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When is the right time to study in the US? Undergrad or graduate school?

interstride logo by Interstride
April 2, 2024

If students and their families know that they can only afford one degree overseas, the question becomes: what’s the better value – college or graduate school in the US? To answer this question, international students will need to think about their short-term and long-term goals as well as their budget for higher education to determine the best time to go to the US.

What is graduate and undergraduate school in the US?

Undergraduate school or college in the US allows students to earn a bachelor’s degree in about four years. It is typically completed after high school in the US. Undergraduate degrees include general education courses and courses focused on a chosen major. 

Graduate school or grad school allows students to earn a master’s degree in one to two years after they have earned a bachelor’s. Graduate degrees are advanced degrees where you focus on one area of study. Most graduate schools in the US accept students who earned a bachelor’s degree from any accredited instruction whether it was in the US or your home country. 

Considerations and advantages of going to the US for grad school vs. undergrad

Understanding the differences between graduate and undergraduate school can help international students figure out which is best for them. These differences include application requirements, cost and financial aid opportunities, and academics. The types of experiences students have and the career opportunities available after graduation will also vary for undergrad vs grad students. Let’s explore these differences between undergraduate and graduate school in the US and how they affect international students.

Applying to undergraduate vs graduate school

International students applying to undergraduate school in the US have a relatively simple admissions process that involves submitting your high school grades, letters of recommendation, and a personal essay. Many colleges are moving away from requiring standardized test scores but some still do ask undergraduate applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. International students will also need to submit test scores that show their English proficiency whether they are applying to undergrad or grad school.

Overall, grad school applications are more complex than undergrad applications. Grad schools require you to apply to a specific program and may ask you to identify a specific faculty member that you are interested in studying under upon acceptance. Some graduate programs in the US may also require GRE scores or GMAT scores for MBA programs. Check each program’s admission website for specific requirements.

Common additional admission requirements for graduate school include:

  • A statement of purpose 
  • A research proposal
  • An interview with the school 
  • Certain prerequisite college courses

Interstride Tip! You may be able to develop a stronger grad school application than an undergrad application once you have gained more experience and maturity through your undergraduate program.  Learn how US universities evaluate international graduate student applications to increase your chances of acceptance to an elite university for your master’s degree.

Cost of undergraduate vs graduate degrees in the US

Because bachelor’s degrees typically take around four years to complete versus two years for a master’s degree, a bachelor’s degree will usually cost more. While the cost per credit for undergraduate school is generally slightly cheaper than graduate school, the total length of the programs outweighs this difference. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average tuition cost of a bachelor’s degree in the US is $79,224 while the average tuition cost of a master’s degree is $59,684. That’s an almost $20,000 difference.

For both undergrad and grad school in the US, financial aid options for international students are limited. According to NAFSA, the majority of merit-based institutional aid that international students are eligible for is only available at the graduate school level. If cost is a major factor in your decision, you may want to consider choosing graduate school in the US rather than undergrad. 

Academic differences between undergraduate and graduate school

Undergrad school in the US includes many general education classes to build foundational knowledge and skills unrelated to the students chosen field of study. The unique liberal arts education that you can get from an undergraduate school in the US is hard to find elsewhere in the world. Undergrad students also have more flexibility within their program to switch majors in the first 1-2 years because there is more time to complete the degree.

Grad school courses in the US are highly specialized with no general education requirements. Grad school classes are also usually smaller and more interactive. The benefits of doing grad in the US include the strength of the academic programs, research opportunities, and access to specific professional networks for the career that you’re interested in.

Community and student life in undergrad vs grad school

The experience of being a college student in the US is very different from the experience of being a graduate student. This is partially due to the fact that undergraduate students are generally much younger. For many, college is their first time living away from home. Most undergrads in the US live on campus, so there are more opportunities to build community with peers. College is a formative experience, so undoubtedly, studying abroad for your undergrad degree will transform you not just academically, but socially, culturally, and personally.

Graduate school can also be a transformative experience, but often in a different way. Grad students have a wider range of ages. They may work full-time or part-time and be older students with families. There are more international students in grad school than undergrad in the US, and that may affect your experience. A graduate program may have a more built-in international student community whereas an undergraduate program might have more university-led student life activities that cater specifically to international students. Furthermore, grad school classes are usually smaller than undergrad classes which gives students more opportunities to connect with professors and peers. 

The value of an undergrad vs grad degree in the US

Studying in the US as an undergraduate student allows you to gain work experience and professional connections in the US sooner. Because you can work full-time for up to three years in the US after graduation through the OPT and STEM OPT extension programs, you could potentially save money to attend graduate school in the US as well.

There are several advantages to earning a master’s degree in the US as an international student. You will be eligible to work through OPT even if you already used it as an undergrad. If you want to remain in the US long-term, a master’s degree from a US university can increase your chances of winning the H-1B lottery. H-1B lottery applicants with a qualifying master’s degree get entered into a separate lottery that has fewer applicants. Then, if they are not chosen, they get a second chance in the general H-1B lottery.

What about a combined bachelor’s and master’s program?

Some universities in the US offer combined bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. These programs often allow students to earn both degrees within five years without having to reapply for graduate school. If you choose to do a combined program, you will still receive the additional chance in the H-1B lottery that comes with having a master’s degree, but you will only be able to do OPT once instead of twice (once for undergrad and once for grad school).

You can potentially save time and money because, in these programs, some college credits count towards both your bachelor’s and master’s degrees. For example, American University has dozens of combined degree programs and claims that participating students can save up to $22,000 in tuition costs. Other schools that offer combined bachelor’s and master’s programs include: 

Undergraduate vs graduate degree in the US: Which is right for you?

There is not a universal right or wrong answer to the question, “Should I do undergrad or grad school in the US?” Which is right for you depends on your field of study, long-term goals, and budget. The more research you do ahead of time, the more confident you can be in choosing the best time to study in the US. 

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