Undergraduate vs. graduate degree – that’s the difference

June 08, 2022  •  Reading Time: 7 min.

Pursuing higher education can prepare you for the career of your dreams. Hence, choosing a degree program is a really important decision that should not be taken lightly.

There are several degree options that are important to understand before committing to a program. Undergraduate degrees offer broader knowledge, while graduate degrees deepen the knowledge gained in undergraduate programs.

In this article we will take a closer look at the two degrees and tell you the most important differences between undergraduate and graduate studies. Additionally, we will give you some tips on how to decide which program and degree suits you best.

Undergraduate vs. graduate: What does it mean?

The words “undergraduate” and “graduate” both refer to different degrees or levels of education. Although each of them aims to educate you and push your academic knowledge further, there are some significant differences between undergraduate and graduate degrees.

What does undergraduate mean?

The word “undergraduate” can be used as both a noun and an adjective. Used as a noun, it refers to a student in university or college who is pursuing a first (mainly a bachelor’s) degree.

Similarly, in the same thematic context, undergraduate is also frequently used as an adjective, for example, in the terms “undergraduate student”, “undergraduate program”, “undergraduate degree”, and “undergraduate studies”.

What does graduate mean?

As a verb or noun, “graduate” has a very general meaning. The term commonly refers to receiving a degree or diploma after completing a course of study. As a verb, it describes the action; as a noun, it refers to the person who performs the action, that is, receiving the degree. So a “graduate” is someone who has reached a certain level of schooling or completed an educational program – whether that’s graduating from kindergarten or law school.

If “graduate” is used as an adjective, the meaning is somewhat more specific. Then it means that a student, degree or educational program is more advanced and aimed at a degree above bachelor’s level. It is used, for example, in words like “graduate degree”, “graduate studies”, “graduate program”, and “graduate student”.

Female undergraduate student wearing a regalia and holding her degree

What are undergraduate studies and degrees?

Undergraduate programs or degrees are usually part of the first years of college life and are geared toward an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree. Undergraduate degrees are the first level of higher education (after the high school diploma) at a college or university. Most undergraduate students work toward a bachelor’s degree; the associate’s degree is less common.

Associate degrees are typically offered at community colleges or technical schools, whereas bachelor’s degrees are available in the form of a specific program (with a concrete major) at four-year colleges and universities.

Undergraduate degrees are very useful for obtaining an entry-level position in the workforce or may be required for pursuing a higher level of education, such as a graduate degree.

💡 Extra tip: If you’d like to know more about the jobs that are available with a bachelor’s degree, check out our article, “The Top 10 Highest Paid Bachelor Degree Jobs.

What are graduate studies and degrees?

A graduate degree typically refers to degrees earned beyond a bachelor’s by completing a graduate degree program. The most common graduate degree is the master’s degree, but graduate degrees also include a doctoral degree or a professional degree.

Graduate studies usually focus on particular subjects or research projects and are more career-specific than undergraduate classes. Graduate students with a master’s degree can enter the workforce at an advanced level and make more money than undergraduate students.

A doctoral degree goes one step further: those who earn a doctoral degree are proven experts in their field and are likely to become either professors or researchers in that field. Professional degrees are a special form of doctoral degrees; they are required for certain professions such as law or medicine.

6 important differences between undergraduate and graduate programs

You now know what kind of degrees are hidden behind the little words “graduate” and “undergraduate”. But what’s the real difference between undergraduate and graduate school? Let’s take a closer look at that!

First and foremost, the possible outcomes are very different, the level of difficulty and commitment varies, and the students’ reasons for pursuing a degree vary widely.

We have compiled the six most important differences between graduate and undergraduate studies for you below.

Male college student reading a book in the library

#1 Undergraduate programs are general, graduate classes are specific

Throughout an undergraduate program, you typically take several foundational and general education classes together with students of all majors. In graduate programs, the course structure is much more specific and the classes are highly related to your chosen field of study. Often, you will take a predefined set of graduate coursework aimed at the career you want to pursue.

In addition, graduate level courses support individualized learning and empower you to organize yourself and develop self-awareness and confidence.

#2 Undergraduate programs are more flexible

Course content and structure are very different between undergraduate and graduate programs. In graduate courses, the coursework will be more specific and challenging.

Undergraduate education, on the other hand, is more general and there is more flexibility in combining courses. Undergraduate students typically take 5 to 6 courses per semester, while graduate students take only about 3 advanced courses, which require much more reading and research and are worth more credits.

#3 The entrance requirements are different

Undergraduate programs require significantly different skills than graduate programs. The admissions process for undergraduate programs is relatively simple. Typically, you only need to submit your high school transcripts, SAT or ACT scores, and a letter of recommendation.

Graduate programs are much more difficult to access. To get into a master’s program, you may have to show your bachelor’s degree, GRE standardized test scores, writing samples, and research proposals.

Three graduated friends walking on campus on graduation day

#4 The coursework is more targeted in graduate classes

Undergraduate courses tend to consist of reading and structured work such as essays, reports, or research projects. Graduate courses focus more on experiences in the field, personal narratives, and class discussions.

Students in undergraduate programs also need to take general education subjects, e.g. courses in English, History, Science, and Math in addition to their major. When they study for a graduate degree, the coursework is more advanced and specialized.

#5 The professor-student relationship is different

Undergraduate classes may have over 200 students sitting in them; graduate courses are much more intimate. Accordingly, professors can pay more attention to students, for example in collaborative research projects.

Graduate students can take advantage of this closer supervision to learn as much as possible from their professors and, toward the end of their studies, establish contacts.

#6 Graduate programs focus on research

It’s all about research projects in graduate school. While there are research opportunities in undergraduate school as well, they are more likely to be side projects or extracurricular activities. In graduate school, you have more opportunities to research something of importance to you.

How to choose the right graduate school and program – 3 useful tips

Finding the right degree program and school can be difficult. We have three essential tips for you that can help you make the right choice:

1️⃣ Start by identifying your personal interests and needs. Try to envision your ideal career – and then figure out what it will take to get there. For starters, it might help to read our earlier article explaining how to find a job that really suits you.

2️⃣ Gather as much information as you can about different majors and look at the requirements, curriculum, etc. of each program that sounds interesting to you. Talk to various admissions offices or, if possible, actual students in the program to get additional information.

3️⃣ Use virtual or on-site events on campus, such as information sessions and open houses, to have conversations and tour the campus. This may help you visualize what it would be like to study there.

Male college student sitting on campus throwing papers in the air

Undergraduate vs. graduate – FAQ

Undergraduate vs. graduate – FAQ

The words “undergraduate” and “graduate” both refer to different degrees or levels of education. They are not the same thing, but rather build on each other.

Is a bachelor’s degree graduate or undergraduate?

A bachelor’s degree is the most common undergraduate degree.

Is undergraduate better than graduate?

A graduate degree is more specialized than an undergraduate degree. Typically, an undergraduate degree is needed to enter a graduate program.