Transitioning from Undergrad to Grad School

Understand the differences between undergrad and grad school requirements

You may have grown accustomed to the undergraduate student lifestyle - a planned-out class schedule, dining hall meals and dorm life - but are you prepared to leave those things behind when you enter grad school? Many students go into graduate programs assuming things will stay the same after the transition, but that's rarely the case. And while the grad school lifestyle is typically different from undergrad, that doesn't mean it's worse. Many of the changes that happen are positive, and introduce students to new experiences and increased freedom in their personal and academic lives.

Keep in mind, not everyone transitions directly from undergrad to grad school. You may decide to enter the workforce after completing your bachelor's degree, then return to school during a later phase of your life. Wherever your educational journey takes you, here's a brief guide to undergrad and grad school differences, and what to expect during your advanced degree program.

Student body

While most of the students in your undergraduate program were likely around the same age, graduate programs attract a much wider age range. Some may be pursuing an advanced degree after several years of professional experience, which can add a practical element to classroom discussions. The age and experience of your peers also creates a valuable networking environment, which can provide insight into your career outlook.

Entrance requirements

Graduate schools tend to be much more selective than undergraduate programs. Depending on your field, you may have to submit scores from a standardized test like the GMAT, MCAT, LSAT or GRE as part of your application. You'll also find that your graduate program options are heavily influenced by your undergraduate degree. If you have a specific graduate program in mind, make sure your bachelor's degree program includes all of the prerequisite classes. If there are any gaps in your course work, add them to your class schedule or take a few of the outstanding classes over the summer.

Program structure

Many graduate programs tend to be more academically rigorous than undergraduate. This is because the study of specialized fields usually requires a mastery of advanced concepts. For example, an undergraduate anatomy class may require you to memorize the major muscles of the body, while graduate-level anatomy covers the names of all of the muscles, as well as the arteries, veins and nerves that service each one. To be successful in this new environment, be prepared to work harder than you did in undergrad. Utilize study sessions, professors' open-office hours, tutors, practice tests and anything else that will help you learn the material.

Graduate programs tend to focus on a few large-scale tests, research projects or papers, rather than the numerous smaller assignments you may have completed as an undergrad. The structure of your program will depend on the type of degree you're pursuing. Students pursuing a PhD in a specific academic field of study, such as art history or literature, are often given much more autonomy in guiding their own studies. On the other hand, grad programs that prepare students for professional careers, such as law school, medical school and MBA programs, are much more regimented. The high performance requirements of these professional masters and doctoral programs are designed to cultivate the discipline and expertise that will be essential to achieving success in your future career.

Tuition and financial aid

Funding your graduate degree will be similar to the process you went through in undergrad. You'll still apply for federal loans with the FAFSA, and private graduate student loans are available as well. If you're concerned about repaying your loans after finishing your bachelor's degree, remember that your undergraduate loans are likely eligible for deferment once you enroll in a graduate program full-time. Student loan consolidation and refinance products may also be available if you have met certain eligibility guidelines, which usually involve showing some history of making on-time payments. Plus, if you've been making payments toward your existing loans, your credit may have improved and you may be able to obtain better interest rates. Apply online or speak to a Student Loan Specialist for more information on using private student loans for grad school.

Similarities between undergrad and graduate programs

Not everything changes when you transition from undergrad to graduate school. You'll probably fall into a social circle, and together you'll study in the library, work on papers at the local coffee shop or go out to eat on weekends. You'll also still have campus resources at your disposal and be constantly surrounded by people whose academic interests align with yours. Keep in mind that every graduate program is different, and your experience will depend heavily on the degree you're pursuing, your area of study and your approach to the graduate school lifestyle.

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