Colorado State University

7 Differences Between American Graduate and Undergraduate School

Colorado State University

I’m in week 12 of a 16-week semester, which means I’ve lived in Fort Collins, Colorado for just over three months. In ways, the time has passed faster than I was ready for. The term started out pretty rocky, after four years of absence from the academy, and I was struggling to balance my studies with making friends and exploring a new city/state. I was forced to learn how best to manage my time, and to forbid myself from saying ‘yes’ to any more extra activities that “might benefit me in the future.” I was drowning, to say the least, but then something miraculous happened: Week 10.

It might be that this is the first time I’ve ever studied on the semester system, so all of my undergraduate quarters ended during week 10 (perhaps I was just mentally done in that 10th week), or it might be that something finally clicked and I began to understand how best to swim through a life in academia.

Whatever it was, my stress level dropped in equal proportion with my standards for homework. I don’t actually believe the quality of my work has shifted (though my perfectionist level also went down a few notches). In fact, I thoroughly enjoy almost everything I’m doing at the academy – classes, working in the writing center, teaching in the library – and outside.

Fort Collins Colorado

On a hike in Fort Collins, Colorado

I also remember struggling after a year break between my associate degree in Los Angeles and beginning that first quarter at the University of Oregon, but it was nothing compared to the fight to stay on top this term.

Here are five more differences I’ve noticed between earning my B.A. in journalism and my M.A. in English, keeping in mind that both are liberal arts, writing-centered majors so my experience has been/is quite different from many other majors.

1. I have fewer classes/credits (three classes/12 credits), but three (four? five?) times the work.

My life is consumed by reading and writing (I did sign up for an English major, I often have to remind myself), but I actually enjoy it all; the topics are chosen by me, meant to broaden my perspective and potentially further my career. To give you an example, I have four books to consume over the course of my 10-day Thanksgiving break, two meant for a 15-page paper on teaching first-year composition, one in addition to three already read for a 10-page paper on creativity, and one of which I will analyze the structure in a 1-page summary.

2. I have yet to take an exam, and I don’t foresee ever having to take one again.

This is definitely not a complaint. I remember uttering these words in undergrad: “I’d rather write a paper any day than study for a test, because studying feels endless.” I battle with the benefits of such standardized testing anyway, and whenever I realize I don’t have to stress about an upcoming exam, I realize I definitely chose the right major.

Horsetooth Reservoir Fort Collins

Horsetooth Reservoir in Fort Collins

3. I have absolutely no idea where I stand with grades.

Like, literally, I’ve not received one assignment back with a number or letter on the top of it. I could have an F, and I wouldn’t have a clue, though I know this isn’t true, and I’m trying not to care. In one of my classes, we’ve had several debates over the problem with grades as motivation for students. Isn’t the point to be engaged, to take away something from the lecture/activity, etc.? I’ve heard from past graduates that grad school works more like a pass or fail – show up to class, participate to prove you’ve done the reading, and get your work finished. I’m doubting the full truth of this statement, but it does seem that most of what we’ve learned will be judged by our thesis projects, which will determine whether or not we graduate.

4. I’m writing a book, but I don’t have time to write it.

Speaking of that thesis project – mine is going to be a memoir about my travels in Asia. I thought that signing up for a writing program would actually allow me time to write for pleasure, but sparing time for any writing beyond those assignments with looming deadlines has been impossible this semester. However, knowing I’ll miraculously manage to have a draft finished before I graduate (or I won’t graduate, plain and simple), makes me feel like I’m actually getting so much more from my education than a diploma.

5. Professors treat us like the professionals or budding professionals we are.

I can’t speak highly enough of the staff and faculty at Colorado State University. I’ve been welcomed, encouraged, pushed to my limits, and it’s only been 12 weeks. They invite studentes into their offices with open arms, ask how they can help – with anything – and do their best to relieve the anxiety we undoubtedly experience from time to time (or all the time, in some cases). They’re much more flexible with due dates and requirements; they were in our shoes once too, and they haven’t forgotten.

7. The expectations are higher.

In undergrad, it felt like everyone was just working toward a piece of paper – the diploma. It wasn’t hard to obtain, and many could prioritize parties over grades and still graduate. Now, perhaps because of number 5, we’re expected to perform at our level, to speak the discourse of our discipline, to push harder, to take on more responsibility (ie teaching, internships, etc. in our field), yet the guidelines are much more esoteric.

8. The programs are smaller.

In the entire English Graduate Department, there are only something like 100 students. In my specific program of Creative Nonfiction, there are only 10. It makes our building feel like a small community, even if many are just familiar faces rather than close friends. And these small numbers are great for connections, which might be the single most important part of any program, in any university, in any discipline, undergrad or grad.

photo 1

In short, graduate school is so much better than undergrad. Yes, it’s a big life decision, but I’m certain I’ve made the right one and that’s a good feeling to have. Grad school has the potential to be all consuming, but I don’t want it to be. Yes, I signed up for a two-year program, but I want to believe that the worst of this first semester is over; that I’ve begun got find my stride not just by learning to stay afloat, but also enjoying the swim.




  1. dayn hardie says:

    I’m pretty sure the secret in grad school is to continue paying your tuition, everything else will follow…

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