Too many students apply to graduate school without really understanding how it differs from undergraduate studies (even though they might think they actually have a good understanding). This lack of insight can be costly. It can foil an application to graduate school in many different ways, and it can keep deserving students from getting in, altogether. In today’s blog, I discuss some of the main differences between undergraduate and graduate school.
Many students mistakenly believe that admission to graduate school depends mainly on surpassing some minimum grade-point requirement and getting high scores on standardized entrance exams. This idea makes a lot of sense – after all, good academic achievement is one of the main qualifications for admission to an undergraduate program at most colleges or universities. The truth is, however, that getting into any graduate school depends on a lot more than just indicators of academic ability.
Admission committees and graduate supervisors (the ones making the decisions about who gets in and who doesn’t) are looking at more than just your grades and standardized test scores. They are also looking at other indicators that you will be productive and successful once in grad school. Students who don’t know what things will be like in grad school often flounder during their first months because they are unable to adjust to a completely different set of conditions for learning, performance, and evaluation than what they are used to. Admission committees want to avoid this at all cost, and will try and determine whether you really have a clear idea of what graduate school is like and what your expectations are once you are accepted.
Many college students assume that graduate students take courses that are significantly more difficult than undergraduate courses. This is not generally true. The greatest difference between undergraduate and graduate-level courses in some disciplines is in the format of the class, and the types of knowledge that one acquires. At large colleges or universities in which even senior-level undergraduate class sizes typically exceed 30 students, nearly all classes will be based on lectures and textbooks, whereas in many graduate programs the classes are small and nearly all of them are seminars.
Along with coursework and class size, another fundamental difference between undergraduate and graduate school is the research thesis. Graduate students, especially at the doctoral level are required to contribute an original piece of research that adds to the existing knowledge in a particular area of interest. The research you undertake is supervised by at least one faculty member (the same is true for master’s programs in some fields). At the undergraduate level, you may have the opportunity to participate in some research, but the scope of the project tends to be limited and does not necessarily involve making a real contribution to the existing body of knowledge, as much as it is to help introduce you to research fundamentals and basic experimental design.
The nature of interpersonal relationships
One of the major differences between undergraduate and graduate school is the nature of the interpersonal and work relationships that students have with faculty members, university staff and with student peers. In graduate school, you will likely work closely with others over the course of several years. In many cases, your overall success in grad school will depend on how good you are at working with others and being part of a team.
As a graduate student, you will be highly visible much of the time, unlike most undergraduate students who may feel more or less anonymous among the crowd, without ever having significant contact with any of their professors. In graduate school, certain professors and other graduate students might get to know you rather well, and they will develop opinions about your personality and character based on the kinds of interactions they have with you. It is difficult to blend into the background when you are a graduate student, so the social environment of graduate school favors people who are fair and reasonable, and who get along with most other people in most situations. Keep in mind that admissions committees and graduate program faculty members want to fill their graduate programs with students who fit this bill.
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