If a student is ranked #2 in his class in terms of exam grade, which is better to describe him? "second", "second best", or both are appropriate?

1. He is the second student overall among nearly 100 in his cohort.
2. He is the second best student overall among nearly 100 in his cohort.

  • Ranked number two, or ranked second, are good words. At graduation time, this person is called the “salutatorian”. Aug 17, 2019 at 21:18
  • He ranks second. NOT: He is the second student. But this is editing, which we are not really supposed to do. Happy New Year, anyway. :)
    – Lambie
    Dec 31, 2021 at 18:03
  • I suggest avoiding second best in this context. While it may be literally accurate, it is often negative in connotation: we talk about "coming second best" in a competition where there are only two participants, so there it means "losing"; and we also talk about a choice or option being "second best" when we mean that it is not what we really want, but a poor alternative.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 31, 2021 at 18:29

2 Answers 2


You asked how to describe a student who was ranked #2 "in terms of exam grade".

I would not use either of the two options you proposed; instead, I would say something more like:

He had the second highest exam score.

He had the second highest grade on the test.

because the student is not necessarily the #2 student overall if we are basing the ranking on a single exam score.

However, if you are talking about his cumulative average for the class, then you could say that a couple ways:

He has the second highest average in his class.

He is ranked #2 in a class of nearly 100.

Incidentally, if you are talking about not just one class (such as chemistry), but an entire program (such as high school), English has a word for the second-highest performing student in a class at graduation: salutatorian (the top student is the valedictorian). However, you wouldn't use this word for a single course.

  • Thanks for your great answer! Actually I mean the student is the second-highest performing student in an entire program. I do mean the student is salutatorian. Now I want to check if second-best is an appropriate usage, since I have already used it in an email.... I am not sure whether "second-best" is misleading or not.
    – PTOTO P
    Jan 18, 2018 at 2:32
  • By the way, can "second-best" be used in a formal recommendation letter? Thanks!
    – PTOTO P
    Jan 18, 2018 at 2:42
  • 1
    I would not use second-best because it's too vague. Second-best what? Behavior? Grade point average? If it's an entire program and a formal letter, then I believe you should use salutatorian.
    – J.R.
    Jan 18, 2018 at 12:00

Among the two options you suggested, 'second best' is what I would go for. Just 'second' could imply anything. The first thing that comes to mind with just 'second' is that the student was the second student to join a class.

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