Succeeding if You Miss Your Target Grade

Whilst it may be disappointing, don’t panic. 

According to the graduate data we collect annually, there is no significant difference between undergraduates who got a 2.1 and those who got a 2.2 in terms of starting salary and percentage ‘unemployed and looking for work’, six months after graduation.

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If you have graduated with a lower degree grade than you hoped for there are still many opportunities open to you, and many Oxford alumni before you have gone on to forge successful careers, whatever their degree classification. While it may be disappointing, don’t panic.

According to the DLHE data we collect annually, there is no significant difference between undergraduates who got a 2.1 and those who got a 2.2 in terms of starting salary and percentage ‘unemployed and looking for work’, six months after graduation.

When pursuing your career search, it is worth bearing in mind that:

  • Employers are interested in much more than your academic qualifications. They are particularly interested in how you demonstrate your transferable skills. If you have significant, relevant extra-curricular achievements – for example, in sports, charitable fundraising – this will count in your favour.
  • Many companies will also take into account any mitigating circumstances that may have negatively impacted your grades (e.g. illness or bereavement). Read the advice from TARGETjobs about declaring mitigating circumstances in job applications.
  • Employers may consider a 2:2 from Oxford a better result than a higher class degree from many other universities. See some employers’ views on how they view degree results below.

You may also find it helpful to have a discussion with a careers adviser, either when getting started or at any point in your job search. The Careers Service offers on-going support to alumni.

How alumni have responded in the past

Many Oxford alumni have done very well in life despite their initially disappointing degree results. While it may seem like a barrier, the profiles in this briefing (see below) demonstrate how by thinking differently and with some perseverance it need not be a major disadvantage.

In addition, read some of the many alumni profiles included in our annual Oxford Guide to Careers to understand the importance and value that employers place on skills and motivations demonstrated outside of your academic work, whether through student societies, volunteering, sports and work experience.

What if your school grades are not strong?

In your applications, employers will still expect to see the school subjects you passed and the grades achieved, so list these in your CV and/or application. If you miss them out, the recruiter may infer results worse than you actually achieved. Some electronic application forms give you space to comment on your academic grades, should you feel that they are not indicative of your capabilities.

Your A-levels (or other high school) results become less visible as your record of achievement at university and beyond grows, and as you gain greater experience outside of your academic studies. Placing greater emphasis on more positive areas of your application where you can is therefore worthwhile (eg, excellent prelims/mods results or relevant work experience), but always be ready to answer questions about your A-level grades at interview.

As with all questions that probe a potential area of weakness, it is best not to try to ‘cover up’ any difficulties but to find a way to present them positively as a learning experience, and to demonstrate how you have developed in response to them. For example:

  • admitting to a period of poor motivation during your ‘A’ levels shows more integrity than blaming someone else for your poor grades, especially if you go on to talk about some strategies you have used to sustain your motivation in your current studies.
  • highlighting how the academic environment and wider intellectual challenges of studying at university perhaps turned up your motivation, or that you found the greater independence more stimulating and matched your personal work style much better so that your achievements in your first degree may appear out of line with your school and sixth-form results.

Many major firms have accepted applications from graduates who did not achieve a 2:1 or higher in their degree. Firms are normally interested in much more than your academic qualifications, and if you have significant, relevant extra-curricular achievements this will count in your favour. They will also take into account any extenuating circumstances that may have affected your grade.

In recent years, some of the biggest graduate employers have also taken steps to remove hurdles for graduates by relaxing or removing requirements for minimum UCAS points or degree results, including the Civil Service Fast Stream and some of the professional services firms (e.g. PwC removed their 2.1 requirement for undergraduate and graduate roles in August 2022). Others are introducing contextual recruitment into their selection processes when reviewing academic results and/or new assessment formats, such as gamification. This trend is likely to continue and it is worth checking recruitment pages carefully for minimum requirements, and asking recruitment teams whether you can apply.

In 2022, the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) found that the number of employers asking for a 2:1 degree as minimum entry criteria for graduate jobs has fallen to 48%. The range of employers that accept a 2:2 or all degrees is surprisingly broad. A quick online search will lead you to recent articles (e.g. GuardianReedTargetjobs) highlighting prominent graduate schemes which you can consider, and some graduate recruitment websites allow you to filter your job search by degree requirements.

It is also important to remember that a majority of new graduates find work in companies outside the big corporate programmes which make up the the highly visible opportunities promoted during Michaelmas term. Many of these positions will be with small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), a vast array of prospective employers offering outstanding career opportunities for Oxford graduates.

Adopting a flexible plan that enables you to exploit these additional opportunities can help you to take that first next step in your working life. Our advice on Networking and Making Speculative Approaches offers strategies and ideas to help you.

