11 tips on getting a first class degree
So you've decided to pull your socks up and start gunning for a first class degree? We've got a few tips to get you on the right track!
The number of first class degrees being given out by universities is on the rise. In the academic year 2016-17, as much as 26% of UK students were awarded a first class degree, compared with only 15% in 2011 and 11.6% in 2004.
While this does mean you're statistically more likely to bag a first than ever before, it's worth remembering that nailing a top class degree is no walk in the park.
If you're serious about getting the best result possible out of your uni years, buckle up – you're in a for a tough (but rewarding!) ride.
Top tips for getting a first
You need to really want it
Not to state the obvious or anything, but if you're aiming for a first class degree, you have to be prepared to put in maximum effort.
Students who manage to achieve a first tend to be those who consistently try their hardest throughout the year – not just nail the occasional top grade and hope they'll pull up a few bare-minimum passes.
Even if you're one of these people who insists you work best under pressure, don't be foolish enough to think you'll get a first this way. If you frequently leave coursework to the last minute, ask yourself just how much you really want this first class degree.
Research, research, research
If you find yourself thinking, "I've been to all my lectures and seminars, so I'm doing everything I can", you might as well quit now.
Uni contact hours are notoriously low, and while going to classes is obviously important, it's the hours you put in outside of class and lectures that really matter. Read through your course handbook carefully, and you're likely to find that you should be putting in a substantial amount of work in your free time, too.
Getting a first isn't about blagging your way through or managing to pull a fast one on deadline dates. If you're serious about it, reading around outside of your recommended reading list is crucial.
This doesn't mean reading academic texts cover-to-cover, of course. Don't spend hours and hours researching in one go – this doesn't work, and you'll end up forgetting most of what you read.
Instead, bookmark relevant websites, set Google Alerts for topics you're thinking of writing an essay on, and just generally try to keep up to date with relevant discussion. Reading about developments in your area of academic interest should become part of your daily routine.
Over time, as you read around and get different perspectives, this will also help you to think critically and form an opinion of your own (don't just assume the same stance as your tutors – this isn't their goal and isn't likely to impress them... unless this is genuinely your stance, of course).
Learn to love the library
Although online journals are a great resource, the best grades are normally awarded to students who can demonstrate they've made an effort to use a range of different sources – including trusty old paper books.
Now, we're not suggesting you set up shop in the library from dawn til dusk, spreading half the contents of your bedroom across the desk to make you feel more at home while you pretend to work. As you may have guessed, we're not a fan of these people.
Instead, make the library your place to focus. After a while, you'll start to actually enjoy to process of searching and finding books that are relevant to your ideas.
Just make sure that you take note of everything you use before putting that book back on the shelf (we're talking page numbers, chapters, authors, serial number, library shelf you found it on, the lot!). Chances are, if you haven't taken these details down you'll need to find the book again – and you'll hate yourself for it.
Whatever you do, don't drop a critic's name without a reason. Knowing your critics and making a decision about whether you support or oppose their views is extremely important. Remember that a first class student will have an idea and then use critical sources to support it, not the other way round.
Brush up on your presentation
It's not uncommon for students to miss out on a first class degree simply because they think presentation doesn't matter.
Correct spelling, punctuation and grammar are vital, and unfortunately a lot of tutors will downgrade you substantially if your presentation's not up to scratch – no matter how great your ideas are.
Good writing skills help you to convey your ideas effectively, and can even make a relatively dull topic sound interesting (which is a feat in itself)!
If you struggle with presentation, this isn't a huge deal. It just means that you need to start coursework a little bit earlier to leave enough time for a thorough proofreading later.
Any software you'll be using to write papers will have spell checkers, and nowadays they're pretty advanced in how they detect grammar, too. Alternatively, email your assignments to a family member or friend and ask them (nicely!) to check for any obvious errors.
If your writing skills are something you're particularly worried about, and you think you could do with some additional support, reach out to learning support at your uni. They exist for a reason! Don't let something like this get in the way of nailing that first.
