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Undergraduate Vs. Graduate Degree [DIFFERENCES EXPLAINED]

Undergraduate Vs. Graduate Degree [DIFFERENCES EXPLAINED]

Wondering what the difference is between a graduate degree and an undergraduate degree? This guide will go through all the differences and show you.

Whether you are a recent high school graduate or you are going back to school for the first time in a long time, you might be wondering what the difference is between an undergraduate and graduate degree. Getting them confused is common, so we are here to explain to you a little bit about each one and the difference.

Undergraduate degrees are 4-year college bachelor programs or 2-year associate degree programs. A graduate degree is done after an undergraduate program and is anywhere from 1 to 6 years in length.

Other than the time taken to do each course, there are also major differences when it comes to tuition and course load, which we will discuss in this article. By the end of this article, you will know the exact differences and be able to determine which one is available to you.

undergraduate group of friends

Major Differences Between Undergraduate And Graduate Degree Programs

There are some pretty big differences between undergraduate and graduate degree programs. For starters, you need to complete an undergraduate degree before you can move on to a graduate degree. There are certain universities that allow you to enroll in dual programs where you might start your graduate program in the last year of your undergraduate program and work on both at the same time.

Graduate programs can also last longer or shorter than undergraduate programs, depending on what you are studying. Undergraduate programs are also easier to gain entrance to since they are entry-level programs at universities. You can be admitted into the university and then choose your study major.

Some programs like nursing might need separate applications at the undergrad level even though you are already accepted into the university. Graduate programs are often harder to gain entrance to since they are upper level, and you need to take a test and get a certain score.

Here is a table outlining some of the other differences:

Graduate Undergraduate
Meaning in the US 1-6 year program for someone that has already completed an undergraduate degree 4-year college bachelor's degree or a 2-year associate degree program
Course Load 4 courses/ 12 credits per semester 5-7 courses or 15-21 credits per semester
Tuition $3000 or more at a public college or $40000 or more at a private college $3,000 for associates

$9000 for a 4-year degree for a public college or $31000 or more for private colleges

Admission requirements Bachelor's degree, application, and fee for school, GRE test, a transcript showing your undergraduate scores, letters of recommendation High school diploma, application, and fee SAT scores, ACT scores, high school transcript, letters of recommendation

As you can see, there are some major differences. Keep in mind that these are the definitions and requirements for the United States only. Every country might have different definitions and ways of doing things.

If you are planning to go to school in another country, you need to check those requirements and see if they are the same or different. You also need to make sure you are giving yourself plenty of time to apply and gather all the paperwork.

Main Differences Between Graduate And Undergraduate Degrees?

Although we covered many different things in the chart above, there are still certain things you might be confused about. We will discuss each of the differences more in-depth, as well as the few similarities.

In the United States, students attend higher education at the undergraduate level after completing high school or secondary school. If they complete their undergraduate degree and want to receive more education, they can go on and study for a graduate degree.

Certain professions require a graduate degree which means people will need to pursue more education even though they already have an undergraduate degree.

After your graduate or Master's program, you can also go on and do even more education like such a doctorate or Ph.D. program if you want. In the United States, there are Bachelor of Arts programs and Bachelor of Science programs. These are 4-year programs.

Two-year associate programs are great for entry-level jobs like medical assisting or automotive maintenance. You can also add to your two programs by making it a bachelor's degree.

Here are some of the differences from the chart above explained more in-depth.

Course Load

University programs in the United States are broken up into semesters or trimesters. Semesters mean you have two periods of studying with a break in between. They usually run from August to December and then from January until May.

Trimesters run for three periods a year and are usually three semesters each with a break in between. Whether you study for semesters or trimesters, you do the same amount of credit hours.

Undergraduates usually take 5 to 7 classes. Classes are 3 credits each. Some science classes have lab components that make them 4 credits each. Graduate courses are more time-consuming and have a high workload, so you will generally only take 4 each semester for a total of 12 credit hours. That's 3 credit hours per class.

Some programs allow you to study part-time only which means you might only take 6 credit hours. You will need to verify with the university before determining if part-time study is an option or not.


Tuition varies greatly in the United States. Private colleges are much more expensive than public ones. For undergraduate programs, if you go to a school in the state you reside in, you can get in-state tuition which is significantly cheaper. Private colleges charge the same amount for both in-state and out-of-state students.

Graduate programs are often much more expensive than undergraduate ones. Associate degree programs are the cheapest since they are usually only done at community colleges and last for 2 years.

For both graduate and undergraduate programs, you can use the FAFSA to get financial aid. Your income, marital status, and number of dependents will depend on how much aid you can get. Grants and scholarships you do not have to pay back, but loans will have to be paid back once you finish your program.

Most students are offered a mix of both so you can combine them to ensure you have enough to pay for school.

Admission Requirements

The admission requirements for graduate and undergraduate programs are where they vary greatly. For an undergraduate program, you will need to submit your high school diploma as well as your transcript to show your grades. You will also need to take the ACT and SAT which are standardized tests to show how prepared you are for university.

For your graduate program, you will need to show a transcript of your undergraduate degree and the grades you received. You will also need to sit for the GRE test, which is a standardized test, to see how well prepared you are for a graduate program.

Some programs require you to get letters of recommendation from people that are not relatives. This can be a professor, teacher, employer, or someone who supervised you as a volunteer. Not every program will ask for letters.

woman graduate

How Are Graduate And Undergraduate Programs The Same?

For the most part, they are very different. One is started when someone only has a high school education, while graduate programs are started once someone has obtained a 4-year bachelor's degree. The tuition and course load varies greatly.

Graduate programs are also more intense and often have a higher workload. Some people do graduate programs part-time since they are already professionals in the workforce.

Despite being very different, they are both forms of higher education in the United States. You will need to study hard to get accepted into one of the programs. You will also need to take standardized tests for each, although for undergraduates, they are the ACT and SAT, and for graduate programs, it's the GRE.

You will also need to find a way to pay for the programs since they can be expensive, and you will need to make sure you have the grants or loans you need to make the payments on time.

In Closing

As you can probably tell by now, there are major differences between undergraduate and graduate programs. In the United States, they are both forms of higher education where you will need to study hard and get good grades to be able to pass and get your diploma.

If you are just done with high school, you will go to undergraduate school, whether it be a 2-year program or a 4-year program. If you want to go to graduate school, you will need to do a 4-year program. Once in graduate school, you might study from one year to 6 years, depending on your course and whether you are going part-time or full-time.