How Do Graduate Admissions Differ from Undergraduate Admissions?

Today’s article was submitted by Brian Witte.

After completing your bachelor’s degree, you may debate whether or not to continue on to graduate school. Before you commit to an advanced degree, it is important to recognize that some graduate programs are markedly different from undergraduate college, in terms of both expectations and admissions. Did you know, for instance, that in graduate school, each department runs its own admissions process?

The effect is to create a myriad of admissions standards, even within a single university. A very competitive English department may accept only a fraction of its most highly qualified applicants, while a recently founded biology department may be more liberal in who it admits. The only way to know is to research the individual department at the particular schools that appeal to you.

The differences do not end there, however. There are a number of other considerations to keep in mind, including those discussed below.

Coursework requirements

Undergraduate colleges select students on the basis of academic ability. In general, high school students do not specialize in a particular area, but this is not true of graduate school applicants. Many graduate programs expect their applicants to have a degree in a relevant field, though specific requirements may vary by department.

Just as you would in undergraduate admissions, it is essential to address any potential shortcomings in your graduate school application. If you are changing fields—for instance, from an arts discipline to a hard science—be sure to address both your motivation and the steps you have taken/will take to succeed in your new path.

Professional school

Professional schools (i.e. business, law, or medical school) are in some ways like an extension of your undergraduate studies, though the classes are more specialized, and the topics are more advanced.

Admission to these graduate programs is also akin to undergraduate admissions. Your GPA is critical, as is your performance on a field-specific standardized test: the GMAT for business, the LSAT for law, the MCAT for medicine, etc. Like undergraduate admissions, a stellar personal statement, a history of applicable extracurricular activities, and strong letters of recommendation can boost your chances of acceptance.

Master’s programs

Unlike professional schools, which generally prepare their students for a particular career, Master’s programs certify that you have advanced knowledge in a given field (which may ultimately lead to several different careers).

Like professional school admissions, you must meet the school’s requirements for minimum GPA and test scores (in this case, likely the GRE). In addition to submitting a personal statement, letters of recommendation, and a record of your extracurricular activities, you may also be asked to prove your faculty in your intended area. For example, if you apply to a Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing, your admissions portfolio may include a writing sample. This admissions process is typically less rigorous than that for PhD programs.

Doctoral programs

Doctoral, or PhD, programs are more like apprenticeships than degree programs—no matter the field. This difference is primarily due to the emphasis on conducting and publishing original research, and the courses in a PhD program are thus designed to prepare you for undertaking research in your specialization. In a PhD program, you can have a perfect GPA and still never receive a degree until your research is deemed acceptable.

For this reason, the admissions process for PhD programs is very concerned with intangibles like drive, interest, and fit. Undergraduate research in a related field, as well as letters of recommendation attesting to your drive, competence, and collegiality are very important. It is also essential that your interests coincide with those of the program. A department that focuses on ecology, for example, will expect your work to have a deep grounding in that area.

Faculty connections

Professional schools, like undergraduate colleges, often have a staff that is dedicated to reviewing applications. Master’s and PhD programs, on the other hand, rely on professorial committees from the given department. From a practical perspective, this means that forming a personal connection with a professor can have a significant impact on your admittance—even if that professor is not on the admissions committee.


In undergraduate admissions, the decision to admit a student is generally made irrespective of financial issues. In graduate admissions, however, many reputable schools promise to support any students that they admit (though this is not true of all professional schools).

This promise makes money an essential consideration for admission. Certain programs will not admit a student until they have a guarantee of support (for instance, via research grant funds). Thus, it is crucial to ask each school about its criteria.

In short, the graduate admissions process is complex. Take time to research the specific departments and schools that interest you, and mold your application to each one. Good luck, applicants!


Brian Witte is a professional tutor and contributing writer with Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement.