How to Study in Graduate School vs College

grad school student studying

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As a graduate student, you're probably aware that applying to graduate school is very different than applying to college. Graduate programs don't care about how well rounded you are. Likewise, participation in many extracurricular activities is a boon for your college application but graduate programs prefer applicants who are focused on their work. Appreciating these differences between college and graduate school is what helped you gain admittance to graduate school. Remember and act on these differences in order to succeed as a new graduate student.

Memorization skills, late night cram sessions, and last minute papers may have gotten you through college, but these habits won't help you in graduate school and instead will likely harm your success. Most students agree that graduate-level education is very different from their undergraduate experiences. Here are some of the differences. 

Breadth vs. Depth

Undergraduate education emphasizes general education. About one-half or more of the credits that you complete as an undergraduate fall under the heading of General Education or Liberal Arts. These courses are not in your major. Instead, they are designed to broaden your mind and provide you with a rich knowledge base of general information in literature, science, mathematics, history, and so on. Your college major, on the other hand, is your specialization.

However, an undergraduate major usually provides only a broad overview of the field. Each class in your major is a discipline unto itself. For example, psychology majors may take one course each in several areas such as clinical, social, experimental, and developmental psychology. Each of these courses is a separate discipline in psychology. Although you learn a lot about your major field, in reality, your undergraduate education emphasizes breadth over depth. Graduate study entails specializing and becoming an expert in your very narrow field of study. This switch from learning a little bit about everything to becoming a professional in one area requires a different approach.

Memorization vs. Analysis

College students spend a great deal of time memorizing facts, definitions, lists, and formulas. In graduate school, your emphasis will change from simply recalling information to using it. Instead, you'll be asked to apply what you know and analyze problems. You'll take fewer exams in graduate school and they will emphasize your ability to synthesize what you read and learn in class and critically analyze it in light of your own experience and perspective. Writing and research are the major tools of learning in graduate school. It's no longer as important to remember a specific fact as it is to know how to find it.

Reporting vs Analyzing and Arguing

College students often moan and groan about writing papers. Guess what? You'll write many, many papers in graduate school. Moreover, the days of simple book reports and 5 to 7 page papers on a general topic are gone. The purpose of papers in graduate school is not simply to show the professor that you've read or paid attention.

Rather than simply reporting a bunch of facts, graduate school papers require you to analyze problems by applying the literature and constructing arguments that are supported by the literature. You'll move from regurgitating information to integrating it into an original argument. You will have a great deal of freedom in what you study but you will also have the difficult job of constructing clear, well-supported arguments. Make your papers work double duty by taking advantage of class paper assignments to consider dissertation ideas.

Reading It All vs. Copious Skimming and Selective Reading

Any student will tell you that graduate school entails a lot of reading—more than they ever imagined. Professors add lots of required readings and usually add recommended readings. Recommended readings lists can run for pages. Must you read it all? Even required reading can be overwhelming with hundreds of pages each week in some programs.

Make no mistake: You will read more in graduate school than you have in your life. But you don't have to read everything, or at least not carefully. As a rule, you should carefully skim all assigned required readings at minimum and then decide which parts are the best use of your time. Read as much as you can, but read smartly. Get an idea of the overall theme of a reading assignment and then use targeted reading and note-taking to fill in your knowledge.

All of these differences between undergraduate and graduate study are radical. Students who don't quickly catch on to the new expectations will find themselves at a loss in graduate school.

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Kuther, Tara, Ph.D. "How to Study in Graduate School vs College." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Kuther, Tara, Ph.D. (2023, April 5). How to Study in Graduate School vs College. Retrieved from Kuther, Tara, Ph.D. "How to Study in Graduate School vs College." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).