What are the differences between college, tech school, and grad school?

College Admissions


You’re on the last leg of your high school education, about to head out on your own and take on the world. Understandably, you feel powerful. You’re finally going to live life the way you want it, and start forging your own path. However, with great power also comes great responsibility: You must now choose which path you will take to fulfill your dreams.

There are many options and myriad careers available to you. You can be a clothing designer, a lawyer, a doctor, a restaurateur, a veterinarian, a chef, an elementary school teacher, a college professor, a dot-commer, a salesperson…the possibilities are endless. The first step, after thinking about the careers you may want to pursue, is deciding what kind of training and education you will need to achieve those goals.

What are your options?

College is probably the most readily understood concept out of the four listed here. Those who go to college obtain a general academic education that can prepare them for a variety of careers. This education typically takes four years, and also requires the student to select a “major,” or concentration, that focuses the student on a particular field. Aside from a few majors that are career-specific (for example, accounting, engineering, or computer science), colleges don’t specifically prepare you for a trade. Instead, they provide you with a solid base of academic knowledge that you can then apply to a number of different career paths.

Technical school, sometimes also referred to as vocational school, is almost the complete opposite of college. Rather than receiving a generalized education, students who enroll in a course of study at a technical school take very specific classes that prepare them for a particular job (for example: culinary arts, massage therapy, office management, cosmetology, fashion design, or information technology). Although vocational classes are typically found in community colleges, there are also a large number of technical institutes that provide this kind of training. ITT Technical Institute and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) are two well-known technical schools in the United States.

Graduate school is a school that awards advanced academic degrees, such a Ph.D. or Master's degree. It falls under the category of “post-graduate education” because you need a college or undergraduate degree in order to apply and enroll. Typically, students go to graduate school because they wish to embark on a particularly academic career which requires (or recommends) an advanced degree. Graduate schools are usually part of a larger university, and are attached to an undergraduate institution.

Professional school is a school that also awards advanced academic degrees, such as a J.D., M.B.A. or M.D., but does so with a specific focus and profession in mind. Like graduate schools, professional schools are post-graduate institutions, and require a college or undergraduate degree in order to apply and enroll. Law school, medical school, and business school are all examples of professional schools. Although professional schools could fall under the definition of graduate schools, they are listed separately here because they are similar to technical schools in that they provide their students with an education with a specific career in mind.

How can these options help you?

Although each is different, these educational options can each be very beneficial to different types of students. In order to determine which path is the right one for you, you must first consider what you want your career path to be, and what you must do to get there. Keep a few things in mind:

  1. If you’re not sure about what you want to do for a living, or which career you’d like to pursue, college may be the best option. This is because college allows you to “try on” various different disciplines, and see which one “fits” best. If you start off your college career with one major in mind, but then change to another after a year, it’s usually not a problem, and the change can be made easily and seamlessly. This is not the case with a technical or vocational school, where change is usually harder and more involved.
  2. If you know exactly what you want to do, perhaps a technical school is the right choice. This is particularly true if the career you’re interested in requires you to have a good deal of hands-on technical knowledge and experience. Once of the great aspects about a technical school is the amount of practical experience you will obtain during your course of study, which will directly translate to the job you will have after you graduate.
  3. If you want to embark on a career path in academia, teaching, or counseling, chances are pretty good that you’ll have to go to graduate school. This is because these positions typically require at least a Masters degree, if not a Ph.D., and also look favorably upon those who have conducted extensive research and have been published, both of which are available to students in graduate school programs.
  4. To be a dentist, librarian, attorney, doctor, nurse, or veterinarian (among others), you will have to attend professional school. These professions require specific advanced degrees that are built upon the foundations of a college education and specific post-graduate knowledge. Certain upper management and governmental positions may also look favorably upon or require professional degrees.

What if you’re not sure about what you want to do?

Some of you may already know exactly which career path you want to pursue. However, if you don’t know, don’t worry—you’re not alone! There are many options available to you, and the world is still a blank slate to you. It may take a while for you to decide, and that’s okay.

Talk to your parents, friends, teachers, and counselors, and tell them about some of the career choices you’re considering or ask them for suggestions. If you need to, take some time off between high school and your next academic step to really think about where you want to go, and how you’ll get there.

Remember: This could set the stage for the rest of your life. Taking some time to really think about what you want to do and what will make you happy is just as important as deciding where you’ll go to make your dreams happen.

What are the pros and cons of each option? Check out this College, Technical School, Graduate School, and Professional Schools: Pros and Cons list to find out!
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