Applying to Grad School: How it Differs from Undergrad

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Kristen Seikaly
Kristen Seikaly

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If and when you apply to grad school, you may think you can take it easy… After all, you’ve already applied to a university once. In the end, how different could it be? In reality, applying to grad school differs quite a bit from the undergraduate experience.


The differences, in large part, reflect the differences between undergraduate and graduate programs themselves; and it all comes down to one word: specialization. Graduate school is all about specialization; and, as you’ll see, your application to graduate school needs to reflect your ability to intensely focus on specific goals.  

While schools understand that undergraduate  college students are still exploring their interests, graduate schools expect you to have a definitive understanding of what you want to do and how their school will help you achieve your goals. That means your entire application needs to hyper-focus around your topic of interest, and the department you’re applying to.

Time frame

Next, know that you are not expected to apply to graduate school right out of university. In fact, many students don’t. As a result, you need to raise the bar on your graduate school application for what you offer in terms of real world experience. This does not mean that your college activities don’t matter. But if you’re a younger applicant, you need to realize your application is in competition with those who have been in the work force. Similarly, if you’re an older applicant, you need to make sure that your post-college activities are in line with whatever program you’re applying for.

Different emphasis

Graduate schools focus on how independent and focused you are, no matter how old you are. Therefore, extracurricular activities, awards, and projects completed speak more to your ability in a specific field. In practical terms, this means your grades matter less than they did on your college application. This is a direct reflection on what graduate schools value in their students. Grades are held to a different standard, and success in a graduate program is determined more by the kind of research you do, the projects you complete, and the work-study opportunities you pursue.


If any or all of this seems overwhelming to you, you may want to reevaluate your reasons for applying to grad school at all. Unlike an undergraduate degree, graduate degrees are not necessary to procure more general jobs. So if you’re interested in a graduate degree, know that, above all else, it should directly reflect what you are looking for out of a career. The good news is, if you’ve found a graduate program that you’re excited about and that makes you want to put in the effort, you’re probably on the right track for a successful graduate school experience.

Questions? Let us know!