Inevitably, some are suggesting that this means university standards are falling. Many students now pay vast sums of money for the privilege of a university education. As such, universities want them to leave as “satisfied customers”. Perhaps this is why more firsts are being awarded. On the other hand, it could simply be that students have become better at researching what makes for first-class work. They’re better at examining marking briefs. And at sharing tips – with other students in online forums and elsewhere – about what a first looks like.
So what does this mean for you if you’re currently an undergraduate student? If you think this recent news means it’s more likely you’ll get a first, you can keep the Champagne on ice for now. A first-class degree takes hard work and dedication, no matter where or what you study.
Whatever the reasons for the recent spike in firsts, you can be sure that as a result, the following will now happen:
- Universities will examine their standards more closely. They may look at making the criteria for first-class degrees more stringent in response to criticisms that they’ve ‘gone soft’.
- As up to a quarter of the new graduates hitting the job market do so with a shiny new first-class degree, top employers will routinely come to expect this in applicants for their very best jobs.
How can I get a first in my degree?
So, you want to be among those brandishing a first-class degree certificate when you don cap and gown next summer? Of course you do. Now is the time to think about what kind of student you need to be in order to succeed.
Here are a few pointers:
What does a first-class essay look like?
A lot of this stuff – risk-taking, depth of knowledge, and developing a unique “angle” – can sound pretty abstract. People marking essays may land on opposite sides of the fence where borderline cases are concerned.
However, most agree with what a first-class essay looks like and can pinpoint features that set it apart. Markers look for things like:
Essay matches the assignment brief
This may sound obvious, but did you really read the assignment brief? And when did you last read it? A first-class essay needs to show originality and creativity. But it also needs to prove that you can follow instructions.
If you’ve been given guidance on what your essay needs to cover, make sure you follow this to the letter. Also, take note of the number and type of sources it needs to use, or any other instructions. You can only do this if you revisit the brief repeatedly while writing. This will ensure you’re still on the path you were originally pointed down and haven’t gone off at a tangent.
Writing a brilliant, original essay that doesn’t meet the assignment brief is likely to be a frustrating waste of effort. True, you may well still get sufficient credit for your originality. But you’ll achieve far more marks if you shoot for originality and accuracy.
A clear and sophisticated argument
A first-class essay sets out its intentions (its own criteria for success) explicitly. By the end of your first couple of paragraphs, your reader should know (a) what you are hoping to accomplish, and (b) how you plan on accomplishing it.
Your central argument – or thesis – shapes everything else about your essay. So you need to make sure it’s well-thought-out. For a first-class essay, this argument shouldn’t just rehash the module material. It shouldn’t regurgitate one of the positions you’ve learned about in class. It should build on one or more of these positions by interrogating them, bringing them into conflict or otherwise disrupting them.
Solid support for every argument
You don’t just need to make a sophisticated argument; you need to support it as well. Use primary and/or secondary sources to back up everything you say. Be particularly careful to back up anything contentious with rigorous, logically consistent argumentation.
Undergraduates also often forget the need to effectively address counter-arguments to their own position. If there are alternative positions to the one you’re taking (and there almost always are), don’t omit these from your essay. Address them head-on by quoting their authors (if they’re established positions). Or, simply hypothesise alternative interpretations to your own. Explain why your position is more persuasive, logical, or better-supported than the alternatives.
When done well, drawing attention to counter-arguments doesn’t detract from your own argument. It enhances it by providing evidence of your capacity to reason in a careful, meticulous, sceptical and balanced way.
A logical and appropriate structure
Have you ever been asked to write a comparative essay, say on a couple of literary texts? And did you have lots to say about one of the texts but not much at all about the other? How did you approach that challenge? We’ve all written the “brain-dump” essay. You shape your work not around the question you’re supposed to be answering, but around topic areas that you can comfortably write a lot about. Your approach to a comparative essay may be to write 2500 words about the text you love, and tack 500 words onto the end about the one you don’t care for. If so, your mindset needs a bit of adjusting if you’re going to get that first-class degree.
A first-class essay always presents its arguments and its supporting evidence in the order and manner that’s best suited to its overall goals. Not according to what topic areas its author finds the most interesting or most comfortable to talk about. It can chafe if you feel you have more to offer on a particular topic than the assignment allows you to include. But balance and structural discipline are essential components of any good essay.
In-depth engagement and intellectual risk
This is where going “above and beyond” comes in. Everything from your thesis statement to your bibliography can and will be weighed as evidence of the depth of your engagement with the topic. If you’ve set yourself the challenge of defending a fringe position on a topic, or have delved deep into the theories underlying the positions of your set texts, you’ve clearly set yourself up for a potential first in the essay. None of this is enough by itself, though. Don’t forget that you need to execute it in a disciplined and organised fashion!
Emerging understanding of your role in knowledge creation
This one is easy to overlook, but even as a university student you’re part of a system that collaboratively creates knowledge. You can contribute meaningfully to this system by provoking your tutors to see problems or areas in their field differently. This may influence the way they teach (or research, or write about) this material in future. Top students demonstrate that they’re aware of this role in collaborative knowledge creation. It is clear they take it seriously, in the work they submit.