The University Grading System Explained

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When thinking about university, you may often think about the grades you need to get in. The As, Bs or Cs you may need to even meet the entry requirements. The hours you put in just to ace those exams or excel in that coursework. Then you can relax once you get into university. Or can you?

We often forget about the exams and coursework you have to do at university. You may also need to put in long hours for your higher education as you did in your further education. But university isn’t the same as further education. You won’t be getting a brown envelope with As, Bs or Cs to tell you how well you did. What grades do you get at university? Do you get graded at all?

Different levels of university use different grading systems. Undergraduate degrees use the degree classification system. These grades or degree classifications are based on percentages that are calculated from a student’s progress. Students can get a first-class honours degree (1st), an upper second-class honours degree (2:1), a lower second-class honours degree (2:2), a third-class honours degree (3rd) or they will either not get an honours degree or fail the degree. Master’s degrees use a Pass, Merit, Distinction grading system. For PhDs, you can either pass or fail the degree.

Undergraduate Grade Percentage Master’s Degree
1st 70%+ Distinction
2:1 60- 69% Merit
2:2 50- 59% Pass
3rd 40- 49% Fail

Continue reading for more information about the different grading systems used for undergraduate degrees, master’s degrees and PhDs. This article is great for you if you want to study at university or if you’re simply interested.

How are Undergraduate Degrees graded?

Before starting university, you probably studied A-Levels, Highers, BTEC Nationals or some other level 3 qualification. With the most traditional of these grading systems, you would have probably gotten used getting letters written on the front of your tests. With more vocational qualifications you may have received a Pass, Merit or Distinction (or maybe even a Distinction*), such as with BTECs. If you would like to know more about the BTEC grading system, check out this article.

By the end of your first year at university, you’ll realise that these systems are no longer used. Instead, they are replaced by the degree classification system. The degree classification system is simply the grading system used by universities for undergraduate degrees. If you want to know more about undergraduate degrees, look here.

The degree classification system has 4 main degree classifications or grades. These are a first-class honours degree (1st), upper second-class honours degree (2:1), lower second-class honours degree (2:2), third-class honours degree (third). For more information about these and this grading system in general, check out this article from

Degree Classification Percentage Grade
First-class honours (1st) 70%+
Upper second-class honours (2:1) 60- 69%
Lower second-class honours (2:2) 50- 59%
Third-class honours (3rd) 40- 49%

If you would like to know more about what these grades are and what they really mean, check out this Think Student article.

How are Master’s Degrees graded?

The next level up from an undergraduate degree is a master’s degree. A master’s degree is a level 7 qualification in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. To find out more about these levels, you can check out this governmental guide. It is also a level 11 qualification according to the SCQF levels that are used in Scotland. If you would like to find out more about these levels, check out this guide from Glasgow Kelvin College. For more information about master’s degrees in general, check out this useful article.

The master’s degree grading system is very similar yet very different to the undergraduate grading system. As a reminder, the undergraduate grading system uses degree classifications. The main ones of these being first-class honours degree, upper second-class honours degree, lower second-class honours degree and a third-class honours degree. Master’s degrees aren’t graded in this way. Instead, the grades are Pass, Merit, Distinction or Fail. This is more similar to vocational causes, such as BTECs but without the Distinction* grade.

While having different names for the grades, the master’s degree grading system is still quite similar to the undergraduate grading system. This is because both grades are based off set percentages that are quite similar, while not completely the same. For more information about master’s degree grades, check out this article from To see it more clearly, look at the table below.

Grade Percentage
Distinction 70%+
Merit 60- 69%
Pass 50- 59%
Fail Below 50%

How are PhDs graded?

A PhD is another kind of postgraduate degree. It is a level 8 qualification in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This makes it on the highest level of qualifications that you can get in the UK. Due to this, PhDs are incredibly prestigious. Therefore, there are only about 100,000 doctoral researchers in the UK, including PhD students. For more information about this figure, check out this article by Vitae. If you would like to know more about PhDs, check out this Think Student article.

As a PhD is at the highest qualification level that you can get in the UK, you have to pass through the entirety of the education system to be able to do so. This means that you will likely have a range of qualifications, all with different grading systems. After getting used to the undergraduate degree classification system and then the Pass, Merit, Distinction system from master’s degrees, you may have thought you’ve seen it all. But when you get to a PhD, the grading system changes again.

In the UK, the grading system for a PhD is very simply pass or fail. This is different to other countries where they may have more distinctions in grades. For more information about this grading system, check out this article from In a PhD and other doctorate degrees, in order to get your grade, you will have to do a viva voce exam. This is an oral exam in which you will discuss your thesis and research area in order to demonstrate your knowledge. For more information about the viva voce, check out this article by the University of Portsmouth.

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