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Masters Degree Grades

Written by Mark Bennett

Masters grades in the UK are usually classified as Distinction, Merit or Pass.

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

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Masters degree results & classifications

In the UK, Masters degrees are classified as Distinction, Merit (or Commendation), Pass or Fail (with the exception of integrated Masters courses).

The following are the typical Masters degree classifications and the grades required to achieve them.

Masters grades
Classification Grades needed
Distinction 70% and more
Merit/Commendation 60-69%
Pass 50-59%
Borderline Pass/Fail 40-49%

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

Universities may use their discretion to accept 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 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.

Assessments & weighting

Taught UK Masters degrees 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 could include coursework (such as an essay) or exams to test your core subject knowledge.

Some Masters programmes may assess your participation in taught classes. You may be required to deliver presentations or 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 final 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. This is where you'll 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.

How do I get a Distinction in my Masters?

There's no one formula to achieving a Distinction at Masters level. But, we do have some tips that can help you increase your chances:

  • Understand what assessments you'll be required to take at the beginning of your modules and plan ahead to meet deadlines. Many modules have coursework due on the same day so finding time to give each piece its due attention is important to achieving the higher grades.
  • Talk to your lecturers and seminar tutors. They have a wealth of knowledge that's there to help you. Be willing to discuss your ideas with them about your essay structure, argument and research starting points.
  • Read your feedback carefully. Academics spend a considerable amount of time marking your work and providing feedback so make sure to read it through and understand where you could have improved. Also, go talk to your marker if you're unsure about any comments.

Extra requirements

On top of overall grade averages, universities often put in place extra requirements. These 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. This means you won't be awarded a classification without achieving the corresponding grade in your dissertation.

For example, if you're on track to receive a Pass, you may need to achieve the minimum grade for a Pass (50%) in your dissertation. Similarly, you may need to gain at least a 60% score in your dissertation for a Merit, and at least a 70% score for a Distinction.

Universities may exercise 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, students do not need to achieve particular dissertation results. Instead, universities require students to score highly throughout the rest of their course.

You may need to receive certain grades across a certain number of your 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. 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. Of course, you'll still have to meet all other PhD eligibility criteria and prove that you have what it takes to to a doctoral research!

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 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 final 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 it late. You may need a valid reason for having missed the initial deadline.
  • If you disagree with a result that has awarded to you, you may be able to submit an appeal for a remark. You may also be able to raise this through your university's complaints process.

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 some postgraduate (or ‘graduate’) grading systems used in America and Europe.

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

Masters grading in the USA

Rather than calculating your final 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 methods 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 maintain across a full programme. A GPA of 3.67 or higher on a Masters may be equivalent to a UK Distinction. For a more detailed look at how GPA compares to other grading methods around the world, read our full guide to GPA.

Masters grading in Europe

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

Different European countries use slightly different final grading systems. They will either follow the UK classification system, or 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 varies 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.

Search for your Masters

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Last updated: 05 July 2023