How to get a first class degree
Got your sights set on a first class honours degree? Good on you – we've got a few tips to get you on the right track.
To get a first class degree at university, you will usually need to get 70% or more overall in your assessments and exams.
But, at some unis, you may also be given a first if you averaged as a very high 2:1, and you've produced work at uni which scored over 70% – check with your tutor to see if this is the case in your department, and what the specific conditions would be for this to happen.
If you're serious about getting the best result possible out of your uni years, buckle up – you're in for a tough (but rewarding!) ride.
Honours degree classification system in the UK
University degrees are broken down into different 'classes' of honours. They are awarded based on your marks across assessed projects, coursework and exams. This is the undergraduate degree classification system in the UK:
- First class honours degree (70% and above) – A first class degree, also known as a 'first', is the highest honours degree you can get
- Upper second-class honours (60 – 70%) – An upper second class (or 2:1) degree
- Lower second-class honours (50 – 60%) – A lower-level second class degree, otherwise known as a 2:2
- Third-class honours (40 – 50%) – A third class honours degree, also known as a 'third'
- Ordinary degree – You may be awarded an ordinary degree without honours if you don’t quite achieve a third.
How to get a first class honours degree
Here are the best ways to get a first class honours degree at university:
Stay focused on getting a top grade
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 class honours degree 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.
To get consistently good grades at university, you'll need to plan ahead, be organised and always aim to finish your assignment with plenty of time to spare ahead of the deadline. Plus, you'll need to work on becoming more productive.
Even if you think you work well under pressure, don't be foolish enough to think you'll get a first by leaving everything to the last minute. If you frequently leave coursework until the day before the deadline, ask yourself just how much you really want this first class degree.
Develop your research skills
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 it's obviously important to go to all of your classes, 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 class honours degree isn't about blagging your way through or managing to write an essay in a day. 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 about writing essays on, and just generally try to keep up to date with relevant discussions. 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 it's genuinely your stance, of course).
Use the library resources at university
Although online journals are a great resource, the best grades are usually 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 until dusk, spreading half the contents of your bedroom across the desk to make yourself feel more at home while you pretend to work. As you may have guessed, we're not a fan of this.
Instead, make the library your place to focus. After a while, you'll start to actually enjoy the process of searching for books and finding ones that are relevant to your ideas.
Just make sure that you take note of every idea and fact you use from the book before putting it back on the shelf (i.e. jot down all relevant page numbers, chapters, authors, serial numbers – 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.
Improve the presentation of your work
It's not uncommon for students to miss out on a first class honours degree simply because they think presentation doesn't matter.
It's vital to have correct spelling, punctuation and grammar in an essay. 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 skills when writing essays, it's not the end of the world. It just means that you need to start your coursework a little bit earlier to leave enough time to thoroughly proofread it later.
Alternatively, email your assignments to a family member or friend and ask them (nicely) to check for any obvious errors.
If you're particularly worried about your writing skills and think you could do with some additional support, reach out to learning support at your uni – they're there for a reason! Don't let something like this get in the way of achieving that first class degree.
Ask tutors for help
Book appointments with tutors as often as you can, whether it's 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 gives 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 by asking after a seminar. Or, if you've recently had an assignment graded by them, bring it along and ask how you could improve. Tell them about anything you've found hard, 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 university classes
As we alluded to in point one, 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 (who happen to be the people who will grade 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 you check out our top tips on how to take better lecture notes too.
Limit your time on social media
As fun as social media can be, very little is generally 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 pretty bad for your grades.
If you have the willpower, set yourself a goal to avoid social media until the evenings. And if you struggle a bit in this area, or your addiction is seriously bad, you might want to consider temporarily deactivating your accounts.
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 an interest in. 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 you hear about in class that you find really interesting – this list will be a total saviour when dissertation proposal time comes around.
Find a study buddy at university
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.
Making friends with people on your course is also a good idea. Not only will it make hard work significantly more enjoyable, but discussing 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 breaks from work
If you don't make space in your study diary for a little downtime, 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.
Stay healthy while studying
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 alcohol, sorry) will set you up to do the best you can do at uni. In other words, appalling 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 big energy boost – we've got a huge list of ways to save on gym costs, as well as ways to stay active without spending any money at all.
Of course, there's no way of guaranteeing a first class degree, so please don't take this guide as your passport to success. But if you follow these tips, you'll be on the right track.
Getting a first class honours degree isn't the only way to improve your job prospects at uni. You could get a lower grade and still make yourself more employable than some first class students.