There are usually two types of cut-offs in entrance exams that decide who will and who won't be able to attend the particular institution.

They are :

  • Rank based
  • Marks based

In a rank based cut-off system, students with a rank above a specified rank can attend the institution.

In a marks based cut-off system, students who obtain marks above a particular mark can attend the institution.

In my opinion, a marks based cut-off is a much better system since it focuses more on learning, rather than competition.

I also believe that in a rank based system, the focus slowly shifts from learning to being above others. Students start focusing less on actually trying to understand what they need to understand to master a certain topic and more on what constitutes an exam. There comes a point where they no longer make use of their own brain, no longer explore what they're taught and just do what's required to be done for them to clear an exam (say). This is basically what the education system is at most of the places in the world.

Marks based systems are converting to rank based systems at a dramatically high rate.

What would be the benefits of a rank based system over a marks based system (if any)?

  • 1
    I edit your question to make it suitable for graduate school admission by add "graduate admission" tag and replace Children by Students. I believe you are asking both college and graduate school entrance exams. However, we do not deal with undergraduate level admission, only graduate school levels..
    – Nobody
    Commented Jun 23, 2020 at 12:31
  • i suggest you remove parts heavy on "In my opinion" as it invites further opinions. Unless you have personal experience or hard data to support your opinion Commented Jun 23, 2020 at 21:50

4 Answers 4


When knowledge is measured by an exam, some students will naturally focus more on learning "how to do the exam" instead of the actual content. Others will be more interested by the content. In my opinion, whether the cut-off is rank-based or mark-based has little effect on this. For example, cut-offs for English language exams such as TOEFL are always mark-based, but most exam takers will be happy to practice using old exams. The best way to get students to "learn the content instead of the exam" is to design good exams that can only be passed if one knows the content well.

That aside, the following advantages of each type of cut-off come to mind:

Rank-based cut-off

The most obvious advantage of rank-based cut-offs is that the number of students who pass the cut-off is fixed. If this is an entrance exam to some program for which there are limited seats, rank-based is the easiest way to go. It becomes easier to plan resources.

Another advantage of rank-based cut-offs is that they are less dependent on the fluctuations in the difficulty of each year's exam. The exam designers do not have to worry so much about making it "equally difficult" to previous years, because the N best students will pass anyway.

Mark-based cut-off

As you said, the main advantage of mark-based cut-off is that it actually evaluates how well the student knows the content, independently of what their peers know. It is less about competition (which may be good or bad, but that is not the question here) and more about actual knowledge. If the two "logistic" problems discussed above are mitigated (i.e., if the number of seats is unlimited and exams can be designed to be equally difficult every year), then mark-based cut-offs are probably a fairer evaluation of students' skills.
  • With regards to planning there is also the opposite direction. Having too few students will get you into trouble with regards to funding, either directly through lack of tuition or student dependent funding or indirectly, because some funding agency will rightfully complain about paying to much per actual student.
    – mlk
    Commented Jun 23, 2020 at 12:52
  • Well written! About the fluctuating exam difficulty, I think that changing the cut-off mark every year would pretty much solve it. Some experienced person/committee can decide the mark. Commented Jun 23, 2020 at 13:11
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    'The best way to get students to "learn the content instead of the exam" is to design good exams that can only be passed if one knows the content well.' - very well written. Still, it should be noted that even in that situation, "most exam takers will be happy to practice using old exams", for two reasons: 1) The described well-designed exams are simply a good way to practice one's knowledge independently of the exam, and 2) by at least looking at the old exams, students can find out that they can indeed focus on the content this time without also learning some quirks of the particular exam. Commented Jun 23, 2020 at 13:54
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    @RajdeepSindhu If you change the cut-off each year based on general performance, don't you effectively end up with a rank based system? The standard is again set by your peers then.
    – GoodDeeds
    Commented Jun 23, 2020 at 17:18
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    Interesting: "the main advantage of mark-based cut-off is that it actually evaluates how well the student knows the content, independently of what their peers know". My initial thoughts were the exact opposite, ie that a disadvantage of mark-based is that it does not tell you how much the candidate/s know, but rather how good they were at this exam. During my undergraduate, we were always marked relatively, the argument being that the students' quality should be more stable year-to-year than the difficult of the exam. I am at an institution which thinks a lot of itself, though...
    – Sam OT
    Commented Jun 23, 2020 at 21:40

I suspect the primary reason that rank based metrics are used is that a (graduate) school has capacity to take a limited number of people every year. For example, my department has funding to take 6 PhD students a year. Even with Master's students, we only have the staff and lab space to take around 40.

