Context: Graduate has a third in their undergraduate degree from a world leading university on a notoriously difficult course (Cambridge mathematics BA) and wants to apply for postgraduate study elsewhere on a slightly tangential course (taught theoretical physics MSc). Assume that the student has the capacity to cope with postgraduate study and is able to fund themselves (i.e. had some non-academic circumstances that led to the third).

Are there any such MSc courses out there in the UK that would consider an applicant with a third? Would such an application be competitive? Does the fact that it's Cambridge maths help, or worsen the issue? What could be done to improve the chances of finding a place?

And feel free to add anything else that may be relevant but isn't covered by the questions above.

Thanks in advance!

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    Hi, and welcome to Academia.SE! For those of us who aren't from the UK, can you please explain what a "third" is?
    – jakebeal
    Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 2:26
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    @jakebeal A third is the lowest achievable grade at undergraduate level, corresponding to a mark in the range of 40-50%. Most Universities in the UK state on their websites that they expect a minimum of a 2:I or 2:II performance at undergraduate level (corresponding to a 60-70% or 50-60% mark, respectively). My question is more about whether less would be considered, and whether the prestige of the undergraduate course can help in being considered. Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 2:31
  • This will depend very much on the circumstances and the nature of the non-academic circumstances. From memory, well under 10% of candidates in the Maths Tripos receive Thirds so the immediate question is how well you did in the other two years. If you got good grades in the first two years and your Director of Studies will write you a reference backing you up, you might have a chance. If, on the other hand, you were scaping through with low grades throughout your taught mathematics BA, it's hard to see you doing well in a taught mathematical Master's. Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 12:02
  • Possibly people won't like this comment - BUT assuming the candidate really has the ability - "connections". A recommendation between colleagues/acquaintances would go a long way - and would also help on the "ability side" as an academic is unlikely to sour his relations by suggesting someone lacking ability.
    – DetlevCM
    Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 15:50

1 Answer 1


The candidate can get in somewhere (a friend of mine with a third from a less prestigious UK university got into a PhD programme in Melbourne) but the candidate should decide carefully whether it is constructive in his future plans to obtain a position "anywhere".

I don't think the application will be competitive. "Cambridge" on the CV is a big help on any application to any UK place (business or academic) but the candidate will have to be ranked objectively against those obtaining Upper Second Class and First Class honours at many other good institutions.

That said, all the CV and the qualifications can achieve is an interview. If the candidate can impress the interview team with his mathematical or scientific skills then the formalities of a third may be disregarded.

Since the candidate is self-funded the usual rule "2:1 or better" may be relaxed; because actually it is a rule from the funding bodies for the candidate to be eligible for funding. ["2:1" is a British expression referring to a degree awarded with "Upper Second Class honours", which is the "typical" degree a good student will receive.]

I would also strongly advise that the candidate speak to his former tutor at his college in Cambridge. If the tutor is not receptive then he should talk to the head tutor or even (in a small college) the Master of the college. Basically, it might be that some strings could be pulled (academia is a small place) or a particularly favourable reference be produced for the candidate, explaining some of the deficiency in his degree classification.

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