The UK Grading System Explained

The UK grading system can be quite confusing for international students who are not familiar with its structure as every country differs. If you wish to study abroad in the UK, understanding the system is quite essential.

This guide aims to provide clarity for prospect international students with the UK education system and prepare you for the grading methods used at our universities to ensure that you know what to aim for and in turn, get those grades!

Table of Contents:

1. What are GCSEs?
1.1. How are GCSEs Graded?
2. What are A Levels?
2.1. The A Level Grading Explained
2.2. What are Highers?
3. What are UCAS Points?
4. The Undergraduate Grading System Explained
4.1. Why are UK grades so low?
5. Everything You Need to Know About the Masters Grading System
5.1. Integrated Masters
5.2. Taught Masters
5.3. Masters of Research (MRes)

1. What are GSCEs?

“GSCE” stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education and GSCEs are compulsory qualifications that you obtain at the age of 16 at the end of secondary school. You typically cover a broad range of subjects at GSCE level which means you can be receiving around 10 different qualifications (perhaps a few more or less, depending on the student). Normally, you have set subjects with are mandatory to take such as Maths, English, and Science and you have the option to choose an additional four subjects such as:

Foreign LanguagesHumanitiesArtsTechnical

French History Music Design and Technology
German Geography Drama Food Technology
Spanish Religious Education Film Studies Computer Science
Mandarin PSHE Arts and Design Physical Education
Psychology Media Studies Engineering

1.1. How are GCSEs Graded?

GCSEs were traditionally graded using the standard letter system which ranged from A* to G. However, in 2017, this system was replaced by a numerical grading system, where 9 is the highest grade and 1 is the lowest. The table below shows the new numerical grading system and its equivalent letter grades:

Numerical GradeLetter Grade

9 A*
8 A
7 A
6 B
5 C
4 C
3 D
2 E
1 F/G

2. What are A Levels?

A-Levels are exams taken by students in the UK at the age of 18 normally at a sixth form or college, which is the next stage after secondary school. Students typically take 3 or 4 A-Levels in subjects that are related to their university course. A-Levels are more advanced than GCSEs and are designed to prepare students for university. A Levels come in two sets. During your first year of A-levels, you will sit your AS level exams. It is at this point that you can choose to drop a subject. If you receive sufficient AS level grades, you can then enter your second year to complete the full A level qualification.

2.1. The A Level Grading Explained

A Levels are graded from A* to E, with A* being the highest grade. The table below shows the A Level grades and their corresponding UCAS points:

A Level GradeUCAS Points

A* 56
A 48
B 40
C 32
D 24
E 16

2.2. What are Highers?

Highers, also known as Scottish Higher qualifications, are similar to A-Levels, but they are taken by Scottish pupils. The Highers curriculum is different from the A-Level curriculum, and students typically take between 4 to 5 subjects at the Higher level in order to progress to university, apprenticeships, or work.

Another difference is that there is more flexibility with Scottish Highers as you can opt to complete these over one or two years. Most universities request that you have a minimum of 4 higher qualifications which is subjected to the grades you obtain.

3. What are UCAS Points?

Due to the sheer variety of qualifications, you can obtain through different institutions e.g. vocational or A-levels, UCAS points are a way of standardising these qualifications to make it easier for universities to compare applicants.

Each qualification is assigned a certain number of UCAS points, which can be used to calculate an applicant’s overall score. The UCAS Tariff is a points-based system used to compare qualifications, and most universities use it to set their entry requirements.

If you have your grades or predicted grades, you can calculate your points with the UCAS tariff calculator. This is particularly useful when choosing which universities to apply to based on their entry requirements.

4. The Undergraduate Grading System Explained

At undergraduate level, most universities follow a similar grading system where you will receive a mark between 0 and 100 for each assignment. These marks are then used to calculate an overall module mark/percentage, which is then weighted according to the number of credits the module is worth.

Each year of study has its own percentage toward your total degree classification. Normally, the first year tends to either not count towards your final mark or will yield a low percentage, and your final year will count the most to your overall degree. The table below shows the typical grading system used in undergraduate courses in the UK, along with their equivalent grade point average (GPA) used in the US:

ClassificationMarkEquivalent grade

First Class (1st) 70%+ A
Upper second class (2:1) 60-69% B
Lower second class (2:2) 50-59% C
Third class (2:3) 40-49% D
Fail 0-39% E/F

4.1. The UK Grading System: Why are UK Grades so Low?

The UK grading system is commonly known for its relatively low-grade boundaries in comparison to other countries like the USA. For instance, in the USA, students are expected to get much higher marks, and grades below 60 are considered a fail. However, in the UK, grades are lower in number but seek to be a more accurate reflection of the student’s personal abilities and achievements.

5. Everything You Need to Know About the Masters Grading System

The Masters grading system in the UK has similar grading boundaries to the undergraduate grading system. However, the terminology is different using ‘Distinction, Merit and Pass’ instead of ‘1st, 2:1, or 2:2). A Masters degree is often required for Ph.D. or careers with high training needs. There are different types of Masters degrees in the UK, including Taught Masters, Masters of Research (MRes), and Integrated Masters.

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

5.1. Integrated Masters

An Integrated Masters is when your Bachelor’s and Masters are done as one integrated degree programme, which means that you wouldn’t apply again and one leads straight into the other. These are normally four-year courses, and often the fourth year is a research project. In the end, you’ll be awarded undergraduate marks (1, 2:1, etc.) but get two degrees.

5.2. Taught Masters

Taught Masters are similar to undergraduate courses, with seminars, lectures, and assignments. However, the dissertation will heavily weigh on your final grade, with some courses requiring a pass mark of 50% or above to obtain the degree.

5.3. Masters of Research (MRes)

Masters of Research (MRes) is a type of Masters that doesn’t have typical teaching but is done solely through a research project in your field. These are often pass/fail, but if you have a mix, you may also get a traditional mark.

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