12 tips on getting a first class degree

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By in Extra Guides. Updated April 2015.

So, you’ve got to university and you’re in the mood for a first class degree? Well, you’re in the right place.
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Whether it’s your mum, the grandparents or the llama next door with a PhD, the chances are someone has tried to tell you how you should easily be winging your way to a first.

However, before you get too excited at how little you need to do to bag a winner, it’s worth thinking long and hard about the truth behind their rants.

There may be more graduates achieving firsts than in the ’80s, but the number of students attending university has also rocketed.

So despite what the oldies tell you, if you’re serious about nabbing the best a uni can give, buckle up, you’re in a for a tough – but rewarding – ride.

Here are our top tips on snagging the best grades.

Top tips for getting a first

  1. You need to really want it

    verucasaltbratTo put it bluntly, if you want to get a first class degree you have to be prepared to put in maximum effort – this isn’t for the faint hearted.

    While we know you wouldn’t turn down the offer of a first, the depressing reality is you can’t just pick one up at the local pound store (not the last time we checked anyway).

    The people who end up achieving are the people who have a passionate desire – minus the sloppy music and cinema style kisses – to do the best they can.

    This means planning, organisation and not leaving your assignment until the day before, even if you “do work best under pressure”. Yeah, we all know that one’s rubbish really.

    If you’re really struggling to get a grip on planning then check out our six steps to organisational heaven or see your university study service.

    Think about the reasons you want to get a first, write them down and stick them on your wall. Whenever you feel like crumbling they’ll stare at you like an angry parent. No one wants that on a hungover Sunday morning.

  2. Research, research, research

    intenseresearchWhile not quite as famous as the three Rs (relocation, relocation, relocation, obvs) research is a key part of doing well at university.

    If you have the attitude of ‘I’ve been to my lectures and seminars, I’m done’, then you may as well quit now.

    You have to make an effort and you do that by digging out books, searching for journals and articles and searching the famed world wide web.

    shrew-clip-art-1-look_it_up_TTo get a first class degree you have to read around your topic (outside of the reading list) and interpret the ideas for yourself – always be critical as while your lecturer may not agree it shows you are driven by the subject.

    The majority of students who achieve firsts will spend hours and hours researching and pooling together critical opinions with their own thoughts.

    Don’t fret about spending ‘hours’ researching, though. Chop up your time and slot an hours reading in here and there.

    It’s hard to specify how far in advance you should do your research, as long as you don’t find yourself there on Monday night poring through ten different books on astrology when your deadline is Wednesday you’ll be fine.

  3. Make the library your best friend

    bestfriendsUse the library – and not just as a place to sit in despair the day before your assignment is in.

    Once you’ve dragged all your books back to your dwelling place, read, read and re-read if you don’t understand something.

    Don’t just rely on the internet as a source of all wisdom; the best students will use a range of different sources from ancient textbooks to online journals.

    First-class assignments use critical sources wisely. Whatever you do, don’t drop a critic’s name without a reason. You’ll get sussed.

    Understanding the critics and making a decision whether you support or oppose their views is extremely important.

    In the case of a written essay, a first class degree student will suggest one of their own ideas and then use critical sources to support them, not the other way round.

  4. Brush up on your presentation

    presentationA large proportion of students miss out on a first class degree simply because of their presentation skills.

    Correct spelling, punctuation and grammar are vital as they act as the cement which glue together a well-written sentence or paragraph.

    “If. you write, sentence like this” then you’ll lose marks immediately. Great written skills help you to convey your ideas effectively… and effectively conveyed ideas are what your examiner will tick, tick, tick!

    As far as these skills go, nobody is perfect.  Universities offer help and advice to anyone who has problems with writing techniques or phrasing and grammar. You name it and there will be someone to help.

    Most unis will also offer day-time sessions to improve key skills. These are definitely worth trying, even if they only as a reminder for things that are hidden deep in your psyche.

    Don’t forget that writing style is worth an extremely large chunk of your degree mark.

  5. Harass your tutors

    helpmeplzWe must point out this does not mean following them home and peering through their windows at night!

