How to Prepare for Graduate School as an Undergraduate Student
A graduate program is designed to build on the basic mastery achieved at the undergraduate level and allow graduate students to dive deeper into their disciplines.
Planning for grad school while you're still an undergrad is a great way to focus on your academic priorities and career goals.
Choosing an undergrad major that aligns with grad school studies may be helpful, but isn't always necessary.
Preparing for grad school as an undergrad often involves building relationships with faculty, researching programs, and thinking about the type of career you want.
Is Graduate School in Your Future Plans?
For some college-bound students, the idea of ultimately pursuing a graduate degree is not even on the radar when they begin researching and earning their undergraduate degree. Instead, as they refine their academic and professional goals along the way, they learn about the various graduate school opportunities available to them.
Others know from the start that an undergraduate degree is only the first step of an academic journey that will culminate with a master’s degree. Regardless of your path, there are several key ways to maximize your graduate school planning and future success while still pursuing your undergraduate education.
One Key Difference between Undergraduate and Graduate School – Focus!
The undergraduate school experience is designed to provide students a breadth of knowledge across many disciplines, with the first two years typically focusing on a “general education” curriculum or requirement. As students then move into their areas of study and declare their major, and perhaps minor(s), the learning experience becomes more focused on the nuances of those specific disciplines (e.g., Clinical Psychology vs. Experimental Psychology or Organic Chemistry vs. Inorganic Chemistry). That combination of general education coursework and a subsequent discipline-specific focus provides students with the necessary credentials for an undergrad degree.
Graduate school programs are different in one key way: their focus. A graduate program is designed to build on the basic mastery achieved at the undergraduate level and allow graduate students to dive deeper into their disciplines. Each program is different, but one class taken as an undergraduate — such as nuclear physics or civil engineering — may be the focus an entire graduate program. Breadth is limited, and depth is emphasized for graduate students. The deeper and more specific focus of a graduate program creates a very different experience for students. Graduate school faculty relationships may be more important, your classmates are deeply focused on their areas of concentration, and you’ll have the opportunity to explore all the unique facets of the subject matter you’re studying.
Keys to Effective Preparation for Graduate School as an Undergrad
Once students decide that graduate school may be the right path, there are several opportunities to maximize the undergraduate experience and prepare for future graduate success, including:
- Faculty Relationships: One of the greatest advantages of a graduate education is the unique relationship you can have with faculty. A graduate school faculty member moves from being the intimidating person at the front of the room handing out grades to an eventual colleague, potential research partner, advisor, and sometimes even a friend. The graduate program allows faculty to pass on a deeper level of knowledge, ideas, research, and insights to the next generation. Start to build that relationship early. As you begin to find the area of interest you may want to pursue in your future graduate studies, explore that idea with the undergraduate professor who teaches that class or who has experience in that area. Office hours are there for a reason, so take advantage. They would welcome a conversation about your future!
- Other Student Relationships: Seek out like-minded students who may also be interested in the same areas of study you are looking to pursue. This may become easier as you begin to take classes in your major, but finding a study partner, a social club, or just someone to share your graduate school research with can be very beneficial in sharpening your focus.
- Research to Find the Best Program for You: Unlike undergraduate students, who often decide where to attend based on non-curricular considerations as well as curricular opportunities, graduate students are heavily influenced by the specific program available and the faculty member who oversees that program. Not all institutions offer the same graduate programs, so your current undergraduate institution may not offer a graduate degree in your chosen field of study. Keep in mind that even if your undergraduate institution offers your preferred program of graduate study, there may be a researcher or professor at another institution whose focus is more closely aligned with yours.
- Coordinate Your Research and Focus: Grad school is much more research focused than undergraduate school. Once you discover your passion as an undergrad, you can begin to align your research, academic papers, electives, and career goals to your future graduate work. This allows students to be much more versed in that area of study and increases the likelihood of being accepted to the right graduate program and hitting the ground running.
Regardless of your path to a graduate degree, sharpening your academic focus in an undergrad program is a great way to bring your career goals into clearer view and set yourself up for future success.
Getting ready for grad school while still working on your undergraduate degree involves researching institutions and programs, forming relationships with faculty, and thinking seriously about your desired career path.
Keep in mind that not all grad schools offer the same programs. Even programs with similar names may have significant differences in their areas of academic focus. Be sure to research your options carefully before applying.