Comparing Graduate and Undergraduate Schools

Contributing Writer, Carnegie Communications

Depending on your field of study, you may already know that graduate school is the best course of action for you. Or perhaps you’re just at the early stages of considering whether you need or want to continue your studies after finishing up your undergraduate degree. Either way, before you commit yourself to another two years of school—or longer—you’ll want to start with an awareness of how graduate school differs from your undergraduate years, along with what may be similar. 


To begin with, you’ll find the application process to be familiar territory. There are tests, application forms, and the essay. Rather than the SATs or ACTs, the general test for graduate school is the GRE, administered by the Educational Testing Service. For the GRE, Alexa Avila, founder of educational services company Prepped & Polished, notes that you’ll be expected to know more difficult vocabulary, to know more math, and to handle a harder passage in the critical reading section. He advises that you take at least two practice tests before scheduling the exam, which is available to take year-round. And with this test, you sign up for dates and locations on a first-come, first-served basis, according to If you take the computer-based version of the exam, you will know your score before leaving the test site, and your test score will be valid for five years. Note that not every student will be taking the GRE; however, if you’re interested in law school or a program in business or management, you’ll want to look into taking the LSAT and GMAT, respectively.

Just as the entrance examination depends on your chosen subject, you’ll find that everything from admission to financial aid to extracurriculars will hinge somehow on your field of study. As noted by Deena Maerowitz, a former Associate Director of Admissions at Columbia Business School who has worked in college and graduate admission for the last 15 years, most graduate schools will “be looking for your involvement in your interests” and for you to “show that you're engaged outside of class.” And should you think that your undergraduate record will speak for itself, Maerowitz points out that “very competitive programs will really stress the visit and absolutely require interviews.” In other words, make sure the school knows who you are before you apply—you do not want to get lost in the crowd at this level. Maerowitz also says that some graduate programs really emphasize the essay, which she realized via her position at Columbia was vital to “expressing yourself” at this advanced level.

Clearly you want to be a good match with prospective schools, so keep in mind that some aspects that you prioritized as an undergrad applicant may no longer be relevant, especially if you entered your freshman year with an undecided major. In graduate school, everything from classes to study groups to outside activities will center on your major. Graduate school is not the place to explore whether you are in the right field.

Paying for grad school

Even if you’re already planning to attend grad school, a key consideration will be cost and how to pay. As with undergrad school, yes, you’ll be filling out the FAFSA! Loans also remain an option to qualifying students, are available to help cover not just tuition but also living expenses for full-time students. But you may already have accrued sizable loans and have concerns about adding to your debt load. Look into potential schools’ scholarship and additional options such as fellowships and research or teaching assistantships available to full-time students. These will vary based on your field of study, and where you attend school. At Syracuse University, for example, the graduate school section of the website says that “the vast majority of funding for graduate study is determined at the departmental level.” So you may have to work not only with the financial aid office but also professors in your discipline to develop an aid package. You’ll also want to search out scholarship opportunities that may exist outside what your school offers. For example, check out the scholarship search on CollegeXpress, where you can select the level of school you’ll be attending and narrow results by academic field. But the reality is that you may want or need to work for a while to put aside money to attend graduate school, and even then your best option may be to attend as a part-time student, so you can continue to earn income.


Once you’ve been accepted, how will your academic life change? Well, it will be significantly different from your freshman and sophomore years, when you took classes in a variety of disciplines to fulfill your core-course obligations. Even during your senior year, perhaps you took or are taking electives outside your major. In grad school, all course work will center on your major. You’ll also find that most of your classes will be held seminar style, with much class time involving discussions you will be expected to prepare for and contribute to. Angela Cipriano, Supervisor at a division of the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, recalls that in graduate school at Boston College, the professors seemed to be more on “the same level as the students,” facilitating and participating in discussions rather than lecturing. Angela takes that approach herself as an adjunct instructor in Wheelock College’s social work department, where she has both undergrad and grad students. Of the latter, she says she “expects them to have a deeper understanding of the material being covered” and how it would be applied to real-life situations.

As noted in the article “Are you ready for the lifestyle changes?” on, you’ll also find that much of the intensive research, writing, and studying you do will give you less free time than you had in your undergraduate years, even though you will likely be taking fewer courses at a time. Take into consideration how this will affect your time for relationships, socializing, full- or part-time work, and household chores. You’ll find that you and your fellow students will be in different stages of life, some of which will make negotiating grad school more challenging than others. This is one reason why you’re likely to find yourself attending school with many more part-time students than you did as an undergraduate.

But this variety in student age and experience will serve you well in graduate school, regardless of your own age. Fellow classmates may be continuing directly from undergrad studies or returning to graduate school after working for several or many years. According to the December 12, 2010, Chronicle of Higher Education, 24–29-year-olds accounted for 17.3% of undergrad students, whereas the National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Spring 2012 data showed that 25–29-year-olds comprised 31% of graduate students. Statistics for the same year also showed that students ages 30–39 accounted for 26% of the graduate student body and ages 40–49 made up 13% of the graduate student body. 

This means that some of your classmates will be bringing real-life experience to your class discussions, which can provide valuable insight to students who continued directly from undergrad to graduate school. For example, Kate Sullivan, who is taking master’s-level classes at Suffolk University in Boston 11 years after receiving her undergraduate degree, has found that her perspective has been helpful to younger students. Their idealized vision of what they wanted do after graduation did not match the reality of their field’s required overtime hours to work their way through the ranks and to accommodate clients. Kate, who works full time and is married with a young daughter, also says that because she’s been working for more than a decade, she can readily see that she’s learning real-life skills in the classroom that she can apply to her job.


You may be wondering about living accommodations, if you were planning on attending school full time and far from your current situation. Although some schools will provide housing for graduate students, it’s more likely that you will be living in off-campus housing that you locate yourself. Even if you will be attending school full time, you’re likely to be in a traditional apartment setting among nonstudents, with the responsibilities that go along with paying rent monthly: arranging and paying for utilities and finding the time for such tasks as grocery shopping, food preparation, cleaning, and laundry. Schools may offer graduate students some helpful options, such as Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, which has University-owned, off-campus rental houses and apartments that can accommodate graduate students. Gonzaga is also among the schools that provide information on their websites about local apartments for rent that can help graduate students find local housing. But be prepared to take on this search on your own.


Not yet sure about what to do? Keep in mind that Senior Editor Megan Gibbs of Carnegie Communications feels she made the right decision by waiting before returning to school at Emerson College’s Master of Arts in Integrated Marketing Communication. She says, “I came to the conclusion I wanted to go to grad school based on my work experience,” which gave her more direction in choosing an area for further education. You want to feel confident about the field for which you’ll be pursuing a degree, so there’s nothing wrong with taking time to figure it out. If you need help determinigng how important a graduate degree is in your field, check out the CollegeXpress article “Professions that Require a Master's Degree.”

Be prepared for the lifestyle changes and financial implications associated with grad school by getting as much information from grad schools and admission officers as possible. Armed with the right information and—importantly—expectations, you’ll be able to determine whether grad school will be a worthwhile stepping stone in your career path.

Note: Did you know you could win a $10,000 scholarship for college or grad school just by registering on CollegeXpress? This is one of the quickest, easiest scholarships you’ll ever apply for. Register Now »