I wanna apply for Master’s programs at LSE and Oxbridge starting next year. I’m currently on completing my undergraduate studies, have the equivalent of a first-class honours will most likely graduate with distinction and Top 5% of my class.

So far so good.

However, I have just read here that it can be quite an issue with admission officers if there are bad grades and/or failed classes on the undergrad transcript. It appears that bad grades and/or failing classes are much more troublesome in the UK and USA. I heard that you can’t just resit a class and that such grades may even count toward your final grade (USA).

The thing is, where I’m from, it’s totally normal to (deliberately) fail a class for whatever reason. In fact, it’s pretty simple. If you fail a class it doesn’t count towards your final grade (why should it, if you didn’t pass?) and you can retake it whenever you want. At my university you’re even allowed to retake exams you have already successfully passed, a good thing if you want to optimize grades. Hence, it’s obvious that little attention is given to a fail or whatsoever.

I’m concerned, however, how this could be perceived with graduate admission at the top universities in the UK. On my home university transcript, failed classes doesn’t show up, only passed ones. I only have two classes where I passed with a 3 but I’m gonna retake them next semester and get a first on them. Unfortunately, I did an exchange in the US last semester where I passed two courses (A-, B+) but failed two and q-dropped one. I failed because I knew it was easier at home and I had other things in mind during this time. By now, I have already completed these classes I failed in the US and got excellent grades on them.

In light of these circumstances, is there even the slightest possibility that graduate admission would reject me despite a first-class degree just because there are 2 failed courses on an exchange semester transcript? Given that in my country the culture of failing classes for whatever reasons is commonly practiced. Does graduate admission generally understand those critical differences between UK vs non-UK universiy life?

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    What? Why on Earth wouldn't a grade you earned count toward your overall GPA because your failed? Where is this a common practice? – Azor Ahai -him- Aug 8 '18 at 19:09
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    @AzorAhai E.g. in Italy: I've described the practice in this answer. See also the other answer for Germany. – Massimo Ortolano Aug 8 '18 at 19:17
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    @MassimoOrtolano That answer doesn't explain why a failed class wouldn't count toward your overall grade though, unless I misunderstood your point? – Azor Ahai -him- Aug 8 '18 at 19:20
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    @AzorAhai: It's also a practice in some U.S. colleges, e.g., at CUNY: if a student gets an "F" in a course, repeats it and gets a "C" or higher, then both grades stay on the transcript but the "F" is dropped from GPA calculations (effective Sep-1, 1990). I hate it because I get students scoring a "D" who come and ask me to "F" them instead in light of this policy. – Daniel R. Collins Aug 8 '18 at 19:55
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    Also, sorry ecobiz for flooding you post with comments, but can you also explain what a q-drop is? That's not a term I'm familiar with in the USA, so it's likely not that universal. – Azor Ahai -him- Aug 8 '18 at 20:26

Let me try and give an answer from the perspective of someone who is involved with, but not responsible for, PhD admissions in my discipline (mathematics) at a UK university. I know that you are asking about a Master's place, but I will try to make points which also apply to some extent in that setting.

Standard disclaimers apply: while I hope what I say is not inaccurate, it does not represent the official opinion of my department, my employers, etc.

I'll confine myself to the final parts of your post/question:

In light of these circumstances, is there even the slightest possibility that graduate admission would reject me despite a first-class degree just because there are 2 failed courses on an exchange semester transcript? Given that in my country the culture of failing classes for whatever reasons is commonly practiced.

Rejection or success has to be understood against the context of who else is applying for a limited number of places. So I would say that there is a slight possibility, in the sense that when it comes to ranking candidates and making offers, the two fails might be noted and interpreted as a sign of some deficiencies, as compared with some other applicant who has the same overall GPA or degree mark but doesn't have those fails. However, there may be people on the relevant departmental committee who know that different countries have different systems, and who could then counter that interpretation with context such as the explanation that you give in your question.

Put another way: I don't think a 1st class degree with 2 failed courses on an exchange semester would be ranked below someone with an upper 2nd and no fails; but when compared with someone who has a 1st class degree and no fails, you might find yourself unlucky.

That said: my impression is that provided all other marks are good, a couple of low marks are not regarded as so significant, provided that the good marks are not in subjects/courses regarded as "easy" and the low marks are not in subjects/courses regarded as "hard".

Does graduate admission generally understand those critical differences between UK vs non-UK university life?

As I've mentioned above, there may be people who do understand, but this is very hard to predict. For instance, I have a colleague who did his PhD in Rome, and so he is able to give very informed opinions on how we should interpret transcripts from applicants who did their undergraduate degrees in Italy. I have worked in Canada, so if I see a transcript from someone from that system I have some idea how to interpret the transcript and the likely content of courses. Other departments in other universities may have similar random connections.

If you are very concerned that these marks on the transcript could jeopardise your chances, then I think the best thing to do is to ask one of your reference-writers to make some brief comment about how the system where you did your exchange visit differs from the one where you did your main degree, and how (in their view) those fails do not represent your true potential.

To finish: you should nevertheless reflect on the fact that if you do want to do a Master's in the UK then the mode and culture of assessment will be different from what you previously experienced and are used to. Lecturers are unlikely to make allowances for a student who seems, from their point of view, to give up at a certain point because they wish to take the hit of a bad grade at an early stage with the hope of then ratcheting it up. They are not going to set assessments which cater to that way of thinking. I mention this not to claim that the UK approach is better, or that the UK courses are harder (they might actually be easier!) but because you need to know what you are getting into.

  • +1 for the last paragraph. If I were on a admissions committee, I would wonder if a student who is used to retaking exams will be able to adapt to a program where that is not allowed except for illness or another major reason, not just didn't study enough. – mkennedy Aug 9 '18 at 17:04
  • That‘s how it works at German-speaking universities: You‘re given a set of moduls you‘ve to successfully (!) complete in order to earn your degree. When you do each modul and the order thereof is mostly completely irrelevant. You can even only do one course in one semester without facing any consequences. This is because German-speaking universities were built and live on the concept of flexibility. The system is intended not to be as school-like as anglo-saxon universities. To infer that these students wouldn‘t be able to adapt is just staggering imho. – ecobiz Aug 9 '18 at 19:41
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    @ecobiz I am sorry if you do not like my message. I did say that the UK course might be easier. You quite deliberately did not mention your discipline or the country in which you are doing your undergrad, so I was forced to write quite generic advice. I am sure you will appreciate that "distinction in the top percentile of his cohort" is a relative measure. If you want to specify your question to make it clear we should be thinking of applicants from e.g. Bonn or Moscow, be my guest. – Yemon Choi Aug 9 '18 at 20:43
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    @ecobiz I am also sorry if you took offence with my last paragraph. The fact remains, if you want to do a Master's in a certain system, you should know the rules of the system. I did not mean to imply that students from outside would not be able to adapt, I merely warned that they needed to be aware that the ground rules might be different before the start of the program(me), not during it – Yemon Choi Aug 9 '18 at 20:45
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    I‘m sorry that I forgot to mention; I‘m doing my undergrad in Austria – ecobiz Aug 9 '18 at 22:54

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