How M.A. Classes Differ From B.A. Classes

Towards the end of their undergraduate career, many people turn their sights towards higher education and consider getting an M.A. – I know, I was one of those people! 

While getting a master’s degree seems like a logical step to take after graduating with a B.A., there are some major differences between graduate and undergraduate classes that all students should reflect on before making any commitments. I hadn’t really considered these differences until after I joined an M.A. English program, and was in for a big shock when I realized how different M.A. classes can be!

While each program will vary between schools, here are a few general things you can keep in mind when considering another degree:

1. M.A. classes will tend to be smaller and more discussion-based.

Many of the undergraduate classes I had often filled each classroom with English students, but most of the graduate classes I took had fewer than ten students, and it was usually considered unusual for any class to have more than that amount. Due to the size and the nature of the degree it’s expected for graduate students to talk during class, so it follows that graduate-level classes require students to be able to carry very in-depth conversations about writing and literature without a professor’s help. 

Smaller class sizes can be a great thing: I ended up making friends with my classmates since we’d take the same classes, I got to know my professors better and on a more personal level, and I was forced to learn how to articulate and share my ideas in class – all good things! M.A. classes will definitely demand more participation than undergraduate classes, so be sure to consider your comfort with small groups and class discussions before entering a program.

2. M.A. classes are usually longer.

While there are exceptions to the rule, most of the classes in the program I took were about three hours long (or, to be more specific, 2 hours and 45 minutes). It doesn’t seem like a long time, but keep in mind that we discussed literature for almost three hours straight! Many of my professors did give us breaks at the half-way point, but at the end of the day the classes still demand more than twice the amount of discussion and lecture than undergraduate level classes. 

Since most of these long classes are based on discussion, it’s up to you to make those three hours interesting – and again, this brings up the importance of participation in M.A. classes. Also, keep in mind that three hours of class time is a significant amount of your day, meaning that if you have a job or take other classes, you’ll have to work around those three-hour chunks (and that’s not even counting transportation time!).

If you love English and love talking about it then you’ll probably do well in an M.A. class, but be sure to consider the time commitment it can take before making any final decisions.

3. M.A. classes require more work.

It’s no surprise that getting an M.A. will be harder than getting a B.A. – it really is a step forward into even higher upper-division classes. M.A. classes often demand much longer papers (mine were anywhere from 10-20 pages) that are obviously graded at a higher standard than those in B.A. classes. In addition, M.A. professors rarely give out straightforward prompts, so students are left to discover a thesis for themselves. This method is scary, but rewarding, as it teaches you to think creatively, without the help of a prompt.

M.A. programs usually also require a final project like a thesis, which will really test your ability to analyze, research, write, and edit without the structure of a class. I found that the thesis I wrote demanded much more depth and detail than my B.A. thesis, and required much more work than I originally expected; though there was no formal thesis class I definitely spent a lot of time and effort on it that I didn’t plan for before beginning the project. 

The effort you put into an M.A. thesis will definitely give you a lot of knowledge and experience, but make sure that you consider how the possible workload stacks up to what you’re comfortable with.

4. M.A. classes are intense.

Many of your classmates might not have come straight from their Bachelor’s degrees: students, for example, can come into an M.A. program with years of experience teaching, writing, and working with English in ways that B.A. students haven’t been able to know. Often I’d find myself sitting in class beside people who were much older than me, and who already had much more experience in the working world and the academic world than I did!

The difficulty of an M.A. program, however, isn’t to scare you away; it’s simply to teach you the intricacies of English in an even deeper way than a B.A. program. Though the small class sizes, rigorous discussion, high expectations, and experienced classmates might be intimidating, it may be that those aspects of M.A. programs appeal to you and are useful to your career.

Before making any final decisions, however, I’d continue to research what M.A. programs are like and what you might use them for. At the end of the day, M.A. programs are unique, fun, and can help you develop as a writer, reader, and a human being – but they’re certainly not the only option out there for ambitious English majors.


Tami Orendain has a B.A. in English, an M.A. English, and pretty much just really likes English. A reader from an early age, she chose English on a whim on her college applications, and discovered that what was just a quick checkmark on a list of majors soon became a lifelong passion. With an interest in helping others discover the joys of reading and writing, Tami has worked as both a teacher and a tutor, and currently heads content for the online magazine DisneyExaminer to help others realize how important English is in modern culture. Her literary interests range from 18th century British literature to modern YA lit and beyond, and when not reading or writing she can often be found serving at her local church, exploring libraries, or watching cartoons (current favorite: Avatar: The Last Airbender). Feel free to feel free to view her portfolio and contact her at