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What Is An Undergraduate Student? A Definition

Undergraduate studentsWhat are undergraduate students? There are plenty of them in the UK – over 1.5 million in fact – but how do
you define what they are? What are they studying and where do they study? And do they overlap with postgraduate students at all? Let’s take a look.

Who is considered an undergraduate student?

In the UK, Europe and the United States an undergraduate student is a student who is working towards a bachelors degree, sometimes known as an undergraduate degree. They are different from postgraduate students who are studying their subject at a higher level than the undergraduate level, having (usually) already been awarded a bachelors degree in a relevant subject. 

Is there any overlap with postgraduates?

Some postgraduate courses will award students with postgraduate qualifications that are in effect the same as an undergraduate degree. For example, the accelerated postgraduate course in Occupational Therapy at the University of Cumbria is run alongside the undergraduate course. 


What are they studying?

Undergraduate students will be studying a huge range of subjects, basically embarking on the first level of university study into any subject that is studied or taught at university – which is pretty much everything and anything!.A key difference between undergraduate and postgraduate work is the volume of independent research that students are expected to undertake. At the postgraduate level, some students will be doing masters courses that comprise entirely of research, known as an MRes (Masters of Research), without any taught element at all. Whereas an undergraduate course will have a large element of taught modules or courses and less individual research. 

Career-specific course vs general subjects

In the UK and Europe some undergraduates will be on bachelors courses that are technical and geared towards a profession, such as Engineering, whilst others will be studying more general courses, such as History, but this type of undergraduate course can lead to further training in a graduate scheme or go on to further study at the postgraduate level. In the US almost all undergraduates are studying general courses and will only go onto specialise on more career or technical focus subjects when they attend Graduate School. 

Where will you find undergraduate students?

In Europe and the UK, you will find undergraduate students in all the same places as postgraduate students, as well as at some institutions that only offer undergraduate degrees, such as some Further Education Colleges in the UK. In the US you will find undergraduate students in universities and colleges throughout the country, but not in Graduate Schools where only those with an undergraduate degree already can study. There are increasing numbers of students who choose to study online instead of at a traditional campus and they are often studying part time. 

What age are undergraduate students?

Undergraduate students can be almost any age, but the majority of undergraduate students are in their late teens and early twenties and have usually come straight from school or after taking a year or two away from their studies to travel or work. However, many students are taking their first undergraduate degrees as mature students or are changing career directions with an undergraduate degree. This means there is no upper limit to the age that an undergraduate student can be. 

How long do undergraduate students study for?

The length of study for an undergraduate degree program all depends on the course. For example, some undergraduate courses in the US are only two years in length, but these tend to be intensive courses that include traditional holiday periods. In the UK undergraduate courses tend to be between three and four years long, but for some more technical courses – like architecture – they could be studying for five years. In most of Europe, it is similar with courses lasting from between three and five years. Some undergraduate students study part time and in this case they will take between four and eight years to complete their course. 

How many undergraduate students are there?

Here’s a table showing how many undergraduate students there were in the UK, Europe and the United States in 2016.

Undergraduate students by region

Sources:1 2 & 3

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