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What is undergraduate education?

What is undergraduate education? What qualifications can you study at undergraduate level? Learn this and more in our guide to undergraduate study....

Undergraduate education

What is undergraduate education?

Undergraduate study is academic study after high school and before postgraduate study. Usually students enter undergraduate study at age eighteen.  The most popular qualification at undergraduate level is an honours degree; this is usually the first degree a student will study and is the highest qualification which one can achieve at this level.

You will need an undergraduate qualification in order to pursue postgraduate education.



Types of undergraduate qualification



A bachelor’s degree is the most common undergraduate degree. The different honour’s degrees are Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Bachelor of Science (B.S.), Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.), Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.), Bachelor of Engineering (B.Eng.), Bachelor of Science in Public Affairs (B.S.P.A), Bachelor of Science in Nursing (B.S.N.), or Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.), depending on the subject studied. The most common are B.A. and B.S.

You can also study joint, double or combined honours degrees where you split your study between two related subjects.

While roughly the same, there are some slight differences between undergraduate degrees in the UK and the US. In the UK, an undergraduate course lasts just 3 years and a student will study a particular course. However in the US, an undergraduate course lasts 4 years. In the first year, students in America will study a range of broad subjects similar to what they would have studied at high school level, but to a higher standard. They will then choose which subject they wish to major and minor in for the remaining 3 years. Your major is the subject you choose to concentrate on and represents between 25 per cent and 50 percent of the total number of courses in your bachelor's degree. Your minor is the second greatest concentration of courses. It will usually be half the amount of credits as your major. Elective courses can be chosen from any department and will make up any remaining credits required to graduate.


An associate’s degree is awarded at community colleges in the US following two years of study. Those with an associate’s degree can enter undergraduate study at university level having already covered some of the material which would have been covered in the first 2 years of an undergraduate bachelor’s degree.



Intermediate qualifications

Foundation courses are usually equivalent to the first 2 years of a bachelor’s degree though students can ‘top up’ and study further to get a full bachelor’s degree. Foundation degrees are more vocational or technical in nature and will be focused towards a specific career. This can be studied either part or full-time, and will sometimes be studied in a college affiliated with a university. Examples of qualifications you can earn include FdA (arts), FdEd (Engineering) and FdSc (Science).

You can also achieve a diploma after 2 years of study such as Higher National Diplomas (HND) and Diplomas of Higher Education (DipHe). A Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE) can be achieved after one year of study.



How are undergraduate courses taught & assessed?

Undergraduate courses are usually taught through classes & lectures combined with independent study. Some courses will also incorporate a year or study abroad or a placement in a real company to give you work experience. Undergraduate courses are assessed through assignments such as essays, dissertations, projects, portfolios, presentations and exams.



Eligibility criteria

International students will usually have had to complete 12 years of primary and secondary education resulting in A Levels, International Baccalaureate or an equivalent in their country. You can use our Ultimate Search to enter your local qualification and find an undergraduate course abroad whose eligibility criteria match these.

If English isn’t your native language, you will also have to meet the English requirements for the course you are applying to. Learn more about the IELTS and TOEFL tests.

Some international students may need to take additional standardised tests depending on the subject they wish to study or where they want to study. For example, American institutions may require you to take the SAT or ACT tests. However you should check with the institution you’re applying to, to find out the exact entry requirements you need to satisfy.

You may also have to go through an interview. You will also have to demonstrate that you have the funds to finance your studies abroad when applying and secure the correct student visa.



Undergraduate application process

You should start your application process between 12 to 18 months before your intended study date in order to research the different institutions and complete any necessary tests. Once you have made your shortlist of institutions you wish to apply for, you'll have to prepare your application.
Each institution sets its own application deadlines so check these carefully. It is always a good idea to submit your application as soon as possible.

Read our full guide to ‘Applying to undergraduate study’

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About Author

Undergraduate education

Paul Ellett is the editor for Hotcourses Abroad. His role is to plan, produce and share editorial, videos, infographics, eBooks and any other content to inform prospective and current international students about their study abroad experience. When he's not thinking about student visas in Sweden and application deadlines, Paul is an avid fan of comedy podcasts and Nicolas Cage films.