I am from one of the top UK institutions studying mathematics. I am under the impression that UK universities tend to have a larger cohort (~150 per year) than US but perhaps I am wrong.

I would like to know is there any difference ranking 1st, ranking in top 5 or ranking in top 10 when it comes to PhD applications especially in the US, or is the personal ranking only serves the purpose as a benchmark (say top 5% is enough).

I have heard different theories about this as some would say it's extremely important to get top first or second to get into top graduate programs, and some say that having one or two marks higher than your course mates makes no difference and tells nothing more about your ability.

Thanks for advance.

  • 24
    In many countries/universities there is no class ranking. And if there is, it is not necessarily meaningful, as you would need a ranking of the university or that specific year amongst others and such as well. (I personally think when I hear someone say they are "top of their class", "Well, as long as I don't know anyone else from your class, I really don't care.")
    – skymningen
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 8:02
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    Not really an answer, just my personal experience, but I'll offer it because it contradicts the consensus that seems to be building. Approximate ranking (top 5%/10%, etc.) in the cohort is one of things that we (a UK physics department) specifically ask for when people write references, and it's one of the first things I look at (accounting, obviously, for the quality of the u/g institution). References are otherwise not so informative at this stage, because no-one has much research experience. Commented May 19, 2017 at 12:21
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    @StephenPowell: Just out of interest: How do you evaluate people from places where there is no class ranking? Commented May 19, 2017 at 14:06
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    @StephenPowell: Well, in the wider sense, my question aimed at the case that "the cohort" is not defined in a meaningful way. Of course, that case is also covered by your answer. Commented May 19, 2017 at 14:42
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    @StephenPowell just as anecdotal evidence, I did my BSc in the UK, my PhD in Spain and a post-doc in France (my field is biology/bioinformatics) and this is the first time I've even heard of "cohort rankings". Nobody ever asked me for this, nobody has even ever discussed the existence of such a ranking with me or anyone I know. Since your institute uses them, they obviously exist, but I find it hard to believe their use is very widespread.
    – terdon
    Commented May 20, 2017 at 12:33

4 Answers 4


Your letters of recommendation will be much, much more important than your class ranking. Spend your time on getting the strongest letters you can (and learning how to do this, if necessary).

Source: I have served on grad admissions for a top math department.

  • 13
    Trying not to be just an "I agree!" comment but I want to second this from the perspective of biological sciences...I don't recall ever being asked about class rank in grad admissions, and research experience is much more important than class rank in my field. References are sometimes asked annoying questions like "what percentile would you place this student in?" though, but that is based on their opinion, not grades.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented May 18, 2017 at 21:49
  • My experience (admittedly not in Maths) of (top level) UK institutions was that the first and often only question was 'can you pay?'. As long as you had a 2:1 or a 1st, you were in.
    – fred2
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 15:44
  • The reputation home university is obviously also important. Being ranked 10th at Princeton is naturally much more impressive than 1st at Noname University of the Second-Rate Sciences.
    – Rüdiger
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 18:21

Class rank is not inter-comparable, and also not universally available, so (in my experience) we ignore it entirely. "It's nice" to be highly ranked, but it's also hard to know exactly what that means. Big fish in small pond? Grade grubber? Etc.

  • "Grad grubber"? I am unfamiliar with that term. Definition?
    – O.M.Y.
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 13:45
  • @O.M.Y.: Check out this question: What to do about “grade grubbers?”. Commented May 19, 2017 at 14:10
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    Good point at the end. Yet another possible explanation is students who become so preoccupied with finishing in the Top 5 that they refuse to take challenging courses or go to great lengths to avoid professors known for being hard-nosed in their grading. Personally, I'd rather work with someone who pushed themselves and faced challenges than someone who avoided them so as to look good on paper.
    – J.R.
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 16:28

In my institution, the absolute ranking of the candidate is one piece of information that is considered, but often is nowhere near as important as the candidate frankly thinks it is. There are so many other factors that determine whether or not an individual is well suited to a particular area of research that aren't examined by an undergraduate degree. I am sure I could easily find instances of students who came in the top 20% of their degree cohort having many more successful outcomes from their PhD years than those in the top 1%, not least because there are a lot more good students to choose from in the top 20% of the distribution!

Most universities set quality thresholds -- e.g. "you must usually have a 2:i [UK applicant] to be considered for a PhD place" -- which are important to meet. For each candidate meeting these thresholds, we will typically read their application and assign points based on some quasi-arbitrary list of good things (doing well academically gets a point; doing a summer research placement gets a point; publishing papers as an undergraduate and demonstrating that you actually did the work and understood it gets a lot of points, etc) which then form the basis of subsequent discussions.

In my field at least, students who come high up in the year rankings are very good at passing exams; typically they're able to min/max the exam system, do algebra very, very quickly and have a repertoire of "tricks" that have come up in the past. It isn't necessarily the case that any of these skills translate into a successful research career.

Additionally, the type of reference form often sent to your referees have a statement along the lines of "Of all the people I have taught, this person is in the top [50, 25, 15, 5]%" and require the referee to tick the right box. Nobody I know, if they like the person they're writing in support of, ticks anything other than the 5% box (even if they frankly should). The people who read these forms are aware of this.

Finally, as mentioned by all the other posters, year rankings are not comparable across universities, or necessarily within universities. A close friend studied biomedical and electrical engineering at a good university in Belgium and due to an odd set of circumstances involving changing course requirements finished simultaneously first and last in his graduating year!


Although i am not from the UK, i would like to share my impression, on this matter for Universities in Germany. Together with some factors that change the perspectives on rankings probably internationally. For my Master Studies in Germany I was admitted in a quite competitive program, where that year only 18% of the applicants were admitted, and where being in the top 20% of your Bachelor was a prerequisite. It was an international Program in English, so there where students from all over the world. The impression of me and my fellow students were that the grading of our courses, were much stricter than for the usual programs, our averages were much lower. There where exams that were only passed by 3 out of 25 people. So in this case the combination of program reputation and ranking told much more about relative performance than the grades. My impression was however that at least in germany, grades are more important than ranking, so it was difficult for many to find a Phd position. Therefore I think that at the graduation ceremony there should also be handed out a list with the matriculation numbers, and all grades of the cohort, to give some relative context to the grades. This also helps to make sub rankings for particular subjects or directions.

But Of course such rankings are also very limited, because the situation of all students was fairly different, a few of the German students, still lived with their parents, and had no financial worries, some others had scholarships, others had to do student jobs, some had rich parents, others took a big loan, some where married, others were ill. There is a story behind each grade, and thus ranking.

If those who will asses your application only look at rankings and grades, it means that they probably did not have any significant challenges on the side, besides their studies. So they will probably select those with high grades coming from a similar situation. Those who understand the limitations of grades and Rankings, will probably focus more on recommendation letters, or even read through your Thesis, or a publication. Some how such people seem rarer at top universities, but they are there!

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