Undergraduate vs Graduate: What Is the Difference?

Confused about undergraduate vs graduate? This guide may be able to help. Here, we define undergrad and grad, then discuss each of their differences!

TCM Staff

20th September 2022

In the United States and in many countries worldwide, you might hear people mentioning the terms graduate and undergraduate in reference to college programs and levels of education. Yet, there are many who find themselves confused as to what these two terms actually mean.

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Undergraduate and graduate studies result in the same thing once completed: a college degree. However, the main differences between the two lie in their nature, level, and the type of degree you can achieve in the end.

Undergraduate programs award associate’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees, while graduate programs offer master’s and doctoral degrees. But what else is the difference between undergraduate and graduate?

In this article, we explore undergraduate vs graduate and go through each of their difference to help you better understand. We’ll compare undergrad vs grad meaning and answer the question, “what is an undergraduate degree vs a graduate degree?”

What is an Undergraduate Degree?

Put simply, an undergraduate degree is the type of degree you earn straight out of high school (or earning your GED). There are two types: associate and bachelor.

Undergraduate degrees provide you with some additional general education, but typically go further than that and give you specialized training to help you go into a career you want. While earning an undergraduate degree, you’ll pick up some technical, vocational, practical, and theoretical skills and knowledge that can help you go into your field of interest.

Note that you can earn your undergraduate degrees completely online if you wish. However, you can also opt to go the on-campus route if that’s what you prefer.

Before we get into undergrad vs grad, let’s first look at the two types of undergraduate degrees.

Associate Degree

When you’re looking for the difference between graduate and undergraduate degrees, the dissimilarity is easiest to spot when considering the associate degree.

Associate’s degrees are the first rung on the ladder of higher education. There is a misconception that associate’s degrees are simply vocational certifications, but that’s not the entire truth. Although associate’s degrees will also prepare you with the necessary skills and knowledge to start a career, they tend to build more transferable and versatile skills than vocational programs.

Earning an associate degree typically takes two years. It’s much less in-depth than a four-year bachelor’s degree but can offer you enough knowledge to begin a career.

Most associate degrees require you to earn 60 credits to graduate. If you one day choose to continue your education, you can move on to a bachelor’s degree. Many universities will take your associate degree as transferable credit, so you’ll only have to complete another two years for your bachelor’s.

Bachelor’s Degree

When comparing graduate vs undergraduate degrees, it’s likely that you’ve already heard of the bachelor’s degree. Bachelor’s degrees are the most common type of degree, as most people want to graduate from a four-year program.

Bachelor’s degrees take four years on average to finish if you study full-time. By earning your four-year degree, you can become career-ready for almost any field you want (barring the ones that require professional degrees). Most bachelor’s degrees will require you to earn 120 degrees to graduate.

What is a Graduate Degree?

We can’t define the difference between graduate and undergraduate degrees without first answering the question, “what is a graduate degree?”

Like the undergraduate degree, a graduate degree is a form of higher education. However, it is a more advanced academic degree that often even requires you to first earn a bachelor’s degree. Graduate programs are highly specialized and allow you to gain more expertise in your field of work. There are two kinds: the master’s degree and the doctorate.

In the battle of graduate versus undergraduate, at least in terms of salaries, it’s easy to see who comes out on top. If you look at graduate degree vs undergraduate degree earnings, you’ll notice that graduates typically make more money. The subsequent pay rise from earning a master’s degree is enough to motivate many to go back to grad school. However, some may choose to go even further and earn a PhD.

Graduate degrees tend to revolve around a lot of research or practical experience. For this reason, not all programs are available to study online.

Let’s look at the two types of graduate degrees below.

Master’s Degree

A master’s degree typically requires two years to complete when studying full-time. You’ll usually need to have earned a bachelor’s degree before you can earn a master’s degree, although there are many “pathway to master’s” programs offered at various colleges and universities. These pathway to master programs may offer you an accelerated track into your master’s degree, often cutting your four-year bachelor’s program shorter.

Many professions or employers may require you to have a master’s degree before they will even consider hiring you.

Doctoral Degree

A doctoral degree, or a doctorate, is the highest level of academic study available. Once you earn yours, you’ve essentially become an expert in your field of choice.

Doctorates are the most challenging degrees to earn. They can take as long as eight years (or even more) and often require intense research or practical experience along the way.

Is it worth earning a doctorate? It depends on your passion for your work. Some people may choose to earn theirs simply because a doctoral degree can mean an even bigger salary bump.

Undergraduate vs Graduate Degree: Admissions Requirements

Now that we’ve discussed undergraduate and graduate meanings and definitions, let’s take a look at admissions requirements.

