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No one from my UK university appears able to give me a concrete example of an answer for coursework or an exam that would get over 80% for any of my MBA modules.

It was suggested here that this is because scores over 80% are not really achievable in the UK; that such a score would indicate having done better than the instructor could have done themselves. Is this true? Are these scores basically unachievable in the UK?

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  • Assorted discussion and answers-in-comments have been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Dec 16, 2022 at 7:16

11 Answers 11

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I have to admit, as somebody coming from a different academic system, I also find it quite odd that in the UK system, 70% is enough for the best grade ("first"). As a result, there is a fairly wide range of marks (70-100) in this highest "grade band".

As you say, 80+ (or 85+) marks are indeed extremely rare and definitely more of an exception than the rule. Your typical CRGs (Criterion Reference Grids - student-facing, module-specific marking guidelines) would not usually contain any guidance on any nuance above 70%. However, here are some quotes from my Universities general assessment policy. I know you asked about an MBA (so, Master level), but I am including some quotes referring to undergraduate, for completeness:

Level Band Description
UG 80-89 Work consistent with first class performance which is exceptional in most areas.
UG 90-100 Work consistent with first class performance which is exceptional in all areas.
UG 85-100 The student has shown exceptional knowledge and understanding, well beyond the threshold expectation of a graduate at this level and significantly beyond what has been taught.
PG 80-89 Work consistent with a distinction and is exceptional in most areas.
PG 90-100 Work consistent with a performance which is exceptional in all areas and could have the potential for publication.
PG 85-100 This work meets and often exceeds the standard for distinction, as described in the 70-85 band, across all subcategories of criteria. Typically, the work is of such a quality that indicates a student capable of doctoral research in the discipline and, in principle, has potential for publication or exhibition with further refinement as appropriate. Reflects critically on own positionality, nature and status of knowledge with discipline.

For me, personally, even the description of something being "exceptional in all areas" is quite vague -- but I find the Postgraduate level explanation for the 85-100 band to be the one that clarified it up for me: a mark of 85+ indicates a student who would be a strong doctoral candidate in the topic. In my experience so far, there are about 1-2 students with the potential to do doctorate-level research in every cohort of 100-200 students at the MSc level at my University. This about matches my observed frequency of marks in the 85+ range amongst our student body.

For more details, you can check our assessment policy yourself (or maybe try and find an equivalent document from your own University) - the parts relevant to this question are sections 3.2 (UG), 4.3 (PG), Appendix 2 (UG) and Appendix 3 (PG).

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  • Thanks for this. My university does publish similar guidelines. My issue is that as a non-academic, I have no idea what the standard for a distinction actually looks like in practice. Thinking about something with potential for publication is helpful since I've read a fair few articles, although won't learn to write one until I have to do my own research project, so this is putting the cart before the horse in some ways. Anyway, the challenge is demonstrating this standard in a 2500 word essay which may contain 2 questions with multiple subquestions.
    – jbrown
    Dec 15, 2022 at 9:33
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    Then maybe the better guideline for you would be significantly beyond what has been taught? Maybe think of it like this: a "regular" distinction of some 70-75 marks means you have fully mastered the course material. A much stronger distinction means you have gone above and beyond on the topic, researched and studied additional materials by yourself and demonstrated more knowledge and understanding than expected/required. Think of learning things without having to and without being taught them.
    – penelope
    Dec 15, 2022 at 10:16
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    Our criteria go into a little more detail than this. All work is graded on several categories. (e.g. accuracy, breadth, structure, writing, outside reading etc). To get a first you have to met most of the examiners expectations (i.e. if they examiner were to write a criteria list, you ticked most of the criteria). To get 80 you have to tick every criteria, make every point an examiner can think of, etc. 80-90 is when you exceed the examiners expectations of what is possible under the circumstances (time limit/word limit etc). Dec 15, 2022 at 16:14
  • @IanSudbery the linked document does go into more details: in the appendices, there are criteria for transferable skills, practical skills, cognitive skills and knowledge&understanding. I've only included the ones for knowledge and understanding in my answer to keep it concise, as well as the general descriptions from the middle of the document.
    – penelope
    Dec 16, 2022 at 13:49
  • @penelope sorry, my discussion of different categories somewhat confused the point, which was provding a closer I terpretation of terms like "exceptional", "first class perfromance", "expectations" etc. Dec 16, 2022 at 15:33
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No, though it depends on the course and probably depends on the university. In some courses e.g. pure mathematics it has to be possible to get 100%. Perhaps in an MBA at your university it is very rare.

such a score would indicate having done better than the instructor could have done themselves.

This doesn't seem very relevant or meaningful. It is possible for a student to do better than an instructor would have done. Perhaps the student works very fast.

