Undergraduate vs. Graduate: Educate Yourself On The Difference

Quick summary

The main difference between undergraduate and graduate is that undergraduate is always used in the context of the first level of college or university education (the level where you can earn a bachelor’s degree). In terms like graduate student and graduate degree, graduate refers to a level of advanced education beyond the undergraduate level, especially a master’s degree or doctorate. The noun graduate is more general, simply referring to a person who has completed a level of education (someone who has graduated).

The difference between undergraduate and graduate is a difference of degrees (*throws graduation cap in the air to celebrate the pun*).

The level of education that each word involves varies depending on how the word is being used, and there are situations in which both words can be used in the same situation. For example, you can become a graduate student after graduating with an undergraduate degree.

The word graduate can mean very different things depending on whether it’s used as a noun (as in recent high school graduates), an adjective (as in graduate student and graduate degree), or a verb (as in I plan to graduate next May). The same goes for its shortened form, grad, which can be used as a noun (as in Congrats, grads!) or an adjective (as in grad program).

Undergraduate can also be used both as a noun (as in I’m an undergraduate at Stanford University) or an adjective (as in I’m working toward my undergraduate degree). It can be shortened to undergrad in both cases.

By the end of this article, you’ll have an advanced degree in all the different ways graduate, grad, undergraduate, and undergrad are used, and what they mean in each case.

What does undergraduate mean?

An undergraduate is “a student in a university or college who has not received a first, especially a bachelor’s, degree.” For example, a college student might say I’m an undergraduate at the University of Texas if they were pursuing a bachelor’s degree there.

Undergraduate is also commonly used as an adjective in this same context, in terms like undergraduate student, undergraduate degree, and undergraduate studies.

Undergraduate is often shortened to undergrad as both a noun and an adjective.

In undergraduate, the prefix under- is used to indicate a lower rank or status. The educational status of an undergraduate student is below that of a graduate student.

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What is an undergraduate student? And what is an undergraduate degree?

An undergraduate student is a student who is pursuing a degree at the first level of higher education (meaning the level after high school) at a college or university. Undergraduate students are typically those working to earn a bachelor’s degree (or, less commonly, an associate’s degree). These degrees are often referred to with the general term undergraduate degree.

Outside of the US, an undergraduate degree is sometimes called a first degree. There are also other types of undergraduate degrees outside of the US, such as a foundation degree (which, like an associate’s degree, is typically a two-year degree).

What does graduate mean?

As a noun, the word graduate [ graj-oo-it ] refers to “a person who has received a degree or diploma on completing a course of study.” In other words, a graduate is someone who has completed a particular level of schooling or an educational program—a child who just finished kindergarten and a doctor who just completed medical school are both graduates. It can even be used figuratively, as in She’s a graduate of the school of hard knocks.

As a verb, graduategraj-oo-eyt ] means “to receive a degree or diploma on completing a course of study.” The process of graduating—and the ceremony itself—is called graduation.

As an adjective, graduategraj-oo-it ] means something more specific. It’s used to indicate that a student, degree, or educational program is an advanced one, beyond the level of a bachelor’s degree. This sense of graduate is most commonly used in terms like graduate degree, graduate school, graduate program, and graduate student.

What is a graduate degree? And what is a graduate student?

Graduate degree typically refers to a degree beyond a bachelor’s, most commonly a master’s.

A graduate student is a student who’s pursuing an advanced degree after having earned their undergraduate degree (such as a bachelor’s degree) by graduating from an undergraduate program. Calling someone a graduate student most often means they are pursuing their master’s degree, but it may be another advanced degree, such as a PhD (You’d most commonly call such students PhD students. Or you might say they are working toward their doctorate or their doctoral degree.)

To earn a graduate degree, graduate students go to a division of a university known as graduate school, and such a program is often called a graduate program. In all of these terms, graduate is often shortened to grad: grad school, grad student, grad program. (A student doesn’t become a graduate student until they take graduate-level courses. For example, if a student graduates with a bachelor’s degree and then later pursues a different bachelor’s degree, they are still an undergraduate student.)

Some graduate studies are referred to in more specific ways: medical students go to medical school to earn their medical degree; law students go to law school to earn their law degree.

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Where does the word graduate come from?

Graduate comes from the Medieval Latin graduārī, meaning “to take a degree.” It ultimately derives from the Latin gradus, meaning “a step.” Each time you graduate, you take a step to the next level of education.

What does postgraduate mean?

The adjective postgraduate is sometimes used in the same way as the adjective sense of the word graduate, especially in the UK, as in postgraduate student or postgraduate studies.

Postgraduate should not be confused with postdoctoral, which refers to studies, research, or professional work above the level of a doctorate.

How to use undergraduate vs. graduate

The best way to sort out the different meanings of undergraduate and graduate is to determine whether each word is being used as a noun, an adjective, or a verb. Here’s an easy breakdown of the differences.

  • undergraduate (noun): A college student pursuing a non-advanced degree, most commonly a bachelor’s degree. Can be shortened to undergrad.
  • undergraduate (adjective): Used in the context of colleges and university programs (undergraduate programs) where students are pursuing a degree (generally referred to as an undergraduate degree) that is not an advanced degree. Also sometimes shortened to undergrad.
  • graduate (noun): A person who has completed a particular level of schooling or educational program. Can be shortened to grad.
  • graduate (verb): To complete a level of schooling (and, typically, to receive a degree or diploma). You can graduate from kindergarten, high school, college, graduate school, medical school, etc.
  • graduate (adjective): Used in the context of advanced schooling—a level beyond a bachelor’s degree, most commonly a master’s program. Used in terms like graduate student, graduate school, graduate degree, graduate program, graduate courses, etc. Often shortened to grad.

Examples of undergraduate, undergrad, graduate, and grad used in a sentence

Let’s look at some examples of these words in actual, real-life use to get the meanings straight.

  • As an undergraduate, she had studied engineering; as a graduate student, she switched to architecture.
  • I completed my undergraduate degree after five years and a lot of hard work.
  • As a graduate student, you will be expected to complete a thesis.
  • You should start thinking about graduate school applications before you graduate.
  • Most of the applicants for this position are recent college graduates.
  • I’m still an undergrad, but I’m hoping to start grad school next fall.
  • I’m a UGA grad, but I almost went to Georgia Tech.

No matter who is graduating, here are tips on how to craft a perfect congratulations card for their achievement.

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