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How to get a first class degree

When it comes to studying we all want to gain the best grade possible. But what can we do to make sure we achieve it? Below, we look at what is required for a first class degree and offer practical, realistic advice to help you do the best you can.

By Grant Longstaff. Published 18 April 2023.

What is a first class degree?

A first class honours degree, often just called a first, is the highest grade you can achieve on an undergraduate degree in the UK. The benchmark for a first is an average of 70% or more throughout your studies, which will be calculated across the exams, essays, and projects you receive a grade for.

An average of 60% or above would give a student a 2:1, or an upper second class honours degree, and 50% would give students a 2:2, or lower second class honours degree. An average of 40% or more is a third class honours degree.

How many people get them?

The number of students achieving a first class degree has been rising steadily in recent years. Research by the Office for Students, an independent public body, reported that since 2011 students gaining a first from an English university has more than doubled, and reported almost 38% of students achieved first class honours in the 2020-21 academic year. However, this increase doesn’t mean you should take your studies for granted.

Will I have to work harder to get a first?

When it comes to learning, the more work you put in, the more you’ll gain from it. Below we look at some of the practical steps you can take to get the most from your studies and work towards gaining the best grade possible.

Level up your learning

Whether it’s moving to a new city or forming new friendships, attending university can be a life-changing experience and some may find the changes difficult to navigate. That’s why it can be helpful to use your course to build a routine. If you want to achieve a first, then attending all of your classes is a great starting point. In addition, use your study periods effectively. Plan what you want to read or research in the downtime between lectures. The more you learn, the more you can draw upon when it comes to writing an essay or sitting an exam.

Late night cramming before an exam is something we’ve all done. However, it often only leaves us tired and unable to successfully retain the information we need. Instead, make reading and research a part of your daily life. Do you have a 30 minute train journey to the campus? Rather than watching a bunch of TikTok videos, read a chapter of a book from the class reading list. When you’re queueing for a coffee browse the recent articles relating to your field of study or take notes from a recent periodical. Fill those pockets of wasted time with bitesize chunks of research and revision.

Another tip is to read widely. Make notes on what you’ve read and the key take aways from the book or research paper. You’ll never know when you’ll need to use a quote to back up an argument in an assignment or presentation. Use referencing to elevate your work and gain higher marks. A dozen, reliable sources are greater than using just one or two key texts. Think outside the box and surprise your tutors with a quote from texts outside of their prescribed reading lists.

Another way to level up your learning is to fully engage with the subject matter in your lessons. Find a note taking system that works for you, something you’ll understand when you look back on them. If there’s a topic you’re unsure of ask questions and seek clarification from your tutors. Similarly, if you have an assignment and you’re not sure of what is required, speak to your teachers. If you can better understand what it is they’re expecting of you, then you can tailor your work, tick the right boxes, and make sure you get the best grade possible.

You should also use the feedback you receive from your tutors to identify what it is you need to work on. If it isn’t clear from the written feedback, then simply ask the tutors. If you don’t feel comfortable approaching a tutor directly, send them an e-mail. The best way to improve your grade is to understand what you need to work on in order to progress from a 2:1 to a first.

Connect with your fellow students. Studying can be a lonely pursuit, so make sure you reach out and take the opportunity to work with your classmates. You can study together, support one another in the library, and unpack those difficult lectures over cocktails. A good support network is just as important as good study habits. This brings us to the final element of doing the best you possibly can during your time at university.

Look after your mental and physical health

You simply can’t – and shouldn’t – work every single waking hour. You need to take care of your physical and mental wellbeing during your time as a student. Make time for a walk through the local park, go to the cinema or hit the gym to escape the books. Similarly, eating well, staying hydrated and a good night’s sleep will all help you study more effectively.

Ultimately, if you’re hoping to achieve a first class honours degree it will take dedication and hard work throughout your course, not just before exam season. Make the most of your time at university, read widely and ask questions, seek support from your peers, and practice plenty of self-care along the way.


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