General Education

What’s the Difference Between Graduate School and College?

What’s the Difference Between Graduate School and College?
It's not surprising that more Americans are seeking out graduate school to gain a competitive edge in the job market. Image from Unsplash
Mairead Kelly profile
Mairead Kelly March 9, 2020

Grad school, in this economy? Yes, especially as more Americans seek it out to gain a competitive edge in the job market. Here’s how the experience differs from undergraduate life, from research intensity to average cohort age.

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Despite a recent surge in job growth and a record low in employment across the U.S., competition for even entry-level corporate roles isn’t exactly a cakewalk. On average, each corporate job offer attracts 250 resumes. Of those candidates, four to six will get called for an interview and only one will get the job.

But at highly competitive companies, the inflow of resumes isn’t exactly the norm. Tech giant Google fields two million applicants a year. In 2019, Amazon received more than 200,000 applications for 30,000 open positions across the company’s corporate offices, fulfillment centers, and stores. American management consulting firm McKinsey reportedly accrues more than one million applications annually—and hires less than 1 percent of them.

Meanwhile, as the number of students enrolled in undergraduate education continues to rise, the sentiment that bachelor’s degrees are losing value is, too. A report from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that more than one-third of Americans aged 25 or older had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2017. The findings are a sharp rise from roughly a quarter who had a college degree in 2000—and the 17 percent who did in 1980.

Given these facts, it’s not surprising that more Americans are seeking out graduate school to gain a competitive edge in the job market. To prove it, the U.S. Census Bureau notes that despite a decline of 2.2 million students in overall postsecondary school enrollment from 2011 to 2018, during the same time frame, student enrollment in graduate and professional programs in the U.S. increased 8.1 percent.

According to a 2017 survey from employment site CareerBuilder of over 2,300 hiring and human resource managers across the private sector, employers may play a role in the education bump. In it, 33 percent of employers reported hiring more workers with master's degrees in 2016 for positions that had been primarily held by those with a four-year degree, compared to 27 percent the previous year.

While you shouldn’t let industry statistics be your sole motivation for pursuing a master’s degree or a Ph.D., advancing your education can nearly guarantee a variety of factors to help you thrive in your career. At the same time, the decision to enter a graduate program isn’t one to be taken lightly.

Aspiring students take note: Grad school is anything but a continuation of college. By being aware of the contrasts, you’ll lessen the chances of being blindsided by the time, commitment, and energy that master’s programs are known to demand—and boost your chances of success in the long run.

Applicant evaluation

Most prospective college students are required to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or the American College Testing (ACT). For a given student, these test scores are typically submitted to their chosen schools along with their high school transcript, a school-specific application, and an essay on a topic that’s relevant to their academic goals as well as their personal profile. Some schools may also require letters of recommendation.

Those pursuing graduate programs will need a bachelor’s degree and, in most cases, an undergraduate transcript highlighting a grade point average (GPA) that’s in-line with their program of choice. They may also need to submit their Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores along with letters of recommendation, and participate in admissions interviews.

Somewhat similar, right? Not exactly, especially when considering how competitive graduate school applicant pools can be. Part of this is because while there are a lot fewer people applying to graduate school than college, there are also a lot fewer graduate programs than bachelor’s programs.

Additionally, although graduate admissions committees are just as concerned about building “the right kind of class" as undergraduate admissions officers are, they must scrutinize applicants far more seriously to make sure they’re sufficiently ready for what’s typically anywhere from two to seven years of graduate-level work.

Academic focus

The college curriculum provides students with a broad educational perspective with general education courses in a wide variety of subjects. While these courses and their mandated credit hours vary between schools, they tend to include:

  • English
  • Math
  • Natural science
  • Social science
  • Arts and humanities
  • Culture

At most undergraduate institutions, general education courses that fall within a student's major can be used to satisfy demands for both general education and the subject they’re completing a degree in. Students typically declare their major is at the end of sophomore year and allocate between a third and half of their courses towards completing it.

