Whether you have just earned a bachelor’s degree or been working for years in your chosen industry, enrolling in graduate school is an academic culture shock. While most people view the upper echelons of higher education as a simple continuation of their earlier studies, the reality is that graduate school requires a far greater commitment of time, money and determination. Knowing the major difference between these two programs will help you avoid the pitfalls many unprepared students stumble over.

More Rigorous Checkpoints

The GRE, the standardized entrance exam for graduate school, requires more advanced verbal and math skills and an additional analytical essay than the pre-college SAT. The criteria for admissions are also different. Digging deeper than grades and extracurricular activities, grad schools emphasize recommendations, professional experiences and application interviews. They want to ensure that you are capable of meeting deadlines under a rigorous workload and can collaborate with a team yet work independently.

Most programs require that you carry a minimum 3.0 GPA, but some institutions set higher standards. Instead of passing classes and turning in a final project to graduate from college, you must now pass comprehensive exams at various checkpoints to continue in the program. The final step in reaching doctoral candidate status is the faculty committee’s acceptance of your dissertation proposal.

A More Intimate Campus Experience

Since most grad students don’t live in campus dorms and classmates are more diverse in age, backgrounds and professional experiences, your social life will also be much different than your previous undergraduate experiences. While many universities still offer Greek programs, student government positions and other intramural activities for grad students, the demands of your studies leave little room for free time. Your social circle will largely consist of other students and faculty members in your department.

A Different Philosophy on Education

There is a vast difference in how grad school approaches education. Three courses are a full load because the requirements for each class are more intense. Rather than sitting anonymously in a lecture hall, you will attend small seminars where you are expected to participate in discussions about the thousands of pages on your required reading list. There are many opportunities for team projects, but most of your studies are self-directed and independently researched. You’ll also attend conferences, lectures and readings outside of the classroom.

As your program progresses, more time is spent on independent studies. This freedom in what and when you learn comes at a price. You must be self-motivated to seek out new information on your own, and the flexible schedule requires exceptional time-management and prioritization skills. A whole new set of study skills is also necessary since the bulk of your work consists of researching and writing in-depth analytical papers.

Delving Deeper into Your Profession

The purpose of enrolling in graduate courses is to gain a greater understanding of your field. Gone are the days of taking broad general education studies. Since you are required to declare your specialty as an entering grad student, you immediately jump into specialized courses. Cultivating professional contacts within the industry is crucial, so you will also spend time building strong relationships with your department faculty, peers and industry thought leaders. Fellowships, apprenticeships and collaborative research projects with professors boost your professional opportunities.

Constructing Knowledge

Grad students are not only required to consume knowledge but also critically analyze it, develop original opinions about it and then apply it in a way that furthers their academic discipline. You will become a master at gathering information, creating hypotheses, designing research projects and publicly presenting your ideas. The goal of your final dissertation is to introduce new knowledge into your field.

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