Individual College and University Courses Instead of Grad School

To help you prepare for graduate school, or as an alternative to grad school altogether, consider enrolling in individual university and college courses. These courses can help you learn new material, brush up on a subject, and understand principles in a field more clearly. We dig into a few reasons to pursue individual courses and how they can help inform your next steps.

Prepare for grad school

Attending a college or graduate level course can provide an opportunity to test the waters and see how it feels to be back in academia. Try taking a course related to what you are thinking about studying in graduate school especially if you’re unsure about which field you’d like to pursue. Some questions to ask yourself as you begin your coursework include:

  • Do you like being a student and in class again?
  • Do you enjoy and feel engaged by the assignments and projects?
  • Are you learning useful knowledge and skills for your career and future plans?

Understand an issue better

With a few professional years under your belt, you may have gained exposure to an issue you’d like to learn more about. Enrolling in a course can help you understand your issue area in deeper ways and gain a greater perspective about the field. For example, if you’re working at an after school program, you might be thinking more about how your students learn and may benefit from an early childhood education course. This could also inform your next steps and give you insight into whether a graduate program in education, psychology, or social work could be right for you.

Take prerequisite courses

Another reason to enroll in individual courses is to complete any prerequisite courses you will need for grad school. For example, many master’s in public affairs programs require coursework in economics and statistics which may not have been a part of your undergraduate work depending on your major. As you research your programs of interest, be sure to review prerequisite courses and determine if there are any you can take care of before you enroll.

Finishing this coursework before applying demonstrates your commitment to the field and can also save you money if you’re able to take them as a less expensive state or community college. Confirm what options you have with your graduate schools of interest as some programs specify what institutions and classes they will accept credit from. 

Post-baccalaureate programs

Some fields, most commonly medicine, offer post-baccalaureate (often referred to as post-bac) programs specifically to provide students the prerequisites they need before applying to the graduate program of their choice. In some cases, enrolling in and successfully completing a post-bac program may even be a prerequisite for entry into an attached graduate program at that school.

Post-bacs typically take one to two years to complete. Depending on the school, students in a post-bac program are enrolled either full or part-time. In addition to the opportunity to make up prerequisite coursework, some post-bac students also enroll in order to improve their undergraduate GPA and improve their application to medical or graduate school.

Learn about something new

Taking a course in certain subjects or skill areas like Mandarin or statistics can be more effective and engaging than pursuing self study on your own. With a course you’ll have access to an instructor who can facilitate your learning, assess your progress and correct your work. Additionally, you’ll have assignments and projects to help deepen your knowledge and other students to connect with and learn alongside. These structures and fellow peers can help keep you accountable for your learning and may prove more motivating than simply reading a book on your own.

Refresh your knowledge

If you have been away from your field for a while, you may benefit from taking a course or two to get back up to speed on the latest thinking and practices. This can be especially helpful if you’ve taken a longer time between your undergraduate degree and graduate school and want to ensure going back to the classroom is the right fit.

If any of these reasons appeal to you, take the next step and determine where you’ll enroll for these courses. Community colleges, four-year colleges, or universities typically offer options either directly through their departments or through their continuing education or community education office. Note that courses may be offered in the evening, on weekends, and/or online.

The application process to enroll in a course or two as a non-degree candidate is typically much easier than enrolling in a program as a degree candidate. In some schools, non-degree admission is as simple as filling out a form and paying tuition. This can be called “quick entry” and is available to help students access higher education for a variety of reasons other than seeking a degree. Keep in mind that the number of credit hours you can take per term may be limited and in the availability of certain campus services like career services may not be available to you if you’re only taking one course.

Individual courses can be useful in getting you closer to your goals. Whether you are bypassing a grad degree or preparing for enrollment in a grad program, these courses can help you clarify your interests, complete prerequisite coursework, and deepen your knowledge of an issue without the major commitments that come with pursuing a graduate degree.