How Is Grad School Different From College?

Blue mortarboard and yellow tassel shot on blue graduation gown, space for copy

For most, it’s gearing up towards a career in their chosen professions. For some, it’s a quick change from their togas and immediately signing up for graduate school. These educational levels may seem like two peas in a pod or a few (long and seemingly arduous) steps in the right direction. But how different can they be, aside from the fact that you need to pass through the first one to get to the next?

For more information, see 100 Best Grad Schools In The U.S.

Explore this article using these page-jumps:

A Closer Look at the Higher Education System in the US
Undergraduate Studies: Where the Magic Begins
Graduate and Professional Studies: Purified by Fire
The Main Differences: Undergrad vs. Grad School
Undergrad and Grad School by the Numbers: Stats, News, Figures
Final Notes

A Closer Look at the Higher Education System in the US

To get a gist of the whole undergrad versus grad school comparison, we may need to start with understanding the higher education system in the US.

Following primary and secondary education, higher education (also referred to as post-secondary or tertiary education) is a non-compulsory part of the formal training framework in the country.

According to the US Department of State’s EducationUSA website, there are multiple ways to enter the higher education system, including:

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  • Private colleges and universities that take funding from paying students, research grants, and alumni donations,
  • State colleges and public universities established and financed by the US government,
  • Liberal arts colleges, who specialize in the humanities, arts and social sciences and are primarily funded by private entities or endowments,
  • Community colleges that offer two-year (associate) programs as a stepping stone for undergraduate education, or as a means to gain occupational knowledge and skills for immediate employment.

The World Education News + Reviews points out that the usual school year starts in mid-August to mid-September or mid-May to mid-June, depending on the institution. Of course, this may vary greatly depending on the type of programs you enroll in (in-person or online), as well as the application guidelines per school (rolling or regular).

According to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), higher education institutions usually roll out their programs in a distinct way, following different models to organize course programs according to different terms and durations.

  • Standard terms, which are considered as the traditional way of sequencing academic years, including the Semester, Trimester, and Quarter systems.
  • Non-standard terms, which follow a calendar that doesn’t adhere to general academic terms. These programs may or may not overlap with regular academic schedules. They usually apply to students who are juggling school and other vital responsibilities (such as work and raising a family).
  • Non-term options, including clock- and credit-hour modalities. These programs are usually seen in self-paced or independent learning programs, measuring progress through the total number of credit hours incurred.

Standard terms are more imminent in various brick-and-mortar undergrad programs, although masters and doctoral programs can roll out admissions under these schedules.

Undergraduate Studies: Where the Magic Begins

Ah, the bustling halls and sound of bells ringing – our college years may be one of the most memorable parts of our lives. It is a time of self-discovery, independence, and figuring out what we want to do with our lives. It’s where the magic happens for most of us, with graduates pursuing the career of their dreams after four (or more) years of effort and waiting.

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After high school, the undergraduate years begin. The goal during this stage is to earn the highly-coveted baccalaureate degree, which typically takes (more or less) four years to complete. In this case, candidates in undergrad are regarded as entry-level university students who are still getting started in their chosen fields. Additionally, individuals can choose to practice in a profession that may require a shorter academic track (associate degree) that takes around two years of theory and practice modules to complete.

Depending on your chosen field or profession, you may choose to pursue a pathway in the following programs:

  • Associate Degrees in the following areas:
    • Associate of Arts (AA)
    • Associate of Science (A.S.)
    • Associate degrees that are specific to a particular field (i.e., Associate of Engineering)
  • Bachelor’s Degree in the following areas:
    • Bachelor of Arts (B.A.)
    • Bachelor of Science (BS)
    • Bachelor degrees that are specific to a particular field [i.e., Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.); Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.); Bachelor of Business Administration (B.B.A.)]

Graduate and Professional Studies: Purified by Fire

As the adage says: Precious metals are subjected to extreme heat and pressure –  reduced of their impurities – to bring out their best qualities.

Entering the world of graduate and professional studies (after a long-enough journey in college) may seem like pure torture at first. Still, you can think of grad school as the furnace that’s supposed to refine your knowledge and skills to help you become the best at what you do.

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Being a student in graduate school (or postgraduate education) would require students (usually professionals who are already working in their chosen field of study) to work for an advanced academic degree that would cement their valuable knowledge and expertise. Of course, the prerequisite for every graduate and professional program would be a previous undergraduate degree, which is usually related to the master’s or doctorate pathway one chooses.

