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Masters Degree Grades

Postgraduate degrees in the UK are generally graded using a different system to Bachelors degrees. Instead of a 1st, 2.1, 2.2. or 3rd, Masters students usually receive a Distinction, Merit or Pass.

This page offers advice on the system used to assess and classify taught and research Masters degrees in the UK. We’ve also included some information on the systems used in other countries, including ECTS credits and GPA scores.

On this page

Assessments & weighting

Taught Masters degrees in the UK are usually worth 180 credits, split between a number of modules - some compulsory, some optional.

Masters modules usually vary between 10 and 30 credits each, depending on their length and the amount of assessment they require.

Assessment types

The grade for an individual module is based upon the weighting of, and the grades achieved in, the module’s assessments. These assessments can include coursework (such as an essay) or exams to test your core subject knowledge.

Some Masters programmes may also require you to participate at a certain level in taught classes, undertake presentations or perhaps even complete practical placements and internships. You can check the specific details for all of the Masters courses in our database.

Weighting

Different assessments may be 'weighted' differently for each module.

For example, a module might be assessed by one exam and one piece of coursework, each worth 50% of the grade. In this case, if a student scored 55% in the exam and 65% in the coursework, their overall grade for the module would be 60%.

Alternatively, one assessment might be worth a smaller proportion of your final grade for the module

The dissertation

Most Masters programmes end with a postgraduate dissertation or thesis. This is a substantial peice of coursework based on your own independent research or practice.

In the UK, a dissertation is usually examined as a piece of written work. However, an external examiner (from a different university) is usually appointed to mark your work. In Europe, the dissertation assessment sometimes includes an oral exam during which you discuss and 'defend' your work (a bit like the viva voce at the end of a PhD).

Your dissertation is usually worth around 60 credits (one third of the total). The rest of the modules make up the other 120 credits needed to earn a UK Masters.

International grading systems

This page focuses on the grading system used for a Masters in the UK. For detailed information on other grading systems, visit our study abroad section.

Degree results & classifications

In the UK, most Masters courses are graded in the same way (with the exception of integrated Masters courses). This postgraduate grading system varies from that used at undergraduate level. While similar grade boundaries apply, they correspond to different degree classification labels.

Instead of dividing between first, second, and third-class degrees, Masters degrees are classified as Distinction, Merit (or Commendation), Pass and Fail.

The following table shows typical Masters degree classifications and the grades required to achieve them, with Bachelors degree classifications for comparison.


Masters Degree Grades
Percentage Masters grade Bachelors grade
70%+ Distinction 1st
60-69% Merit / Commendation 2.1
50-59% Pass 2.2
40-49% Borderline Pass / Fail 3rd

The exact grade bands and policy at your university may differ slightly from these examples. It's worth checking if you aren't sure.

Many universities are also more flexible than this, and use their discretion to consider accepting grades of 0.5% lower than the stated requirement for each band. For example, if you receive an overall average score of 59.5%, your university might consider awarding a Merit.

Research Masters grades

Some Masters focus on independent research and project work and don't include many (or any) taught modules and coursework. This affects the way they are graded.

An entirely research-based Masters, such as an MPhil, will usually be classified as a 'Pass' or 'Fail' (much like a PhD). A course that combines taught and research elements, such as an MRes, may use the same grade bands and classifications as a conventional degree.

Taught vs research

Postgraduate degrees are offered in different formats, allowing you to choose the mode of study that works for you. Our guide explains the difference between taught and research Masters.

Extra requirements

On top of requiring certain overall grade averages, universities often also put in place extra requirements. These are designed to ensure that Masters students consistently achieve strong results throughout their degree.

Dissertation requirements

As it forms such a large part of the course, universities often require Masters students to achieve a particular score in their dissertation. To receive a certain overall grade, student may have to receive a corresponding dissertation grade.

For example, students on track to receive a Pass may be required to achieve the minimum grade for a Pass (50%) in their dissertation. Similarly, students may need to gain at least a 60% score in their dissertation for a Merit, and at least a 70% score for a Distinction.

Universities may excercise some discretion in borderline cases where a student performs exceptionally well in their modules but narrowly misses out on the equivalent dissertation grade.

Consistent grades

In some cases, universities do not require students to achieve particular dissertation results. Instead, they require students to score highly throughout the rest of their course.