William O’Chee, partner at Himalaya Consulting

‘As an employer, I would have no hesitation in employing someone with a 2:2, provided they displayed a certain mental agility at interview. Indeed, I have employed many people in such situations. I place much more store in a person’s character and interview performance than in their grades. Let us not forget, either, that a 2:1 at another university is not necessarily superior to a 2:2 at Oxford, for reasons we all know. For those who do get a 2:2, my advice is to ignore the degree classification. Focus instead on showing to an employer that you would be someone who would contribute intellectually to the company you join, and also by being the sort of person with whom others want to work. Oxford graduates of all kinds are generally interesting and talented people, and will undoubtedly succeed should they apply themselves.’

Ian Thomas, managing director, Turquoise Associates

‘I can offer a perspective as an employer in a small business in the financial services sector. My view would be that we would consider someone with a 2.2 from Oxford on the basis that it is probably as good a degree as a 2.1 from a number of other (even high ranking) institutions. However, I am sure that most large firms, faced with a large number of applications, do use degree results as a way to filter candidates down to a manageable number for interview. In those cases, the individual will need to stand out in some other way, such as non-academic achievements, in order to be considered.’

The alumni stories above reveal some important truths about the world of work, no matter how you feel about your degree classification at the moment.

Firstly, it is what you do and how you do it that is really important in determining your success in work. Your academic history is quickly left behind, so making a start and gaining some relevant experience at any level can be a way to establish a good foundation for your future.

Secondly, your own attitude and approach will be important. Be proud of what you have achieved, from securing both a place and a degree at Oxford to your successes outside your degree and your university experience. To  persuade someone to let you work with them on their project(s), you will need to convince them that they can trust you and that you will make a useful contribution towards the outcomes they are aiming for. Showing them how you have done this in the past for others will be persuasive.

Finally, how you respond after a problem or a setback is ultimately more important than the setback itself. Being resilient, learning from things that may not have worked out the way your wanted and then dusting yourself down to commit to – and achieve – the next goal can reveal a lot about your character and potential.

Consider meeting with a careers adviser to talk through any concerns or worries that you have in how best to present you Oxford result. Also, use the following tips and tactics to help you approach the job market and make a start in your working life.

  • Seek out employers that have graduate schemes open to graduates with a 2:2 – there are many more than you might expect! TARGETjobs: How to get a job with a 2.2 degree  is a good starting point, with advice and links to industry relevant listings.
  • Think widely about your career options. Graduate schemes are only a small proportion of graduate level jobs, and small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) offer a huge variety of opportunities for graduates.
  • Make a variety of applications, to small, medium and larger firms.
  • Make sure that each application is well-crafted; stagger applications to assess success rate, and change/improve your strategy, if necessary.
  • Develop contacts by networking at careers fairs, employer and alumni events. Think about the people your friends and family may know too.
  • Consider different locations across the UK and internationally, as competition for positions is fiercer in some locations than others.
  • Focus on extracurricular activities to evidence your motivation and think carefully about the transferable skills/experience you have gained as a result.
  • Try to gain additional significant work or voluntary experience and consider job shadowing to build your knowledge of a particular sector or company.
  • Consider trying to get in at a different level or by temping in a sector to build your skills and knowledge, and to get yourself known.
  • Develop a back-up plan or other options.

Degree Subject & Classification: 2:2

Current Job/Company: Oxbridge Coordinator, Head of Careers, English teacher, Northampton School for Girls

I left Oxford in 1996 with a 2.2.  It never crossed my mind that this was anything other than a great achievement; I had left one of the best universities in the world and I had gained a job in publishing.

My belief that getting into Oxford (rather than the grade I got in my finals) was the key to career progression was proven right on my first day of work when I realised that everyone had received their degree from Oxford or Cambridge but that there was a mixture of results, from first to thirds.  That job enabled to me to move into other jobs in publishing, simply because I had got my foot in the door and understood how to apply for a wider variety of jobs.  The fact was that my understanding of language, gained through my degree, enabled me to understand how to use language in order to sell.  This allowed me to move into marketing and I rose quickly through the ranks, being promoted every year for three years, and I was also headhunted.

Promoted to marketing director

At the age of 26 I was the publicity and marketing director at Granta publications, an important, independent commercial publishing house which was highly regarded within the industry and I loved working with authors as diverse as Linda Grant, Hanif Kureishi, Diana Athill and Kamila Shamsie.

It was my own work ethic (which was not reflected in my degree as working for money is very different to revising), alongside my inter-personal skills that helped me to rise so quickly. A degree does not mark your ability to deal with tricky bosses, to manipulate difficult authors or to get the most out of employees but they are all skills needed in the workplace.

