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Masters Degree Grades

In the UK masters degrees are usually graded in a different way to bachelors degrees, with the system being Distinction, Merit and Pass rather than 1st, 2.1, 2.2 and 3rd.

This table illustrates approximately how the two different grading systems can be compared:

Masters Degree Grades

However, although masters degree grades are usually different to undergraduate degree grades, this does depends on what masters course you are studying. Here, we’ll look at the most common three:


Integrated masters degree

Masters degree gradesAn integrated masters is one that follows directly on from your undergraduate course. This is most common in the sciences, where you apply for a four year course in your chosen subject and then in your second year make a decision on whether to follow the path to a BSc or to an MChem, MPhys, etc.

This is graded like an undergraduate degree in that the classification you receive will be either;

  • First (1st);
  • Second class honours upper division (2.1);
  • Second class honours lower division (2.2);
  • Third (3rd) or;
  • Fail.


In these cases, the later levels of study are weighted more than the earlier.

Standalone masters degree

Taught masters degree

Taught masters degrees require 180 credits worth of work, made of a combination of taught modules, projects and a dissertation. The individual masters modules are usually worth between 10 and 30 credits each, depending on their length and the amount of assessment required. In some cases taught masters are merely graded as a pass or fail, but commonly taught masters degree grades are fail, pass, merit (or credit) and distinction. The boundaries for this are usually 50% for a pass, 60% for a merit and 70% for a distinction as the table illustrates. This masters degree grading system will be covered in greater detail later. 

Masters degree by research

A masters by research (an MPhil or MRes, and sometimes MLitt) is usually graded as pass or fail, with occasional universities offering distinction as a classification as well.

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Postgraduate grading system in the UK

Now we’ve looked at generally how masters degree grades work, let’s be a bit more specific and explain the postgraduate grading system in the UK. Firstly, you will note that the average score that the grade is based on is often referred to as ‘weighted’. For an integrated masters, this means your marks in your final two years are worth more than in your first two. On other masters courses, it can depend on which proportion of the mark is made up by taught aspects or research aspects. In general though, as well as having to aim for a certain weighted average, you also need to have marks within a certain range. Generally, this means for a pass, no marks under 40, a merit, none below 50, and for a distinction, none below 60.

If your course involves a dissertation, the mark that you achieve for this will also impact your final masters degree grade. Often, to achieve a certain classification, you are required to achieve that mark as minimum on your dissertation, for example, for a merit, your dissertation needs to score 60 or above, and for a distinction, 70 or above. If this sounds intimidating, try not to worry, we have plenty of helpful advice for you from writing your dissertation proposal to various ways to avoid dissertation drama.

Whilst these classifications are pretty much standard, they do vary between courses as well as between universities, so do check out your particular university and find out how it works out its masters degree grades. Some universities, whilst sticking to the pass/merit/distinction boundaries for their final grades, may use a variety of ways to mark your work throughout the year – percentages, letter grades (A, B, C, etc), so do make sure you know how it all adds up!

Also, remember that university guidelines, whilst strict, do have an element of leniency. Often there is a boundary (commonly 2% under) that if your final average is in, you may be able to persuade yourself up a class! This is most common if you excelled on your dissertation, but perhaps were let down by an earlier taught module. So don’t be afraid to ask.

As an estimate of what quality of work you’re looking for, take a look at some example guidelines below:

Distinction Grade Distinction:
Sophisticated understanding of topic, with high degree of competence, excellent usage of relevant literature, theory & methodology.

Merit Grade Merit:
Has a critical understanding of the topic, a significant degree of competence and has appropriate usage of the relevant materials.

Pass Grade Pass:
Evidence of some critical understanding of topic, can use structured argument, has degree of competence when using relevant materials.

Again, these are general guidelines, and looking at your particular university will give you much more specific information on their masters degree grades. If it all looks a bit much, don’t worry – we have a guide on how to get a first class postgraduate degree here.

You may have noticed that, despite the official classifications being distinction, merit and pass, that there is a tendency towards continuing with undergraduate language. This is because they roughly match up –  a first is roughly a distinction, a second class honours, upper division a merit, and a second class honours, lower division a pass. This can be helpful to bear in mind when thinking about masters degree grades, as, after all by this stage you’ll have a great understanding of how the undergraduate system works!

What if you are failing your masters degree?

In the unlikely event that your masters grades start to drop, rest assured that you are unlikely to fail because the university would not have admitted you onto the masters course in the first place if you weren’t ready for the academic challenge. However, sometimes the unexpected does happen and if your grades do start to go awry, there are various options available to you:

1. As previously discussed, a masters degree is divided up into several modules, which are usually are worth between 10 and 30 credits each. If you’ve only failed one or two modules there is likely to be the opportunity to re-sit some assessments within these modules to increase your overall grade.

2. If you fail your dissertation, contact your supervisor to see if you can submit a revised version later in the year. If this is allowed it could be enough to raise your overall masters degree grade.

3. If your masters program is going completely wrong and you are almost certainly going to fail, there may still be a chance of you achieving a different postgraduate qualification, for example a Postgraduate Certificate or Postgraduate Diploma. These PG qualifications require less credits to complete than a masters degree, and by achieving one of these you can rest assured that your postgraduate studies were not in vain!

4. If your academic achievement (or lack of it) has been affected by extenuating circumstances – such as illness or bereavement – speak to your supervisor as soon as possible as they may allow you to submit your dissertation at a later date or re-sit some exams before submitting your work to the official examining board.

5. Finally, if you feel that the official examining board’s grade is an unfair reflection of your work, you may be able to submit an appeal for a remark.


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