Admissions requirements are another thing where a graduate student vs an undergraduate student will differ. You’ll need to meet different requirements and submit different documents.

Applying for an undergraduate degree will require you to have a high school diploma (or sometimes a GED). You’ll need to pay the application fee at each school, though this fee can be waived in some cases. If the school you’re applying to requires standardized test scores, you’ll need to take the ACT or SAT. Other things you’ll need include your high school transcript, FAFSA, personal statement, and letters of recommendation. You may also be asked to submit a portfolio or CV. Note that some schools may not require all of these, so it’s best to check first.

Graduate degree admissions are somewhat different. You’ll usually need a bachelor’s degree for a master’s, and a master’s degree for a doctorate. However, in some cases, you may be able to earn your doctorate without a master’s degree. You’ll need to submit standardized test scores like the GRE (or the specialized test you need depending on your program). Of course, you’ll also need your undergrad transcript, FAFSA, personal statement, and letters of recommendation. You may also be asked to submit a portfolio or CV. Again, not all programs will require the same things.

What Is the Difference Between Undergraduate and Graduate?

The best way to compare graduate vs undergraduate is to simply put them side by side. Take a look at the table below:

 

Undergraduate

Graduate

What is it? (In the U.S.)

An undergraduate degree is a two or four-year program that helps prepare you for a career in your field of choice.

Graduate programs are more specialized and allow you to gain further expertise in your chosen fields. 

Types

Associate’s Degree, Bachelor’s Degree

Master’s Degree, Doctoral Degree

Program Length (When full time)

2 years for Associate and 4 years for Bachelor’s

2 years for Master’s and 4+ years for Doctorate

Admission Requirements

High school diploma (or sometimes GED), college application, application fee (waivable), SAT or ACT test scores, letters of recommendation, high school transcript, personal statement, FAFSA

Bachelor’s degree (unless pathway to master program), application, application fee (waivable), GRE or other standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, personal statement, undergraduate transcript, FAFSA

Age to Start Enrolling

17-20

21+

Typical Course Load

15-21 credit hours per semester or trimester (five to seven courses)

12 credit hours per semester or trimester (around four courses)

Average Tuition Rates

$21,000+ per year at public schools, $32,000+ per year at private schools (more info)

Total cost for master’s: $66,000+; Total cost for a doctorate: $110,000+

Undergraduate vs Graduate: Key Differences in Summary

Let’s take a look at the differences in summary:

  • Undergrad programs are typically more general and offer general education classes in various subjects. Graduate programs do not have general education and are instead highly specialized. Graduate degrees are more advanced overall.
  • You may find that your undergraduate class is far larger than a graduate class. Graduate programs are small and typically offer limited slots and, as such, are highly competitive. In graduate programs, students often work much more closely with their professors.
  • Most undergraduate degrees require a capstone project or thesis to graduate. Master’s degree programs may offer thesis and non-thesis options, while doctorate programs often require a dissertation.
  • You’ll have a much easier time switching classes, professors, or schools when earning your undergraduate degree. Graduate degrees are often unique because they are highly specialized or niche programs.
  • The admissions requirements vary in terms of the type of standardized tests you need. You’ll also need different diplomas and transcripts (high school or undergrad).
  • Undergraduate students often need to juggle more courses (15-21 credit hours) per semester than graduate students (12 credit hours).
  • Graduate programs are usually highly research-centric.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is a bachelor’s degree undergraduate or graduate?

A bachelor’s degree is a four-year undergraduate course. It is usually required as a precursor to a graduate degree.

Is 4 years graduate or undergraduate?

When you say “four-year program,” it’s usually in reference to a bachelor’s degree. A bachelor’s degree is an undergraduate program.

What are undergraduate courses?

Undergraduate courses are often classes that you are required to take when earning your bachelor’s degree. Each course is a corresponding number of credit hours. Most bachelor’s degrees require 120 credits to finish.

Conclusion

We’ve talked about the graduate and undergraduate meaning and even took a look at admissions requirements. But just to wrap up, an undergraduate degree is one you can earn after high school (or after earning your GED), such as an associate's or bachelor’s degree. A graduate degree usually can be either a master’s degree or a doctoral degree. You can start earning your master’s after you earn a bachelor’s, and you can start working on a doctorate after you’ve earned your master’s.

We hope that this undergraduate vs graduate comparison has helped you figure out the main differences between both. Good luck!

If you’re worried about how you can finance your education, a scholarship can help. You can check out these undergraduate scholarships or these graduate scholarships to get you started.

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