Once I had children I was no longer willing to work the hours needed to successfully manage a publication launch. I chose to alter my career and to go into teaching because the hours are convenient, as are the holidays.  It also allowed me to continue learning – there are some A Level texts I had never studied.  Most people on my course had worked as a classroom assistant or volunteered in a primary school. I hadn’t and I have no doubt that I was accepted onto the course because of the university I had been to – no one ever mentioned the classification of my degree.

I now run the Oxbridge programme at my school, supporting students who wish to make a competitive application.  I am determined to help them because I have no doubt that Oxford helped me to become the working person  I want to be. I also happened to have a great time throughout my time at Oxford, as my social degree demonstrated.

Degree Subject & Classification - History 2:2

Current Job/Company - Entrepreneur: marketing and innovation strategy

Back of the Bus

“It’s good, I suppose.” muttered my personal tutor. “This 2:2 means you’ll actually have to apply yourself. You can’t just coast through life, as you coasted through Oxford.”

‘Coasting’ landed me 58.4%, 0.1% off a safe, sensible 2:1. Ouch. Results night, I took the bus from Cowley and didn’t get off, making several circuits of town hunched on the backseat.

I’d earned the ire of tutors, parents, and to my mind, the world at large. Friends bought me a pint to commiserate. When I got the gumption to request a re-mark, I was laughed out of the faculty.

Like most, I’d no clue what to do after my Modern History degree. Now I couldn’t even hide in a management consulting graduate scheme – who would take my Dreaded Desmond? I considered a redbrick MA to ‘clean my nose’, but couldn’t face more library boredom. So, to work!

Ground Zero

Through a college friend I found a job editing a little arts magazine. The Careers Service website came in handy; I could tutor foreign students at a summer school. Editing and teaching kept me afloat as I avoided my parents those awkward post-graduation months.

I applied for a writing job on the Careers Service website and was invited to interview in London. I arrived early and overheard the previous candidate. Luckily the interviewer asked me the exact same questions, so I had a head start. A few days later I got a call from a man with a thick Spanish accent, who offered me a job starting straight away – if I came to India.

The job? Helping analysts at a finance company turn quantitative research into qualitative tips for investors. No-one showed the slightest interest in my degree subject or classification.

It was quite an adventure. There were two other lads from Oxford. The company put us in a hotel and had a driver run us to work. When a cow sat on the highway, holding up traffic, we missed the morning briefing. The canteen food was excellent. Although the other Oxonians had better grades, I got on better with the team and the CEO liked my writing style. I was promoted.


Two years after graduating, I applied to one of the Big Grad' employers, nervous I’d be scuppered by the 2:2. After five interviews and a process lasting several months, the dreaded question arrived. Would I mind getting a tutor’s reference, about my grades? My eternally patient personal tutor obliged. The CEO in India also sent a warm reference. I was duly offered a job at the tech giant.

At this point I felt I’d ‘cleaned’ my youthful indiscretion, the 2:2, with a juicy brand on my CV.

Trouble was, I hated the job.

I was surrounded by Oxbridge graduates with 2:1s and 1sts doing deathly dull work. Life was an interminable spreadsheet. Compared to my other post-Oxford work experience, this was far and away the most boring job I’d had. As soon as I could, I scarpered.

Choose Your Pond

It turns out I prefer smaller companies. 

After leaving the Big Player I worked for a startup and found myself running their conference series. I worked hard and earned their trust. One summer, the company asked me to relocate to Manhattan, somewhere I’d always dreamed of living.

A few years later, I moved to Tel Aviv. Changing country puts the degree in a whole new light. Israel is a hands on, results-orientated culture. Business is about what you can do, right here, right now.

Of course they’ve heard of Oxford, but it doesn’t translate into the local culture. I never say I studied History, since the only thing to do with a History degree here is teach. Scrutinised carefully by new colleagues in a new culture, I pushed doubly hard to prove my worth, and by necessity became extremely results focused. That stood me in good stead for my current freelance career.

Now I recruit others, and honestly, jobs are not about you. You are hired to get stuff to get done, and at the start of your career, you represent potential.

Road Less Travelled

My personal tutor was right. The 2:2 killed my option to coast.

It forced me to roll up my sleeves and try new things. I put myself in strange situations: In India and Israel, I was the native English speaker in the room; in America, never underestimate the lure of a British accent; back in Blighty, all my exotic foreign stories go down a treat.

Recruiters are keen to have a diverse workforce, and many will have policies and processes that are proactive in recruiting students and graduates from diverse backgrounds. An increasing number of recruiters are offering traineeships, internships and insight events that are aimed at specific groups and many are being recognised for their approach to being inclusive employers.

Try the following to discover more about the policies and attitudes of the recruiters that you are interested in:

The UK Equality Act 2010 has a number of protected characteristics to prevent discrimination due to your age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or beliefs, sex or sexual orientation. For further information, visit the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s webpage on the Equality Act and the Government’s webpages on discrimination.

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