Harass your tutors
Please note that we're using the term 'harass' lightly here – please don't get yourself into any trouble, or you can kiss that first goodbye (and probably uni altogether, if we're honest).
Book appointments with tutors often, whether to discuss an upcoming assignment, get feedback, or just chat about an idea you have. Tutors are paid to be there for you, and to help you when you're struggling!
You can also score some brownie points by discussing an interesting idea related to their field of expertise. This shows you have a genuine interest, and give them a fresh perspective on a subject that they've probably been drowning in for the last decade.
You can arrange a meeting by email, or just asking after a seminar. Or, if you've recently had an assignment graded by them, by all means bring it along and ask how you could improve. Tell them about anything you struggled with, but don't waste their time asking for detailed feedback on everything you've written – that'll get you in the bad books.
Go to your classes
As we alluded to in point two, attending lectures and seminars is another (very important) part of the first class degree puzzle.
Turning up to all of your timetabled commitments is the very least you should be doing to get the most out of your degree. If you need any more convincing, use our cost-per-hour calculator to work out just how much money you're wasting every time you decide to sleep through that 9am lecture.
Turning up to class is also key to winning over your tutors (you know, the people who will be grading your work?). They're likely to be a lot tougher when grading work from someone they know doesn't bother to show up to class, compared to someone they see participating and trying their best each week.
Make sure to check out our top tips on how to take better lecture notes too.
Control your social media addiction
Now, we all know how important it is to see whether your ex is 'winning' the breakup, or what crazy/apocalyptic garbage Donald Trump is spouting today.
But as fun as social media can be, very little can be achieved with it. In fact, studies have even shown that social media just adds to uni stresses as you become more likely to compare yourself to classmates. So, unsurprisingly, spending hours of your life on social media is also pretty bad for your grades.
If you have the will power, set yourself a goal to avoid social media until the evenings. But if you struggle a bit in this area, or your addiction is seriously bad, try either deactivating your account or downloading one of these browser extensions that do it for you.
Pick topics that you're passionate about
The whole point of doing a degree should be to expand your knowledge in the field, and the worst thing you can do is choose to focus on a subject that doesn't really excite you.
Of course, it's highly unlikely that every assignment is going to enthral you. But try to choose exam topics and essay questions that you have a connection with. If you're uninspired by what you're writing about, it's a dead cert that your reader will be, too.
Throughout the year, take note of anything that comes up in class that you find really interesting – this list will be a total saviour when dissertation proposal time comes around!
Find a study buddy
No matter how great your motivation levels are, there will always be days when you need a kick up the backside.
Befriending an equally ambitious student is always a good plan, as you can motivate each other to go to the library on rainy days. Plus, you'll find yourself feeling way more guilty about missing classes if your study buddy is making it in regularly.
Socialising with people on your course is also a good idea. Not only will it make hard work significantly more enjoyable, but being able to discuss ideas with them is a great way to develop your thoughts and opinions without boring anyone who isn't taking the same class.
Remember to take a break
If you don't make space in your study diary for a little down time, you'll either burn out or get totally fed up and start procrastinating even more.
As mentioned previously, this is particularly relevant to library time. Spending days on end in the library, until you're at the point where you're using your books as a pillow while you snore the house down, is not productive. If you're at that stage, it's time to take a break.
Balancing your studies with some downtime and a bit of fun here and there will make you much happier and more inclined to use your study time productively.
Don't underestimate how big an impact your health can have on your uni grades.
Eating the right brain fuel foods and drinking lots of fluids (this excludes booze, sorry) will set you up to do the best you can do at uni. In other words, constant hangovers and takeaways for dinner should be avoided as much as possible (but not completely – we all deserve a treat every now and then!).
Make sure you stay fit and active, too. You might not want to believe it, but exercising regularly will give you a huge energy boost – we've got a huge list of ways to stay active without spending money, as well as a guide on how to save on gym costs.
Of course, there's no way of guaranteeing a first class degree, so please don't take this guide as your passport to success. However, follow these tips and you'll be on the right track!
If you're worried that you won't make that first class grade, there are also loads of other ways you can improve your job prospects while studying. You could even make yourself more employable than some first class students!