It is important to note that there are slight distinctions between graduate school and professional school programs. However, they may give the same academic and professional weight in the real world:

  • Graduate school programs are usually one step above baccalaureate programs, offering expansive and more specific areas of study in a particular discipline. As a result, earning your Master’s degree is the step before reaching your doctorate.
  • Professional school programs are more career-specific pathways that train students in specialized fields or certain professions (i.e., medicine, nursing, pharmacy, law, and engineering). These programs are one of the main requirements before students can practice their professions.
  • Terminal degree programs are the highest academic degrees that one can earn in any field of study. Depending on the field, one may earn a Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy) distinction and earn the highest level of education in that respect. Additionally, some fields have a Master’s degree as the highest possible level of education, such as fine arts and landscape architecture.

Depending on your line of work or study, you may want to pursue one out of the different types of master’s and doctoral programs available:

  • Master’s Degree Programs
    • Master of Arts (MA)
    • Master of Science (MS or MSc)
    • Master of Research (MRes) or Master by Research (MPhil)
    • Master of Studies (MSt)
    • Specialized and professional Master’s degrees [i.e., Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.); Master of Public Administration (M.P.A.)]
  • Doctorate Degree Programs
    • Research doctorates [i.e., Doctor of Arts (DA); Doctor of Business Administration (D.B.A.); Doctor of Science (D.Sc.)]
    • Professional doctorates [i.e., Doctor of Dentistry (DDS or DMD); Doctor of Health Administration (D.H.A.); Doctor of Management (D.M.); as well as Law (JD or Juris Doctor) and Medicine (MD)]

The Main Differences: Undergrad vs. Grad School

According to Diffen and the US News & World Report, here are some of the main differences between undergraduate programs and graduate and professional programs in the US.

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Additionally, there are other factors that we should look into, such as:

  • Degree of specialization: Undergraduate programs may have specific fields of study, but they are more broad and general in scope compared to graduate programs. Simply put, baccalaureate degrees help students understand the profession’s “umbrella concepts” or the foundation courses that would guide students in their future careers. On the other hand, graduate programs are geared towards specialization, allowing students to focus on more minute parts of the profession.
  • Academic workload: Graduate school students may have a relatively lighter workload of 3-4 courses per semester, but these subjects may have a higher weight when it comes to computing your grade. Additionally, grad school students usually juggle their professional and academic pursuits, making time management, and focus imperative. Undergraduate students, on the other hand, can take on a full load with various coursework requirements, and additionally, extra-curricular, which also eat up a lot of your time. Still, there are ways to earn extra credit minus the fuss.
  • Flexibility: As we’ve mentioned, pursuing your undergrad studies can open multiple doors for you, with most degree programs aimed at teaching students various fields of study, and preparing them to step up to a changing market. On the other hand, graduate school studies are more program-specific and more aligned with a particular part of the field. Additionally, the academe would expect you to pursue (or be presently connected to) projects or intensive work under the specialization you’re studying.
  • Professional and related experience: We’ve discussed that most graduate school students may be currently employed while pursuing their masters or doctoral degrees. A lot of graduate programs value professional and related experience when it comes to admissions and screening, so getting to work may pay-off, especially if the work you’re doing is connected to the specialization. On the other hand, internships in high school may be rare opportunities, so not everyone is expected to have related experiences to their degree program (although this may look good on your college application).
  • Mode of delivery: Today, students have more choices concerning how they pursue their degrees. Both undergraduate and graduate programs now have in-person and distance learning options, helping more students reach their professional and academic goals and eliminating barriers that may be brought about by location and the demands of life. Additionally, students may choose to enroll in hybrid programs that combine both options, making it more convenient for students to pursue their degrees.

Undergrad and Grad School by the Numbers: Stats, News, Figures

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To take it a step further, let’s look at some of the latest numbers and relevant tidbits regarding the face of higher education in the country:

  • According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) Digest of Education Statistics, the U.S. has around 4,300 post-secondary, degree-granting institutions as of the school year 2017-2018.
  • According to EducationUSA, around 1,000 universities in the U.S. offer graduate programs.
  • The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center came up with actual estimates regarding fall 2019 enrollment rates, citing a 1.3% decrease (more than 230,000 students) from the previous year, falling below 18 million students in total.
  • According to Forbes, this decrease in enrollment rates may be indicative of a couple of issues surrounding post-secondary education. Problems related to student debt, changing opinions about the importance of having a degree, and issues related to the admissions process can affect enrollment trends.
  • Even with the issues surrounding the costs and politics behind post-secondary education, a 2018 article by the Chicago Tribune explains the value of earning a college degree in this day and age. It emphasizes that a diploma is still the surest way to safeguard one’s earning potential and the best way to suit-up for an unpredictable future.
  • An Inside Higher Ed article says the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) reported an increase in international applicants and enrollees by 4% in fall 2019. This statistic demonstrates an interest in the global market and validating the quality of graduate and professional education in the U.S. Still, because of travel restrictions set in place due to COVID-19, we may see significant drops in overall enrollment this year.
  • Furthermore, the CGS explains the possible reasons for the increase of graduate and professional school enrollment rates, citing relevance, and the alignment of masters and doctoral programs with the current labor market.
  • The NCES also rolled out a list of the most popular degree programs among post-secondary students. Out of almost 2 million degrees conferred in the academic year 2016-2017, these degree programs emerged at the top five:
  • Business programs (around 370,000 graduates)
    • Health professions and related programs (around 240,000 graduates)
    • Social sciences and history programs (around 160,000 graduates)
    • Psychology program (around 117,000 graduates)
    • Biological and biomedical sciences (around 117,000 graduates)
  • Additionally, the NCES reported that out of the 820,000 master’s degrees awarded in the academic year 2018-2019, there were three main areas of study that emerged on top:
    • Business graduate programs (around 192,000 degrees)
    • Education graduate programs (around 146,000 degrees)
    • Health professions and related graduate programs (around 125,000 degrees)
  • Diverse: Issues in Higher Education says the CGS released an annual report on enrollment rates among grad school students. From fall 2017 to 2018, the number of first-time enrollees in mathematics and computer sciences rose by 11%. Enrollment in the health sciences increased by 6%. Additionally, graduate study programs in business and education had the highest enrollment rates, among other academic pathways.
  • The NCES also released new data (fall 2018) that is relevant to modern education, hinting at the emergence of distance learning modalities even before the peak of COVID-19. During this period, almost 7 million students were enrolled in distance education courses. Out of these numbers, around 5.7 million students came from the undergraduate level, while at least 1.2 million students were enrolled in post-baccalaureate programs.
  • In more recent news, the Washington Post released a report in April 2020, citing the uncertainty and doubt following the effect of COVID-19 on the academic calendars of different colleges and universities. After a sudden halt on classes in March, different institutions are trying to wrap their head around the situation, planning for better days. Some schools are even opting to open remotely as a start.

Final Notes

Undergraduate Education

Conceptual keyword college in wooden tile letters  in personal home desk setting with laptop, notebook and accessories

An article by The Balanced Careers shares a few tips that can help students choose the right college major. Here are a few:

  • Get clear about your career objectives, as well as your interests. Of course, there may be prerequisite coursework essential to your target profession, but hopefully, there are parts that keep your interest growing, so you don’t feel burnout.
  • Try to look at the practical side of things. You may have interests in the arts and humanities, but there are aspects of the profession that may have more career opportunities for you. Research the profitability of one or more careers that you’re interested in, as this may influence your career significantly.
  • If you feel overwhelmed with all the possibilities, you can talk to your school’s guidance counselor, career advisor, or your parents, who can give you useful insights about different career opportunities that are in line with your strengths and capabilities.
  • If you’re still looking around for great career options, you can use reliable internet resources, such as the US Bureau of Labor Statistics website. BLS provides comprehensive information about professions (such as median annual salary, educational requirements, and similar careers). You can also look at different job search sites, such as Glassdoor and Payscale, for more information about income and job descriptions.

Graduate and Professional Education


According to UC Berkeley’s Career Center and EducationUSA portal, there are a few things you must consider before enrolling at a university or college that offers the graduate program you want:

  • To get the most out of the search, you must learn to relax and clear your mind. Personal reflection and discernment is a necessary step when it comes to considering all of the facts, and ultimately, making a sound decision.
  • Reality check: you shouldn’t rush to make a decision. Even though one school offers a specific program that could feel like ‘the one,’ it’s important to consult other sources and find alternatives to your first choice. You can try Googling different programs and other possible pathways, exhausting every possible choice and leaving no stone unturned. Additionally, it pays to get in touch with your prospective schools, either by phone or email, just to get a feel of it all and collect all the facts.
  • Most colleges and universities have a Career Day or similar programs that showcase different undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Talk to their representatives and try to figure out how these institutions can help you meet your career goals.
  • If you know students who are currently enrolled at specific graduate degree programs that you’re eyeing for, ask for insider information! Their experiences can help you evaluate your prospects effectively.
  • Try to polish your application to a tee – it’s essential to work on it as these documents can make or break your chance of getting into the program of your choice. Reading it over and over again would also help you focus, giving you a sense of direction when choosing the right program for you.

100 Free Online Resources For Graduate Students

Dr. Jared Goff
Chief Editor