Get Graduate Admissions Advice from a Former Graduate Admissions Officer with This Informative Q&A
If you’re considering graduate school, it’s important to understand why you’re pursuing an advanced degree and how it will impact your future education and career goals. Not sure about the difference between graduate school and an undergraduate education? Want to know what graduate admissions officers look for in applicants? We have answers here!
At IvyWise our team of expert counselors are made up of former deans and directors of admission from some of the top universities in the US – including graduate admissions counselors. They’re here to give prospective graduate school applicants some advice on how to approach the process. We caught up with IvyWise Graduate Admissions Counselor Erin and got her insight into some of the most important questions that graduate applicants ask during this process. See her responses below!
Q: What are the main differences between undergraduate and graduate school?
A: The two main distinctions between graduate school and college are time investment and intent. The intent, or purpose, of a college degree is to teach a student how to think at a higher, more complex level, and a college graduate can be something of a generalist. While a college graduate will have had a major area of study and has taken a number of courses in that major area, they will have also taken a broad range of courses outside that area and will have developed a corresponding knowledge base. College is a time of academic exploration, in addition to building a set of skills within a specific topic area, in which a student has the opportunity to sample a wide variety of topics at a higher level.
Graduate students, conversely, are expected to have a clear focus on one area and take courses only in that area to become an expert on that singular topic, at a higher level of complex intellectual understanding than at the undergraduate level. The time investment of a graduate student is much more intense than that of an undergraduate student; while an undergraduate program is four years, a graduate program is condensed with an average of two years for most programs. Graduate students are expected to spend much more time outside of the classroom doing reading, research, and studying than an undergraduate student. In undergrad, a 3-credit course will typically meet three times a week, with one-hour sessions, and this course will require 3-6 hours of weekly study time outside of the classroom; in graduate school, a 3-credit course will typically meet once a week for a 2-3 hour session but will require 10-15 hours of weekly study time outside the classroom. With an undergraduate program, much of the learning takes place inside lecture halls and during class, but in a graduate program, most learning takes place outside of the classroom, and requires that a student be self-driven and motivated to do that work on their own.
Q: Who should strongly consider attending grad school? What type of person should avoid grad school?
A: I believe those best suited for graduate school are those who have worked for several years after their undergraduate education, who are passionate about their area of study, and who have a clear idea of why they want to go to graduate school. They have either reached a "ceiling" in their career, where they cannot advance without a graduate degree, or they have discovered a career path they wish to follow, but need a more specific knowledge and skill base to do so. They also should have a good understanding of the time commitment and the financial investment and are willing to make that sacrifice to move their career forward. If someone lacks clear focus or a good reason for grad school – or is planning on going because it's what someone else wants for them – they should reconsider their graduate school plans. I've seen a lot of people apply for graduate school because they simply don't know what else to do, and this is a very bad reason. Even if you're really smart and will excel academically, this is a huge waste of time and money on something you're not sure of and aren't necessarily passionate about.
Q: Which career fields require a grad degree?
A: I would never say that any career field requires a graduate degree – one can even work in the field of medicine with only a bachelor's degree. I would say, instead, that there are certain positions and types of jobs within every field that will require a graduate degree. The field of medicine, for example: you can be a nurse with a bachelor's degree, but if you wish to be a physician's assistant, you will need a master's degree, and if you wish to be a doctor, you will need to attend medical school to get your M.D. However, if you are a nurse, and decide to go back to school and get a master's degree, this will open up professional opportunities for you that wouldn't have been available otherwise. So it is more important to consider the types of jobs and professional opportunities available in your chosen field, with or without a graduate degree, rather than thinking “I want to work in this field so I need to have a graduate degree.” This goes back to specificity and intent of a graduate program – think about what your specific professional goals are and then look for a degree program that can help you meet those goals.
Q: How much does a person's undergraduate college or university influence their likelihood of getting accepted into grad school?
A: Generally, where an applicant went to undergrad has very little impact on whether or not they are admitted. The admissions committee is much more interested in the applicant's academic performance and other components of the application. Schools are looking for the best candidates overall, and a great applicant can come from any undergraduate institution –what they did during undergrad and what they achieved during that time period is much more important than where they did it. We might see a transcript and say, "That's a good school; they have a great program," but if the applicants didn't apply themselves, work hard, and take advantage of those opportunities, the name on the transcript won't help them in any way. I've seen amazing candidates come out of all different kinds of undergraduate programs. The grad school application process is about the individual, not the institution that awarded the degree.
Q: How does the rigor of an applicant’s undergraduate courses affect their chances of admission?
A: Academic rigor is very important to the admissions process. Graduate programs look for students who have chosen to take harder courses and challenge themselves. Admissions officers are professionals who are familiar with a wide range of schools – even the smallest colleges – and are aware of which schools are known for high academic standards. As admissions professionals, it's our job to know which schools have higher standards, which schools inflate grades, and which schools grade on a curve. When traveling and doing recruiting, admissions officers frequently meet with administration and faculty to keep up-to-date on these differences between schools, and research schools that may be less familiar.
Q: What should applicants consider when deciding whether graduate school is the next step for them?
A: Graduate school is a huge investment of time, energy, and money, and it is a decision that should not be taken lightly or without serious consideration. With few exceptions, I discourage undergraduates and recent grads from applying to graduate school right away, especially if they aren't sure. It will be far more beneficial to them to take a few years after undergraduate to get work and life experience, to learn their likes and dislikes, to discover their professional strengths and weaknesses, and to find their professional passions before moving onto graduate school. This will benefit them in a multitude of ways. It will help them focus their energies and figure out what they really want out of their professional life. It will give them an edge in the grad school application process. It will allow them to get more out of their graduate program, and it will improve their position when it comes to job placement upon finishing their degree.