Surviving the Undergraduate to Graduate School Transition

By Julia Dunn on July 16, 2015

This article is brought to you by Kaplan, the leader in test prep for over 90 standardized tests, including the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and MCAT.

So you just graduated from your undergraduate institution. You’ve taken (and hopefully passed) the GRE, and completed all your Bachelor’s degree requirements. You’ve even been accepted to a few great graduate schools, and have made your official decision on where your educational future will continue. All that’s left is to prepare for next year.

But how do you transition smoothly from undergraduate school to graduate school?

Many college graduates have the same question. It’s hard to tell what the substantial differences will be between your undergraduate school compared to the graduate program you’ll be entering after the summertime. It isn’t exactly true to say graduate school is a continuation of undergraduate school, format-wise; there are some stark differences you’ll notice in your jump from undergraduate to graduate school, and becoming aware of these beforehand will make for an especially pleasant (and hopefully painless) transition.

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The most dramatic aspect of graduate school that you’ll find quite different from undergraduate will be the way you use your energy. Graduate school entails much less coursework and much more independent work: mainly research. You’ll be expected to depend much less on your professors and more on yourself.

While this may have been the case for you as an undergraduate, you probably received much more guidance from advisors and professors due to the nature of fairly rigid Bachelor’s degree programs. To succeed in graduate school, you’ll need to be responsible with your independence, and self-driven with your research, ensuring that you are always up to date with the latest news and scholarly articles being published in your field of study.

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In undergraduate school, you may have semi-successfully slipped by in a few classes by cramming hardcore the night or two before a big exam. While usually this doesn’t even work well in undergraduate school, it sometimes does if you’re lucky. But prepare not to cram in graduate school. You’re expected to retain and apply the information you learn in grad school (and this will not come from cramming).

Before heading off to graduate school, practice your study skills and learn to begin studying well before your exams. Look for a solid technique that works with your learning style such that you will be able to absorb what you need to learn more permanently.

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Your relationships with professors will also shift upon entering graduate school. You may be used to your professors being “above you” in undergraduate years, as you were adjusting to college life in general. As a graduate student, professors will feel more as your equals; they’ll serve more as mentors and assist you in networking for an eventual career. You may collaborate with your instructors more heavily in graduate school than you ever did elsewhere, and you’ll be held to a higher standard when doing so.

To keep up with such rigorous demands, you must work diligently to manage your time; again, to phrase it simply, coursework will almost be on the “back burner” so to speak. The real focus will be your original research, which will hopefully lead to awards and fellowships upon publication. These will be key to building up your work history and making connections to relevant opportunities. Networking can benefit you when you least expect it, so focus on building strong relationships with everyone you meet through your graduate program.

Graduate school will also feel different from undergraduate environmentally speaking as well. You probably won’t live on campus in a dorm, but in an apartment off campus. This means you’ll have a more concentrated “adult” experience, managing your own housing along with graduate work and likely a job on the side.

Because of not living on campus, you may not feel as connected with the campus as you may have felt as an undergraduate. This means you must find other ways to ground yourself in the campus activity. Even if you feel you don’t have time for extracurricular activities such as joining organizations or clubs, you should at least try to become involved with something fun that will provide relief when you need a break from your hard work. You’ll meet people from many different age groups who can serve as a source of support—and you’ll really need support as a graduate student.

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Don’t feel overly scared about graduate school just because it’s a huge leap up from what you’ve done in undergraduate school. There’s a reason you made it through your first college experience and earned your degree. If you have motivation, discipline, and supreme time/energy management skills, you’ll do wonderfully in grad school.

Prepare to be pushed and challenged in your graduate program. Talk to people. See what they’re doing and ask them why. Find something interesting to you and try out a research project of your own—it’ll have your name on it. Grad school isn’t easy, but it will be worth your time if you take it seriously.

Click here for a humorous visual representation of the differences between undergraduate and graduate school!

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Learn more about Kaplan’s test prep options and start building the confidence you need for Test Day.

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