In short, the undergraduate curriculum helps students hone their vocabulary and writing skills, learn to think critically, and explore a range of cultural perspectives. No matter the school, it ultimately stands an opportunity for them to grow personally and intellectually while laying the groundwork for their future careers.

On the other hand, since graduate students are typically required to declare their specialization before enrolling in a program, they tend to start grad school laser-focused on courses to provide specific career-building outcomes and skillsetsd. Additionally, students may also spend a portion of their program performing research within a particular aspect of their field and completing independent reading and study.

Ultimately, the graduate school curriculum requires students not only to think critically about their discipline but to become experts in it, and apply their skills in ways that contribute to their academic community and introduces new knowledge to their field.


A rule of thumb holds that college students should devote two hours of study time per week for every hour of class time. Students following this standard with a full-time course load of, say, fifteen credit hours should spend thirty hours per week studying. Basic time management, right?

Not exactly. Back in 2014, USA Today reported findings from a survey conducted by the National Survey of Student Engagement. The firm found that the average college student spends about 17 hours each week preparing for classes, which includes homework, reading, and other assignments.

Another survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that the average full-time undergraduate student spends just 3.3 hours a week on educational activities.

With these findings in mind, students who made it through college giving just a fraction of their time to coursework are in for a shock in a master’s or Ph.D. program, where school is treated as a full-time job. While little research has been done to highlight how much time graduate students put towards their coursework and preparing for courses, their programs require them to take initiative for their learning, which includes extensive reading material and in-depth discussions surrounding it.

Classmate age range

According to a report from The Hamilton Project, the majority of students at both four-year and two-year nonprofit institutions in 2015 were between the ages of 18 and 24.

In contrast, graduate cohorts tend to encompass a wider age range—and may be getting older. Data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey states that the average graduate student is 33 years old while 20 percent of graduate students are over the age of 40.

As a graduate student, you may find that some of your classmates just recently completed a bachelor’s degree while others are years or even decades into a career. A few might have spouses and kids or be close in age to your professors.

Given the range of experience your classmates will likely have, they may be able to help you gain perspective on your career goals by introducing you to members of their professional network or offering input based on their time in the field.


In a traditional college setting, a great deal of importance is commonly placed on campus life and engaging students to get involved with student groups, sports, and other activities. Academic advisors are also there to provide intensive support to students as they explore their academic interests, identify resources for additional information and support, and develop plans of study that are appropriate for their educational goals.

Because most students either commute to their school or complete their graduate coursework online, they tend to have fewer occasions for social interaction outside of class, making for less involvement with campus life overall. However, it’s common for professors and students within a department to get to know one another well, and develop a sense of each others’ values, skills, and character.

Graduate courses and research are also more self-directed. While many undergraduate professors provide constant deadlines for big projects, some graduate professors may set a single deadline for a paper—which could very easily be the only official assignment they give in a single semester. And while resources are readily available in areas like academic advising it’s generally up to students to ask about or seek them out.

Student loan debt

The average college tuition cost at public and private institutions may be increasing at a steady pace each year, but it may be graduate schools that need more time in the student loan spotlight.

According to a 2020 report form American research group Brookings, the 25 percent of student borrowers who went to graduate school make up half of America’s $1.5 trillion worth of outstanding student loan debt. The 75 percent of student loan borrowers who took out loans to go to two- or four-year colleges account for the other half of outstanding student loan debt.

Financing a graduate education is also a hurdle due to the amount students pay after discounts and financial aid, which the Urban Institute expects is growing steeper. In 2018, the research firm reported that the average net price of postsecondary degrees has increased nearly twice as fast for graduate students as their undergraduate peers between 2006 and 2016.

In addition to grad school’s academic demands, it’s expected for aspiring grad students to be concerned about the cost of their education and the debt they may accumulate to pay for it. In this case, it’s crucial that you consider employment and salary prospects after grad school, and whether the cost of attending grad school will benefit you enough professionally to recoup the costs in the long run.

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