyday.
Professors here are not so chill on paper structures though. In Sweden, and maybe Europe, research papers have more requirements. In addition to the regular introduction, body, conclusion and references— The research papers I’ve done here have required abstracts, executive summaries, table of contents and fucking title pages! There are always exceptions, but that’s what I’ve noticed. Although I gotta say, a title page makes your paper super hot and professional.
As for exams, they’re anonymous so naturally the grading will be harsh.
Also, you legit get five hours to take an exam here. Oh yes! Adjust whatever listening device you’re hearing this from.
Five hours to take a written exam. I’ve seen Swedes bring almost five course meals to the exam because they like to take their time. Who needs five hours to do a two hour exam? How many times do you have to double check your answers?
The best thing about only having to take one course at a time is that you only need to cram for ONE exam.
In the U.S, you would have to worry about the financial accounting exam, the creative writing paper, the political science presentation, and the final glaciology report.
With the Swedish course system, I was able to focus on my Consumer Behaviour course during the month of December and that was it. I finished my part for the group presentation and I peacefully transitioned into studying for the written exam. During that time, I also got to visit Lapland. Studying is a lot easier when you only have to memorize PowerPoint slides for one class.
Swedish Group Project Dynamics
In Sweden, presentations and group projects are the main emphasis for the course curriculum.
And no shade, but I’m pretty underwhelmed by the presentation skills of my Swedish compadres.
I’m being unfair though, because some of the Swedish classmates I had in the fall semester were in their first year of university. It explains why some may have zero swag when presenting Porter’s Diamond Model. I mean, it’s not that different from the U.S though. Group PowerPoint presentations by students are never interesting. I have been on this planet for 20 years, yet I have never been wowed by a PowerPoint presentation.
Unless the professor makes a decision to randomly assign groups, international exchange students always stick together for group project situations and same with the Swedes. Interestingly though, in The Business Environment course, I was grouped with three Swedish students.
A main issue many international students had when being grouped with a majority of Swedes was that they would all speak in Swedish and the exchange students would sit there not understanding anything. And the Swedes are pretty fluent in English.
It was a complaint that I completely understood and experienced. Of course as someone who only took Beginner’s Swedish, I didn’t understand shit. At the same time, I get the Swedish perspective because it’s just easier to talk in your mother tongue.
That may influence the dynamic when communicating during group work. I remember my friend Corinne saying something like,
This quote slightly reflects the experience I had working on the group project with my Swedish classmates. They were nice and cordial, but there’s nothing else to say. Small talk with (sober) Swedes takes work. Maybe I’m in the wrong here!
I mean, what deep meaningful conversations can you chat about while researching the internationalization of McDonald’s in Japan? Or maybe I was just a total weirdo. It wouldn't be the first time...
The same dynamic in Sweden applies in the U.S too. You don’t become BFFs with everyone you’re in group projects with. I think it would be naive to think otherwise. When people say they hate group projects, I’m sure they also mean the people in the group as well. Not just the concept of group projects.
Student Life and Culture
Another cultural thing I’ve noticed was that in the U.S, it’s cooler to pretend that you’re not trying to study. Often you would hear, “Oh my gosh, I slept for like three hours and barely studied for this microbio exam.” Studying is a concept that Americans pretend they don’t understand. But in Sweden? Folks be hunkering down at the library from 9AM to 4PM or until the Absolut Vodka runs out of their reusable water bottle.
That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s definitely hot to be at the Linnaeus University library. Come on though, you’re spending seven hours at the library and only completed the References page of your research paper? Something’s up!
It’s definitely more of a social event to be at the library. You sit there and pretend to work, then you chat with some jackasses who are also pretending to work. Am I guilty of doing this exact thing in the U.S and in here? Yes, but at least I don’t pretend to be studious by bragging about it on my Snapchat story!
What do you do at the library?
School sports are not a thing here, I think. Where’s the college basketball team? Where they at? I mean there’s FIKS, a student sports club where regular Swedish folks and students play recreational sports with exchange students. It’s where I like to go to get my ass kicked in volleyball and basketball.
School spirit is not prevalent either. College here is more like a job rather than a transitional stage to young adulthood. Maybe the growth of a Swedish young person is more of a gradual spectrum.
In the U.S, college is like a factory that’s just there to churn out broke degree holders who had “the college experience”. It’s like we’re just getting pushed into growing up even though we’re still trying to find who we are as occupants of this Milky Way Galaxy.
As for student life, there are many student associations here in Kalmar. Lambda, for example, is a student association for prospective marine engineers, technicians and sailors. Other example is the Erasmus Student Network, where all the international students are at.
There are times where these associations interact with each other, which is always fun but it’s rare. ESN and Lambda had a fun ass time last semester during the Introduction Week. Usually we stick to our own network, which is limiting. At SF State, there are student committees that create events for all students at all times. The hot student events in Kalmar are found on the Facebook Events page, and usually I’m not even fucking invited!
But I think that’s just part of the package of studying abroad. Every facet of the academic system and student culture at Linnaeus; negative, boring, positive or otherwise, they are still part of the experience of studying abroad in a small Swedish seaside town. I don’t want to be corny, but it’s also about learning a new perspective.
Having a perspective on the lives of students, exchange and Swedish, is impactful because you get to figure out what you love about your home compared to them and how maybe you can improve it.
There’s a lot wrong about the system of higher education in the U.S. There’s a lot wrong with the country too. Studying abroad and being semi-integrated into Sweden made me realized that, fuck, I miss San Francisco State. Even with all the trials and tribulations that plague American students trying to earn something for themselves in school…
Maybe it’s the smell of manure wafting through the air in Kalmar that’s making me delusional. (Honestly, why does Kalmar smell like poop at times? What is this, UC Davis?)
Sweden is chill though. Sweden is where I got my college experience. Sweden is where alcohol entered through the bloodstream as the victorious roars of beer pong winners thundered the Falken basement. Sweden is where I truly understood what pre-parties were and how they’re usually better than the actual party. Sweden is where I lived independently, away from my friends and family in the gay city of San Francisco.
When you spend a year uprooted from home, all you have is yourself. All I had was me.
So the time here, I had to figure out what I wanted to do, how I would have to do it, and who I was trying to be. Studying abroad in a new country with nobody but you, you gotta figure out who you are. I still don’t really know what that means, but I’m still trying.
Maybe the lack of structure and spirit at Linnaeus meant students had to take the charge in orchestrating their own study abroad experience. “Studying abroad” almost diverged into “living abroad.”
All the worries and anxieties I had about going to class and living in Kalmar were natural to have.
But I aced that shit, man. If you can handle school in the U.S, you can kill it in Sweden. I’m killing the independent living game too. You know what I made for lunch yesterday? Spatchcock roast chicken with a lemon onion yogurt sauce. I'm a fucking adult now!
Whatever fears you have about studying abroad, in Kalmar or in some other country, those fears won’t go away. Just don’t let them cripple you from making a jump that will shift your identity for the better as a developing human being.