Universities may, for example, require students to receive certain grades across a certain number of their modules (or credits). For example, in order to award a Merit, a university may expect a student to score 60% or above in at least 90 credits of their degree.

Masters grades for PhD admission

In some cases, universities have specific Masters grade requirements for prospective PhD applicants, as part of their general PhD eligibility criteria. For example, they might require students to have scored at least 60% in a UK Masters degree, with a score of at least 60% in their dissertation.

However, it is more common for universities to simply require a Masters degree, without stating the need for a particular grade. This means that it may be possible to secure a place on a doctorate programme with a Pass grade at Masters level, if you can demonstrate you have what it takes to succeed at a PhD.

If you are applying for a PhD without a Masters, you may be expected to hold a 2.1 or higher in your undergraduate degree. Having a Masters may help ‘mitigate’ a lower grade and allow you to apply for a PhD with a 2.2. or lower.

Failing a Masters

A Masters is challenging, but you're still relatively unlikely to fail.

For one thing, universities won't admit students who aren't ready and prepared for the course. Your tutors should also be able to spot and assist with any difficulties that occur early in your programme (such as difficulty engaging with a module, or a poor first assessment).

If you do find yourself struggling with your degree, don't panic. It's likely that one of the following options may be available to you:

  • If you’ve only failed one or two modules, you may be able to resit some assessments with the aim of pulling up your overall grade. Try discussing this option with your tutor or supervisor.
  • If you fail your dissertation, you should get in touch with your supervisor straight away. You may be able to resubmit a revised version of your piece later in the year, for example in the January or September assessment period. Although the grade for this may be capped at a certain level, it may be enough to pull up your overall result.
  • If it’s looking like you’re going to fail your entire Masters course you might still be able to walk away with a postgraduate qualification under your belt. If an equivalent Postgraduate Certificate (PGCert) or Postgraduate Diploma (PGDip) exists for your course, your university may allow you to receive this qualification. PGCert and PGDip courses are shorter than Masters degrees, require fewer credits and don’t normally involve a dissertation. To find out whether this might be an option for you, try getting in touch with your department.
  • If you believe your work was affected by extenuating circumstances such as illness or bereavement, you may be able to submit a late application for extenuating circumstances. You may require a valid reason for having previously missed the deadline for this.
  • If you disagree with a result that has awarded to you by an official examining board, you may be able to submit an appeal for a remark. Most universities also have a complaints process, which allows students to formally report issues that relate to an aspect of the university, or of their specific faculty.

The important thing to remember in all cases is that universities don't seek to fail their students. It's also highly unlikely that you will 'suddenly' fail a Masters at the end of the degree. Problems are usually apparent much earlier in your course; be sure to speak with your tutors if you are having difficulties.

Masters grading in other countries

Masters grades are calculated differently across the world. Below, we have introduced the ways in which postgraduate (or ‘graduate’) degrees are classified in America and Europe.

For detailed information on studying a Masters in a different country, visit our guides to postgraduate study abroad.

Masters grading in the USA

Rather than calculating your overall grade based on percentages, American universities calculate a student’s Grade Point Average (GPA). This assigns a grade on a four point decimal scale to each piece of work you do. The points you earn across your course are then added up and divided by the number of courses or assessments you have completed. This gives your GPA score.

The big difference between GPA and other grading systems is that it calculates the final course for your degree as you go. Doing better or worse in subsequent assessments will raise or lower your current GPA.

The highest GPA a student can normally achieve is a 4.0, but this is very hard to achieve across a full course of study. A GPA of 3.67 or higher on a Masters may be equivalent to a UK Distinction. See our guide to Masters study in the USA for more information.

Masters grading in Europe

In Europe, progress on academic degrees is usually measured using the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation (ECTS) credit system. A full Masters degree is usually worth 120 ECTS credits.

Different European countries use slightly different final grading systems. Either they will follow the UK classification system, or else a numerical system in which ‘1’ is the highest classification, and ‘4’ the lowest passing score.

Masters grading in the rest of the world

Masters grading systems vary by country, and also by university.

If you’re interested in studying in a specific country, please visit our study abroad section which includes detailed guides to Masters degrees in a wide range of countries.

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Last updated - 15/03/2019

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