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Study Tips

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.

graduation cap and diploma

Credit: LightField Studios – Shutterstock

Do you want to get a first class degree at university? Usually, that means you will need to get 70% or more overall in your assessments and exams.

But, some unis could give you a first if you averaged as a very high 2:1, and you've produced work at uni which scored over 70%. It's best to 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.

During exam time, make sure you're eating the right fuel foods and managing your stress.

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 (or 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 (or 2:2) degree
  • Third-class honours (40 – 50%) – A third class honours degree, also known as a 'third'
  • Ordinary degree – You could get an ordinary degree without honours if you don't 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:

  1. Stay focused on getting a top grade

    girl carrying stack of textbooks

    Credit: Africa Studio – Shutterstock

    If you're aiming for a first class degree, you have to be prepared to put in maximum effort.

    Students who achieve a first class honours degree tend to be those who consistently try their hardest throughout the year. It's usually not good enough to get the occasional top grade to pull up a few bare-minimum passes.

    To get consistently good grades at university, you'll need to plan ahead. Being organised will help you 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 leave everything to the last minute. Leaving your coursework until the day before the deadline won't help you to achieve a first class degree.

  2. Develop your research skills

    Simply going to your lectures and seminar isn't enough to get a first.

    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 make the difference. If you check your course handbook, you'll likely 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 managing to write an essay in a day. If you're serious about it, reading outside of your recommended reading list is crucial.

    Obviously, this doesn't mean reading academic texts cover-to-cover. Don't spend hours and hours researching in one go. Doing this won'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 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.

    As you read more and get different perspectives, you will start to think critically and form an opinion of your own. You don't have to take the same stance as your tutors either. Their goal is for you to form your own views.

  3. Use the library resources at university

    Online journals are a great resource. But the best grades are usually awarded to students who can demonstrate they've used a range of different sources. And yes, that includes trusty old paper books.

    We're not suggesting you should pretend to work in the library from dawn until dusk. Instead, make the library your place to focus. You might even start to enjoy searching for and finding books that are relevant to your ideas.

    Take note of every idea or fact you use from a book. Jot down all relevant page numbers, chapters, authors and serial numbers. This way, you won't need to find the book again to reference it in an essay.

    Whatever you do, don't mention a critic's name without a reason. Knowing your critics and deciding whether you support or oppose their views is important.

    Remember: a first class student will have an idea and use critical sources to support it, not the other way around.

  4. Improve the presentation of your work

    highlighting notes

    Credit: ABO PHOTOGRAPHY - Shutterstock

    The content of your work matters, but so does the presentation. You could miss out on a first class honours degree if you don't pay attention to it.

    It's vital to have correct spelling, punctuation and grammar in an essay. Many tutors will downgrade you if your presentation isn't up to scratch.

    Good writing skills help you to convey your ideas effectively. They can make a relatively dull topic sound interesting.

    If you struggle with presentation skills when writing essays, don't worry. It just means you need to start your coursework a bit earlier. This way, you'll have time to thoroughly proofread it before handing it in.

    Any computer software you'll be using to write papers will have spell checkers. These should also be able to detect grammatical errors. Alternatively, you could download Grammarly.

    Or, you can email your assignments to a family member or friend and ask them (nicely) to check for any obvious errors.

    If you're really 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.

  5. Ask tutors for help

    Book appointments with tutors as often as you can. You can use these 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 credit by discussing an interesting idea related to their field of expertise. This shows you have a genuine interest. Plus, it 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 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. Doing this will get you in the bad books.

  6. Go to your university classes

    As we mentioned earlier, attending lectures and seminars is essential if you want to get a first class degree.

    Turning up to all of your timetabled commitments is the very least you can do. If you need more convincing, use our cost-per-hour calculator. With it, you can work out 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. This is especially important as these happen to be the people who will grade your work. They're likely to be a lot tougher when grading work from someone who doesn't bother to show up to class. They'll know if someone is participating and trying their best each week.

    Make sure you check out our tips on how to take better lecture notes too.

  7. Limit your time on social media

    phone social media
    As fun as social media can be, you won't achieve a first by endlessly scrolling down your feed. Studies have shown that social media makes you more likely to compare yourself to classmates, which can cause extra stress.

    Unsurprisingly, spending hours of your life on social media can also hurt your grades.

    You can set yourself a goal to avoid social media until the evenings. If you struggle in this area, you might want to consider temporarily deactivating your accounts.

  8. Pick topics that you're passionate about

    The whole point of doing a degree should be to expand your knowledge in the field. One of the worst things you can do is focus on a subject that doesn't excite you.

    Of course, it's unlikely that every assignment is going to be super interesting. 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, your reader will likely be too.

    Throughout the year, take note of anything you hear about in class that stands out to you. This list will come in handy when dissertation proposal time comes around.

  9. Find a study buddy at university

    No matter how great your motivation levels are, there will always be days when you don't want to do the work.

    Befriending an equally ambitious student is a good plan. You can motivate each other to go to the library on rainy days. Plus, you might feel 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. Doing the hard work together will make it much more enjoyable. And you'll be able to discuss ideas with them to develop your thoughts and opinions.

  10. Remember to take breaks from work

    It's important to make space in your study diary for a little downtime. Without giving yourself time to unwind, you'll either burn out or get totally fed up and start procrastinating.

    This is particularly relevant to library time. Spending days on end in the library is not productive. If you start to use your books as pillows, it's time to take a break.

    Balancing your studies with some downtime will make you much happier and more productive when it's time to study. For ideas on how to relax, try these self-care tips.

  11. Stay healthy while studying

    Don't underestimate how big an impact your health can have on your grades.

    Eating the right brain fuel foods and drinking lots of fluids (this excludes alcohol, sorry) will make studying much easier. In other words, appalling hangovers and takeaways for dinner should be avoided as much as possible.

    You don't have to cut them out completely, though. 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.

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.

Jake Butler

WRITTEN BY Jake Butler

Jake joined Save the Student in 2010 and is the COO. As an expert across student finance, Jake has appeared on The BBC, The Guardian, Which?, ITV, Channel 5 and many other outlets. He particularly enjoys sharing tips on saving money and making extra money with opportunities like paid surveys and part-time jobs.
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