Applying to Undergrad versus Applying to Graduate School

It is application season for both undergraduate and graduate. However, the two differ in quite a few ways.

  1. 1. Essays

    Prompts versus Statement of Purpose (SOP)

    Writing about a time you overcome a challenge or solved a problem is common for college applications. They want to see ability to persevere and succeed. Graduate schools have very little concern for this. They want to see if you did research and can explain what you did well. The statement of purpose is what you have done and what you can do for the school. This allows you to display talents a CV or letters of recommendation can't. The SOP is for personality and fit. The school wants to get to know you. If you have had unique experiences or skills, this can be where to highlight them. However, know your audience. Graduate schools are about research. They want to know you have done research and understand it. Any involvement should reflect ability to work in a team as many labs require teamwork and leadership. They do not care as much about a well-rounded student. They want to know why you are a good fit for them. Do your homework as well. Copy-and-paste letters do not show great interest. Have at least one paragraph devoted to the university and faculty you want to work with. Personalize each letter even if you have to do it ten times.

  2. 2. Tests

    SAT/ACT versus GRE

    For some reason, general testing is still a must for many schools. Many undergraduate institutions do not seem to be going away from requiring the SAT/ACT anytime soon. These exams often cost around $50 and are based off basic math, reading comprehension, and writing skill amongst other things. There are even subject tests for the SAT. For graduate school, this is revved up. The GRE is the graduate school exam. Like the SAT, it tests writing skill, math skill, and reading comprehension. However, the writing skill is more analytical based and requires picking apart arguments and shaping strong ones. The GRE is also four times the cost and 1.25 times the time. The exam is also completely computer based. Luckily, the GRE requirement for many schools is starting to fade.

  3. 3. Applications

    Fees and Deadlines

    Applying to university is costly. Many undergraduate applications are upwards of $75 for the Ivy Leagues. However, application fees for graduate school can range to well past $100, many falling around $85-90 per application. However, the good thing is that many universities will waive the application fee. Being in programs like McNair scholars or applying to fellowships like the National GEM Consortium can get your application fee waived. Also, going to graduate school fairs and talking to the representatives can often get you an application fee waiver. These allow you to apply to many places without spending close to $100 per school.

    Also, deadlines can sometimes be rolling admissions. While for undergrad this reflected some financial aid and admittance likelihood, for graduate school its far more important. Graduate school can often be paid for, especially in STEM fields. Universities offer teaching assistantships and research assistantships as well as cover tuition cots. But this money goes fast. The sooner you get an application is if there are rolling deadlines means the better likelihood of getting funding.

  4. 4. Letters of Recommendation

    Counselors versus Faculty

    In high school, your recommendation letters can come from camp counselors, supervisors, and sometimes even priests for college. Anyone who knows you are a hard worker and a good person can talk about your potential to succeed in college. However, for graduate school these letters are the most important part of your application and come with some stricter guidelines. These guidelines are not always explicit. Recommender pages simply ask for name and email. However, faculty review these applications. Faculty trust other faculty. Graduate school is not just a steppingstone to a career, it also involves specific skills and work. Therefore, faculty are looking to see if you exhibit research skills. They will take the word of other faculty that you can be successful doing research and are unlikely to consider what a counselor or supervisor can say to your attitude and work ethic. At least one recommender should be a research mentor or someone who's lab you have worked in, one should be a professor you have had for multiple classes and did well in their classes, and another can speak to either academic ability or research ability.

  5. 5. Documentation

    Resumes versus CVs

    So, many high schoolers have a short resume, with their hundreds of extracurriculars and Microsoft skills crammed on a single page. The work experience is whatever small job they held while going to classes for eight hours a day. While this shows that the student has the ability to commit to a job and be involved, this ultimately is not what graduate schools are looking for. They want a CV, which is basically a longer resume. This document showcases research experience, publications, presentations, and leadership. Research is about being able to do the work, work in a team, and present findings. CVs are normally more than a page.

Obviously, the structure is the same. However, graduate school requires more research specific documents. They want to know if you can be a successful researcher with what you have done and how others have perceived your work. Whether you are in the mess of it now or will be in the future, best of luck with applications!