When contemplating whether to go to graduate school, it helps to know the differences between your four-year undergraduate experience and a typical graduate school experience. The actual differences vary based on your program of study and the type of degree. Doctoral degrees, for instance, usually emphasize research more than a master's degree. Despite the variance, common differences exist across programs and degrees.

Degree Composition

Undergraduate degrees typically include a blend of general education courses, program-specific courses and electives. Along with gaining technical competency, a goal of completing a four-year degree is gaining a broad foundation of knowledge in areas like math, reading, writing and science. Graduate programs don't normally have a general education requirement. Instead, you take a variety of classes under your area of study. In a master's of business administration, or MBA program, you take classes ranging from finance to international business. In some graduate programs, you can also choose an emphasis for even more specialization. An MBA with marketing emphasis would involve several marketing-specific courses.


The nature of the students you interact with is often different as well. Undergrad programs may have some older, non-traditional students, but many of your peers will consist of students who just graduated high school. Their levels of motivation and educational competency vary. Some may have high academic goals, while others lack motivation or effective study habits. In some cases, freshman are in school because parents expect it. Conversely, graduate degree students have elected to pursue higher education to achieve professional goals. Many work or have industry work experience. Some programs require work experience for graduate admission. This leads to more insightful discussions and opportunities for you to network with others in the field.

Class Format

The nature of the traditional lecture class often differs in undergraduate and graduate programs. Undergraduate classes do often class discussions and team activities. However, lectures tend to include more instructor teaching and direction. Graduate degree courses typically involve a higher degree of discussion. In fact, many grade significantly on your in-class participation as a student. This is because of the professional experience of the students. Professors more often view their role as that of facilitator.

Time Frame

One of the simpler differences between the two categories of degrees is that undergraduate programs are traditionally four years for full-time students and require around 120 class credits, whereas graduate programs usually range from one to two years of full-time study. Some undergraduate programs, such as engineering, may even take typical students five years. Graduate degrees again vary by degree and program type, but credit requirements often range from 24 to 60 credits.

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