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    Anyone with a math PhD should have no trouble writing a pure mathematics exam where scoring 100% is impossible in practice. Dec 14, 2022 at 11:48
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    @AlexanderWoo Yes, but the point was that it is mostly objective whether an answer is right or wrong. I was assuming that the exam was fair and reasonable.
    – Oliver882
    Dec 14, 2022 at 18:30
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    @Oliver882 See, the entire problem is with "reasonable": it is still reasonable to devise a test where achieving the perfect score under given time constraints is near-impossible (International Mathematical Olympiad does that to an extent). If students have trouble grasping the concept of "we do not expect you to beat the test", I'd argue such a system would teach them that not every real-world problem has a clear-cut solution.
    – Lodinn
    Dec 14, 2022 at 22:52
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    @Voo for UK taught masters, the distinction between graduate and undergraduate courses is very small, and sometimes essentially zero, although obviously MBAs are a little different again.
    – origimbo
    Dec 15, 2022 at 13:20
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    @Matt Even at the best UK universities, a 90% on a Pure Maths exam (as opposed to dissertation) does not involve using novel techniques, or even writing particularly elegant solutions. Correctly giving the expected answers using the expected techniques with few mistakes suffices. The majority of students could do it if they were only given double time and access to lecture notes.
    – Solveit
    Dec 16, 2022 at 0:47
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This will depend significantly on the university and the course. From my experience of teaching computer science at two UK universities, coursework marks in the 80s and 90s were very much achievable and some students did achieve them.

I once set a coursework project with a completely objective marking scheme which was communicated to students in advance, and one student (out of about a hundred) scored 100%. There was no leeway for me to give that student less than 100% on that assessment without grading according to different rules than I had set out, nor would I have wanted to - they earned it fair and square.

That's obviously an extreme example, but no eyebrows were raised at the exam board when the marks were approved, and indeed it was not that unusual on the large courses to see a few coursework marks in the 90+ range even when the marking schemes required more academic judgement from the examiners. But I suppose there were other courses, including some at the same universities, where the distributions of marks were substantially different.

So the claim might be true at particular universities or on particular courses, just you can't really make general statements about all UK universities like this because each lecturer sets their own standards, and the university would only demand a lecturer change their module's standards in rare cases.

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Firstly, most UK universities I've been involved with explicitly make a point of saying that although they mark on a 100 point scale, that it shouldn't be thought of as a 0%-100% scale: getting evertying wrong doesn't get you 0, and getting everything correct doesn't get you 100, but more importantly, getting half of things correct would not score you 50.

Once upon a time we used to mark on a 1-16 scale, where a mark of 16 corresponded to what we would now give 80, and I think that was much less confusing.

Lots of comments here about marking things that are objectively correct or incorrect. Worth pointing out that where we have such elements, getting everything correct would not get you a mark of 100 (because 100 points =/= 100%). Actually, the only exam where all questions on the exam have right/wrong answers is a first year multiple choice exam, and that's the only exam we have curve grading for.

At Oxbridge, I believe mathematics exams and home works are marked alpha, beta, gamma to avoid confusion. Where you only get an alpha if you not only solve the problem, but solve it with particular elegance.

Certainly when I was a Cambridge undergrad (in Biology), to get 70 use needed to demonstrate one or more of:

  • Writing with flare and verve
  • Evidence of original and novel thought
  • Knowledge and understanding beyond that in the taught curriculum.

and that only got you 70!

Where I am now we have the following criteria:

  • 72, 75: student meets the marker's full expectations on most criteria. Translation: If you wrote a list of the things a student could be expected to achieve in different categories (Accuracy, Breadth, structure, reading outside the course etc), then they tick all the boxes, in most (but not neccessarily all) of those boxes.
  • 80: Student meets all of the marker's expectations for the best that could be achieved in the circumstances. Translation: What ever the examienr could have written down as things required of the student, they have fullfilled them all. Taking into account that this is a 1 hour exam essay/1 week course. This will almost always include knowledge outside that taught on the course.
  • 80-90: Student exceeds what the examiner could have expected of them under the circumstances. Translation: The student went above and beyond what the examiner thought possible, and this would also most always include evidence of extensive personal reading beyond the recommended reading, and evidence of critical or original thinking.
  • 90-100: Student substantially exceeds what the examiner could have expected to produce an exceptional piece of work. Translation - don't even bother thinking about it. There is probably a joke somewhere about 100 meaning perfect, but only god is perfect, and since god isn't a student at the uni, no one will ever get 100.

It is possible to get above an 80 on an individual piece of work, indeed, there will probably be one or two 85 on our all-student courses (around 100-150 students) every year. I can think of two grades of 90 that I have given in my 8 years marking undergrad and taught-postgrad work. Both for coursework where an undergrad student went above and beyond to produce work that was more or less worthy of publication.

One way to think of it might be that relationship between quality of work and grade is logistic: with increased quality, the grade asymptotically approaches 100, but never actually gets there.


A couple of other points:

  • the range of grades given is something repeatedly brought up by external examiners, and an exhortation to "use the full range of marks available" is something I've seen on every external examiners report.
  • Your department might be reluctant to show you a piece of work with an 80+ grade, because they don't want you using it as a template. At least part of getting a good grade is about being original, and not following a template.
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    Based on the last transcripts I've seen, even the Cambridge undergrad Maths Tripos have bowed to the inevitable and now scale the "merit mark" (i.e. alpha/beta based) formula to a "transcript mark" with 40/50/60/70 boundaries using linear interpolation. Note that a Cantabrian alpha corresponds to 15+ out of 20 on a long form question, so is, at least theoretically a mark of "mostly correct".
    – origimbo
    Dec 15, 2022 at 16:15
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In short, it's not impossible. The proof being that I averaged around 83% in my time at a UK university doing an electronics engineering degree.


