Graduate vs. Undergraduate Writing

Academic Writing: Undergraduate-level vs. Graduate-level Writing

Professors often talk to students about “writing at the graduate level” without detailing their exact expectations.  Without guidance, students often find it difficult to improve their writing. This page will help you identify the expectations of graduate-level writing. 

Academic Writing 

All academic writing, whether at the undergraduate, graduate or doctoral level: 

  • Is concise, declarative, formal, specific & precise, objective & non-emotional; 
  • Use of evidence from scholarly/credible sources 
  • Is free of sentence-level errors 
  • Use of academic-style formatting and citations 
  • Is logically organized using academic essay structure  
  • Ensures that all information from sources is cited & all types of plagiarism is carefully avoided 

What is the Difference between Undergraduate and Graduate Level Writing? 

While there is no official rules of writing that differ between undergraduate and graduate programs, there should be a marked difference between the two. In addition, professors expect a higher quality of writing when dealing with graduate studies over undergraduate courses.  

Undergraduate writing revolves around assignments. Often, students write to prove they did your homework. For example, students may be asked to respond to a class reading. These assignments are designed to measure specific skills, such as the ability to find and incorporate sources. 

Graduate-level Writing 

The difference between undergraduate and graduate-level writing is the difference between student and scholar. While assignments may still serve as the impetus for writing, the ideas and arguments students write about should strive for wider relevance. Graduate-level writers engage other scholars as peers, building on and challenging their ideas in order to advance the frontier of knowledge.  In essence, graduate-level writing extends beyond the classroom and seeks to impact the broader world. 

Let’s examine some more differences that should be in play when comparing the two levels of writing: 

Undergraduate-Level Writing Graduate-Level Writing

Often addresses a specific writing prompt

 Often involves coming up with and answering a research question 


Mostly presents what others have said about a topic 

Enters the conversation as a scholar with own expertise and insights  

Exploratory research required 

Extensive & comprehensive research required  

Use of direct quotes is accepted  Less reliance on direct quotes, favoring summarizing & paraphrasing  
Synthesis of research is not typically reached and the full scholarly conversation is not presented  Studies & expert opinions are synthesized to show similarities, differences, etc. of the full scholarly conversation  
Written for a general academic audience   Written for other scholars and professionals in the field of study  
Uses general vocabulary, with defined terms whenever discipline-specific language is used  Uses technical vocabulary specific to the field, with no need to define these terms  
Basic academic essay structure with introduction, body of ~3-10 paragraphs, and conclusion Formatting specific to the field, with use of sections such as literature review, methods, results, etc.  
Writing is done to show that understanding/learning has taken place—as assessment   Writing is done to further knowledge in the field—to contribute to the field of study