Masters Degree Grades

Masters degree grades are often different to undergraduate degree grades, but this does depends on what masters course you are doing. Here, we’ll look at the most common three:


Integrated masters degree

An 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;

  • a first (1st);
  • a second class honours upper division (2.1);
  • a second class honours lower division (2.2);
  • a third (3rd) or;
  • a fail.

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

Master's Degree Grades

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. Some are merely given 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. This will be covered in more detail later. More information on taught masters is available here.

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. You can find out more about this here, and a comparison of research and taught masters here.

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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, this will also impact your masters degree grade – often, to achieve a certain classification, you are required to achieve that mark as minimum on your dissertation. So, 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 lots of helpful advice for you.

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 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, etc), so do make sure you know how it all adds up!

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

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

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!


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