In long, it does depend somewhat on the subject matter. If your exams consist of right or wrong answers, like in maths, then getting 100% is a simple matter of doing the calculations/proofs correctly. If your exams are more analytical/essay/project base, then it's a lot harder. I had a mixture of both, but I actually tended to do better in the longer-form stuff than the right/wrong stuff, but I'm somewhat of an anomaly there.

As a general rule, anything that earns above 70-80% should be of a publishable standard (obviously it won't meet the requirements of novelty, but it should be of that standard of quality). This is an extremely high bar for an undergraduate, but it can be achieved. You just generally have to go above and beyond what's expected of you in the assignment.

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It depends entirely on what university you go to (and when you go there, because these things change). It may depend on your subject too.

At the first university I went to, it was possible to get very high marks indeed (I saw a few marks awarded in the 90%s). However, marks over 80 were rare. A mark of 70% got the student the equivalent of first, or a distinction if the course was post-graduate.

At UCL, which I attended many years later, marks substantially above 70% were extremely rare, certainly in my subject. My supervisor, the head of department, advised me that you were effectively marked out of 72 on assignments (not quite so harsh in exams). For a distinction you needed 70%. You needed to do spectacularly well to get 71%. That's what was said. This should be taken with a pinch of salt, however, because they gave out a 73% mark on at least one occasion.

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My perspective as someone who went to the University in the UK is that it depends on the nature of the course or exam.

Some exam questions, particularly in technical subjects have a very definite "right answer". On these it is very much possible to get full marks if you know the material, show your working and don't make any mistakes. If you know the course material well and are good at not making mistakes it's very much possible to get marks in the 90s on such exams.

On the other hand, as you move from exams to cousework or you move to less-technical more human subjects, the marking becomes rather more subjective. The impression I get is that academics are far more reluctant to give super-high marks for such answers.

My brother who did a maths degree got quite a lot of marks in the 90s, I did an EEE degree and I think I got one course in the 90s, some in the 80s but also many much lower.

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UK education system is very peculiar and full of lies (as everywhere).

First, as long as you pay your tuition, the probability of failing a course and module depends on not doing ANYTHING. in fact, failing students is bad for the rankings, so why should they fail them? so, having a pass 50, is super achievable.

then, to get above 70 depends on how objective the questions are, and how fair the exams are. Even in engineering, there are subjective questions to which the grade falls under the opinion of the person who assess the exams (PhD students may times). Many times they ask things they never taught. Uk education is based on self independent study rather than what they teach at lectures (most lectures suck at teaching), so it is kind to see of students have done more research about the topic, but then, that keeps being subjective and not objective. it falls under the opinion of the person who marks.

However, I can tell you if you are a good self independent student who covers the modules, and do a little bit more than the average, more than 70 is achievable. Of course, it depends on the person who marks.

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This question is unanswerable, as what counts as a good mark varies institution to institution, subject to subject. It's not uncommon for 70% or less to be enough for a 1st, and 40% for a pass, with much higher scores attainable, but probably only if you are going to get a nobel prize in the future. From what I have seen, institutions that forbid the same staff teaching and examining the same year group of students often have lower scores for high final grades. Many (but not all) UK universities implement this. Obviously, if the lecturer is also examining, then the examination is likely to be much closer to the lectures and marks are higher.

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It really depends on the test. In many subjects, there are hard, medium, and easy questions. In a test you need a mix so you can grade everyone reasonably well. My first maths tests at university were enough hard questions to fill the whole time, enough medium questions to fill the whole time, and enough easier questions to fill the whole time, so doing everything was physically impossible. With one exception, nobody scored more than 50% ever.

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I will give an anecdotal answer:

A long, long time ago (mid '80s) I was a graduate student at Cambridge University, and got involved in "marking" entrance exam papers. The section I was asked to mark had a potential score of 40 points, and I was supposed to score "leniently enough" (in accordance to a rubric I was given) to get a median of 20 points. Basically, "a hint of a correct answer" would get a fraction of the available points (10 questions with 4 max points each). But this was a deliberately HARD exam - trying to select the few that were exceptional.

After grading about 100 papers (where one submission would typically comprise 15 - 20 pages of "answers") with a median close to 20 points, I found myself holding a 4 page answer sheet. "Oh, here we go" I thought. How wrong I was...

4 points; 4 points; 4 points; 3 points; 4 points; ...

When I was all done, using the same criteria that was getting me the median of 20 points, this person had 37 out of a possible 40 points. Using just 4 sheets of paper, where the "wafflers" had needed 15 to 20.

Truly exceptional. Rare? Yes. Possible? Apparently. 37/40 is over 90%.

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