I have heard that the range of grades in graduate school shrinks and grades mostly range from A to B-. What if an undergraduate student takes a graduate course, what is the grading policy for him/her?

The reason why I am asking is because he/she is in a graduate course so his/her grading can't be different from others, but getting B- for an undergraduate student does not mean he/she is failing, so his/her situation is different from graduate students.

  • I tried to make the title more focused; if you don't like it, please revert.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 3:50
  • @jakebeal I think your title describes a different question (i.e., it implies something more like "Are undergrads graded less strictly in grad courses?")
    – ff524
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 3:57
  • @ff524 I think it's actually more like "are undergraduates graded more strictly?" I found the original problematic because it presumed different scales. Feel free to re-edit if you have a better idea though.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 4:02
  • @jakebeal Oh, I understood that the OP was explicitly asking about universities with different scales. user59419, can you clarify?
    – ff524
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 4:06
  • @jakebeal I tried a title that applies to both interpretations, at least until the OP clarifies :)
    – ff524
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 4:13

2 Answers 2


In my experience, it's not that the grade range shrinks because the graduate students are graded differently, but instead because of the following three factors:

  1. Graduate classes typically focus more on illumination than on certification in their grading policies (see this answer for more on the distinction)
  2. Graduate admissions mostly filters down to a population of people who would have been getting pretty much only As and Bs in their undergraduate classes too.
  3. Graduate students often have less classes or more closely related classes, enabling them to focus their energy more effectively.

Thus, the undergraduates are likely to be graded against exactly the same standards as the graduate students. If they're well-prepared, interested in the material and willing to put the work in, they'll probably earn the same A and B grades as well, and also will deserve them.

Why then, is a "failing" grade for a graduate student a "good" grade for an undergraduate? It's just that the expectations of graduate student performance are much higher, as also indicated by the previous point on filtering at admissions.

  • 1
    To some schools, the masters program is mostly a cash cow that subsidizes undergrad and PhD programs, in which case none of the above applies.
    – ff524
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 3:42
  • 1
    In my experience, it's precisely that the grade range shrinks.
    – JeffE
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 3:48
  • @ff524 Are those masters' students then segregated into their own classes away from both undergrads and Ph.D. students? If not, does it make a difference to grading policy?
    – jakebeal
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 3:53
  • No, they are not segregated. In my experience, when the university specifies different grading scales for UG/G (e.g. A-F for UG but only A-C may be given for G), the grading scale is typically applied based on the course code (which specifies UG or G), not the student.
    – ff524
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 4:03
  • 1
    I meant (A-C,F), not (A-C). Failure is always an option :) See e.g., NJIT or Mizzou
    – ff524
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 4:22

When an undergraduate student takes one of my graduate courses, they're graded in exactly the same way as the graduate students in the class. Numerical grades are assigned for individual homework assignments, exams, and projects, and a weighted average is used to compute a percentage grade for the entire course. Letter grades are then assigned on a scale where 90-100 is an A, 80-90 is a B, etc. I reserve the right to ease that scale (e.g. at the end of the semester I might lower the cutoff for an A to 88% or even 85% if I feel that the cutoff was too high.)

Our university has no rule that explicitly prohibits undergraduates from taking graduate level courses (although the courses may have advanced undergraduate prerequisites that would keep out all but the most advanced undergraduates.) However, since the graduate courses won't satisfy requirements for the bachelor's degree there's little incentive to take a hard course that will only be useful as an elective. Most of the time when we see undergraduate students in graduate level classes it is because they're in our 5 year BS/MS program or they're committed to going on to graduate study somewhere else. These are highly motivated students who are generally well prepared.

It's certainly been my experience in teaching graduate courses that most of the grades that I assign are A's and B's, and that this is very different from undergraduate courses where I often assign lots of C's, D's, and F's.

However, this happens mostly because all of the students in the graduate program are students who consistently earned A's and B's as undergraduate students (they wouldn't have been admitted otherwise) and they typically continue to perform at the same level as graduate students. In those few cases where a graduate student does earn a grade of C, D, or F, it's often because of some significant non-academic problem (illness, depression, death in the family, etc.) rather than lack of ability or effort.

At the undergraduate level, the majority of low grades (D's and F's) are assigned to students who simply don't put in an effort to pass the course. A few undergraduate students try hard but genuinely lack the ability to do well.

When undergraduate students who are well prepared (with A grades in advanced undergraduate courses) take my graduate level courses they typically do almost as well as the graduate students in the class. When poorly prepared undergraduate students have attempted to take my graduate courses they've often ended up withdrawing from the course or failing.

  • 1
    I do not know what school you are teaching. But in top schools in US almost most of classes are curved because the exams are really tough so based on your grading most people failed the class.
    – user59419
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 5:15

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