    Book tutor appointments often, whether to talk about feedback, ideas or simply how you’re getting on. Tutors are paid to be there for you and to help you when you’re struggling. Make them earn their money…

    hug-club-clip-art-208Arrange a meeting by email or after a seminar and be prompt. If you have had results back from previous assignments marked by them, take them along and ask them to go through any improvements you can make to your writing or ideas.

    Make sure you question them about any single query, no matter how trivial it may seem to you.

    Now we don’t want you to literally badger your tutor as it might get us into trouble but you should always ask questions and spend a lot of time with your tutor during the whole semester.

    Even if you are not a hard worker they’ll probably assume you are if you’re constantly getting in touch.

  6. Attend all your lectures

    lecturesaresleepyOkay, so earlier we did say something about researching being top dog, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t go to lectures.

    Turning up to all – yes all – of your timetabled hours is the very least you should be doing to get the most out of your degree.

    While it may not seem the most inviting prospect at 8am on a rainy Wednesday morning, it’s the very minimum you need to be doing.

    Trust us, the slides online will not contain all of the information you’ll go through by actually going. And who really wants to waste £9,000 a year?

    Make sure to check out our top tips on how to get the most out of lectures too.

  7. Study at university, literally

    uselessbrainSo, studying at university is a bit of a given, but we mean this in a literal sense.

    Lying at home in your bed, or even just sitting at home in your PJs, is not conducive to a good work ethic.

    Even if you don’t know it yourself, your brain connects certain environments with certain scenarios. Bed = sleep, library = study.

    Get up, get dressed and get down to the library right now. Yes. Now.

  8. Ditch your Facebook addiction

    facebookpleaseEveryone loves a bit of Facebook stalking. Who wouldn’t want to look at the outfit your best friend’s second cousin’s girlfriend wore to their engagement party two years ago?

    That said, as great as time wasting is, spending your life on your computer is not only bad for your grades, but your social life too.

    Between us, Britons will spend an average of 62 million hours on Facebook every single day, which is quite possibly the biggest waste of time in the history of the world.

    So, close the window and get on with your studying. Deactivate your account if need be – don’t panic you can get it back – just do whatever you need to to escape its clutches of time wasting doom.

  9. Pick topics you’re passionate about

    excitedThe whole point of doing a degree should be your passion for the subject, so this shouldn’t be too tricky.

    While not every assignment is going to thrill you, try and choose a topic you have a connection with, even if it’s only based on your love of the word cheese.

    You’ll definitely be more inclined to spend time writing the aforementioned essay and the best assignments ooze a level of enjoyment on the part of the writer.

    You’re also much more likely to impress prospective employers if you’ve spent several years honing a specialism that’s not drinking to excess.

  10. Find a study buddy

    studybudyNo matter how good your motivation, there will always be days when you need a kick up the backside.

    Socialising with people on your course will not only make hard work significantly more enjoyable, but also help you come across new ideas and approaches.

    No matter how hard you study, people will always have a different take on stuff to you and can offer help with any tricky problems.

    That and they can update you on all the latest gossip too. Win win.

  11. Make sure to take a break

    breakupmovieSounds counter-intuitive, but trust us, it’s not. If you don’t make space in your study diary for a little down time, you’ll burn up or just procrastinate even more.

    Whether you’ve got a secret addiction to Sex in the City or enjoy the odd night out at the pub, make sure to schedule some time in for things you enjoy.

    Having funzies will mean you’ll be much happier and more inclined to study more productively.

  12. Stay healthy

    i'vegotabugAgain, this isn’t strictly study related, but your health can have a huge impact on your ability to study.

    Make sure you stay fit and active – it sounds strange but exercising can give you a huge energy boost. We’ve got a huge list of ways to stay active for less, as well as way to cut down on your gym costs.

    Similarly, make sure you eat some meals that aren’t pizza. If you’re stuck for inspiration check out our cheap and easy recipes section.