Of course ranking people on an exam and taking the top 6 students would be a terrible way to decide who gets in and who doesn't, and even where exams are used (we don't use exams), they should only be a part of the picture, so that somewhat removes that advantage.

  • Well said! By the way, what does we don't use exams mean? Commented Jun 23, 2020 at 13:07
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    We don't have entrance exams, or use standardized test scores for admitting people to our degrees. (We do have exams at the end of our courses, and we will take into account the grade you got in your previous degrees). Commented Jun 23, 2020 at 13:11
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    @RajdeepSindhu - All of the smaller, wealthier universities in the US use holistic admissions - you submit test scores, essays, high school grades, and various other pieces of information, and a committee reads all of it and decides who to admit based on their impressions of the applicants. Commented Jun 24, 2020 at 17:55
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    At Harvard you are not admitted to study a certain subject, rather you choose your major until your sophomore year. Thus it would be impossible to only judge using the subject the student intended to study, as the university does not know what that is. Commented Jun 24, 2020 at 21:21
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    I am from the UK, and I should be clear that when I said we don't entrance exams or stanardized exam scores, I meant at the graduate level. At the undergrad level, we do use the test results in the public exams that almost all British 18-year olds bound for university sit at 18 - 16 year olds choose 3 or 4 subjects to study until 18, and then all the national exam in that subject at 18. E.g. our Biology degrees require two As and a B, one of which must be chemistry. At Cambridge you must get A* in all subjects, but that is insufficient and must undergo further "wholistic" selection. Commented Jun 24, 2020 at 21:27

I agree with you that a marks based system promotes learning more and also in a cooperative manner.

I can think of one advantage of a rank based system though. A rank based system can normalize an exam otherwise too hard for anyone to get to a certain mark. An example of this could be a qualifying exam in a graduate school. Suppose a scenario in which there are few questions in an exam with the majority being very difficult questions by mistake (let’s say that year a new professor made the questions). If the school had a mark based system, it could be possible that most people cannot pass the exam due to questions being too hard. In that case, a rank based system would be better, since it would at least acknowledge the toughness of the situation and somehow provide an opportunity to pass the maximum number of students without being unfair.

  • Note that even with a mark based system you can adjust the grading scheme should it become obvious that some questions are too easy or too difficult. Put to the extreme a mark based scheme can effectively become rank-based (if you always without questioning adjust the grading to fit a fixed passing percentage). Commented Jun 23, 2020 at 21:32

I can give a perspective of this from the lens of a country which does have a Rank based entrance, India with a specific focus on an exam named JEE. Firstly, the thing to understand is that there is not enough seats in colleges to go around.

To put in perspective, in a usual year about 900,000 people write this exam. The actual amount of seat in the college which have the most funding are about 30k-40k. Now, the actual seats of those college which leads to having a higher chance of employability is even less. You may say, why on earth did I bring up employment statistic? That is because the main focus of many Asian countries is employability. You can clearly see this when you see that only those with highest rank can get in those employable fields.

Marks based systems are converting to rank based systems at a dramatically high rate.

This is exclusive to India actually. If you see other part of world, they are starting to move away from test scores to seeing what a person actually does as criteria for admission. 1 , 2

One more point: A mark based criteria would mean, if one is competent enough then they can participate. A rank based means, just competition for sake of it. If we were a society were resource were in abundance and things could be spared, it is a no brainer to take the first option. But, we are not, and that's why it's the second.

In the particular case of India, there will be more and more people writing entrance exams per year till it dips again due to the dipping birth rates now. So, yeah.

  • That summarizes it well. I'm from India too, a JEE "aspirant" actually, not a fan of it lol. Commented Jun 19, 2022 at 16:48

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