I am studying for a Master's in one of the top IIT in India and looking forward to apply for a PhD candidature. My institute follows relative grading. Faculty are allowed to assign grade themselves.

  • Normally the student with the highest score in the class will be given S (10 points).
  • The students with the next 3-4 high scores will be given A (9 points).
  • This is followed by grade B (8 points) for next 5-6 student scores.
  • The next 5-6 students will be given C (7 points).
  • That is followed by the D (6 points) grade.
  • All the remaining students will be given E grade (5 points).

For elective courses, the situation is even worse. For some elective courses I studied, there were less than 15 students and so it was only possible for 3-4 students in total to get an S or A grade. While applying for PhD, how should I have to deal with this? My Head of department agreed to provide me my position in her course.

  • If you're applying to US or Canadian universities, check out: academia.stackexchange.com/a/46852/15148
    – Jay
    Commented Feb 18, 2019 at 17:33
  • 1
    By the way, for applications to the U.S., do NOT attempt to "convert" your grades. Just report them as they are. Self-reported "conversions" are obviously not necessarily trustworthy, in the first place... Commented Mar 4, 2023 at 0:09
  • "there were less than 15 students and so it is possible only for 3-4 students in total to get S and A grade. " ARe you saying that ONLY a quarter of students can get the top grades and that this is bad?
    – Nick S
    Commented Mar 4, 2023 at 6:26
  • 1
    This is called "grading on a curve", and American universities do it too.
    – nick012000
    Commented Mar 4, 2023 at 15:18

3 Answers 3


How can I explain my grades?

Clearly, and with references: You have done a reasonable job in this post of giving us a basic run-down of how the grading system at your university works. If you are trying to explain it to a university where you are an applicant, it would be useful to set out a document giving a brief but clear description of this system, and showing what rules correspond to the courses you did. Explain this as clearly and simply as you can, and try not to make it too long. Try to think like you are the person receiving this information, and ask what you would want to know to make it as clear as possible.

Also, remember that the university will not accept your word for this, so you should make proper references to the policies of the university where the grades were awarded. Your university in India should have policy or grading documents that set out this information, so the relevant sections of those document should be included as an annexure, and you should make reference to them whenever you make an assertion about the grading rules in your courses. Try to make it as easy as possible for the person reviewing your application.

  • Thanks, Will a letter from my department head explaining the grading system will do?
    – Coventry
    Commented Feb 24, 2019 at 4:40
  • It would certainly help, but it would depend on the quality of the explanation.
    – Ben
    Commented Apr 19, 2022 at 3:05

Just a few quick notes on strategy based on having reviewed applications myself.

  • First, IIT system is extremely well respected, and I think people understand that grades are assessed heterogeneously across the world. So, you may get more credit than you expect.

  • Second, to my knowledge IIT admission is very competitive. So, I wouldn't hesitate to draw attention to that, even before discussing your grades (e.g. "I was one of the top 5% of students nationwide in the entrance exam", or something like that).

  • Third, when assessing unfamiliar transcripts, I look for variation. So, I might note, "(s)he struggles in linear algebra but excelled at algorithms." If you are strong in the subjects you want to pursue, that will definitely count in your favor.

In any case, an explanation would definitely help. I'd say the key points are:

  1. If you use a 0-10 point system and not an A-F system, and the university receiving the application does not require that you report grades on the US standard, I would not translate into A-F grades at all.
  2. If you have to include them, then I would include information about the quota system as recommended above, noting that it is very competitive.
  3. In particular, it would be good if you can translate your letter grades into rankings (e.g. B = rank 15/55) so people can put them into perspective.

For US institutions, there are a few places in your application where you can do this:

  1. Attach a supplementary explanation. Many universities allow you to include a page to e.g. explain if you missed a semester because of a family emergency, or something like that. So, you can either write a small note, or just include another copy of your transcript with grades translated into ranks.

  2. Mention it in your personal statement. "While the grading system is extremely competitive, I was able to graduate 23rd in my class of 100 students" or something like that.

  3. Ask your reccommenders to make a note as well. I have read letters saying, "As you know, XX is the leading university in country XX, with an extremely selective admission rate of XX. My assessment is that candidate XX is one of the top students in the class, with a particular aptitude for XX."

Finally, you should check with other students and professors. I can't imagine you are the first IIT student to encounter this problem, and I am sure the school has strategies since many students are accepted in US institutions every year. Your transcript might even include a printed explanation page automatically.

Good luck!


Following Ben's answer - if the institution gets a lot of students from IITs that grade like this, there is a good chance that someone in the graduate office has a good understanding of how these gradings work.

When contacting potential supervisors - I would recommend it being helpful if you could say something like "in top x% of students in degree". If I got an application full of "S" with no explanation I would assume you are not a top student, as "S" = Satisfactory (min requirement met only) to me.

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