And finally…

We must point out there is no way to guarantee anyone a first class degree (if only), so don’t take this guide as your passport to success.

lefty-clipart-leftyWhat we can say though, is the people who take the time to read and follow these tips should end up being much more engaged and committed to their studies, so you’ve made a good start.

It’s also worth mentioning that not everyone will get a first and that is totally okay. After all, it is hard to achieve for a reason and some of the most successful people don’t even have a degree.

Life is what you make of it, no matter how cheesy that sounds, and there’s also loads of other stuff you can do to help improve your prospects after graduating.

We’ve got tonnes of info on how to snag work experience or a part time job. And that’s just for starters. Kaboom.

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12 Responses to “12 tips on getting a first class degree”

  1. Dave

    09. Jul, 2016

    Reading this at 4:43 am on a Saturday morning, slightly drunk, thinking all grammar nazis are a waste of digitised oxygen.

    I am, of course, just being a cnut.


  2. Andrew

    06. Jul, 2015

    I wonder whether the huge rise in firsts is to do with easier access to source material via the Internet and the ability to read refined arguments that can be learned and passed off as one’s own.

    In my day you had to find someone in the year ahead to copy off and hope the professors didn’t notice!!!

  3. Aoife

    21. Apr, 2015

    “You’re also much more likely to impressive prospective employers if you’ve spent several years honing a specialism that’s not drinking to excess.”

    Correction: ‘Impress’

    I really liked this article. Really good points. All true. Pity, I’m nearly finished college now! Would’ve been helpful a long time ago!

    I started getting firsts in all my assignments this year so thought I’d share the extra things I’ve made a point of doing to gain those extra marks:

    1- Define, describe and give good examples of everything you mention!!

    2- Really put the effort into compiling good references and formatting them as required, and use in-text citation.

    3- Once its finished, park it for a day or two, then re-read it with fresh eyes. There are always edits to be made which will be the difference of those vital marks you need for a first.

    4- If you hear yourself saying “Eff it, it will be grand”, then it won’t. Take a break. Move on to another part and come back to the troublesome part later. It might make more sense then and you will have fresh resolve to tackle it. If not, ask for help. You’re right, fellow students are a valuable resource for support and advice. Its always nice to give it too.

    Be confident. The task is not impossible. Just keep at it. Its worth it.

    Good luck 🙂

  4. umar261

    06. Sep, 2014

    An excellent guide 🙂

  5. Carina Gerrelli

    06. Aug, 2013

    Obviously Brucey is in for getting a first 😉
    Go Brucey Go

  6. Bruce Harper

    01. Aug, 2013

    Thanks for taking it in good spirit. I don’t usually go round randomly correcting grammar, but since it was in the presentation and writing skills section I found myself unable to ignore it.

    Otherwise, as I probably should have mentioned before, I really enjoyed the article.

  7. Bruce Harper

    01. Aug, 2013

    It isn’t. But don’t take my word for it.

    From Oxford Online:

    “The general rule is that you should not use an apostrophe to form the plurals of nouns, abbreviations, or dates made up of numbers: just add -s (or -es, if the noun in question forms its plural with -es)… remember that an apostrophe should never be used to form the plural of ordinary nouns, names, abbreviations, or numerical dates.”

    Source: http://oxforddictionaries.com/words/apostrophe and about a million other web sites.

    • Jake Butler

      01. Aug, 2013

      Hi Bruce,

      Point taken & change has been made.

      I actually enjoyed this grammar battle haha (being a slight grammar nazi myself).

      If you spot any more please let me know 😉

      Thanks again,


  8. Bruce Harper

    31. Jul, 2013

    Uni’s what?

    There’s no apostrophe in a plural.

    • Jake Butler

      01. Aug, 2013

      Hi Bruce,

      I believe as it is an abbreviation of the word Universities that when shortened the (‘) is added.


  9. Bruce Harper

    30. Jul, 2013

    From the presentation and writing skills section:

    “Most Uni’s also offer day-time sessions…”

    How unfortunate.

    • Jake Butler

      31. Jul, 2013

      Hi Bruce,

      I’m not quite sure what you mean here?


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