• Abbie Tibbott

First-Class Degrees: Are They Worth the Effort?

As someone with two first-class degrees, I have a lot to say about the benefits of achieving the top grades. As more and more people gain access to higher education, it’s important to make yourself stand out when you leave university. Many people think that achieving a first will guarantee success, but the reality is that your grade is just a facet in how you’ll be assessed for jobs in the future. I’ll be writing from the perspective as a history graduate, and I’m aware that assessments and classifications have different systems in different subjects, and it’s something to bear in mind. In this blog, I’ll be breaking down first-class results to say why they’re important, why they’re not, and how you can get them.


Why bother working for a first-class?

People go to university for different reasons. Many go for a mixture of education and experience, and I can count myself among them. Some go to excel and move on to high-powered careers or postgraduate study, and some go just to get a degree in something and enjoy themselves. For someone that didn’t really understand what actually went on at university, I wanted to have a good balance between work and play, make friends and come out with a decent result at the end. It wasn’t until I began to get initial results back in my first year that I realised that I had the potential to make good progress on my degree, especially after my poor A-level results.

It wasn’t until my third year that I really considered that I could be walking away with a first-class degree at the end of my undergrad degree. Once I’d submitted my coursework in April, I finally felt like it could be a reality, but it all depended on my exams. It wasn’t until I got my final classification in June 2019 that I finally felt like it’d been a possibility all along, but that’s imposter syndrome for you!

If you’re thinking of heading to university, it’s worth thinking about whether you want to work for the top grades. I’m phrasing that very carefully, because I fully believe that anyone can achieve a first if they work hard enough, pay attention to feedback and really devote themselves to their subject, it’s not all about ability or natural flair for something.


What did I do to get a first?

I didn’t sacrifice too much to get the top classification, and I’ll talk about that later on, but there were a few things that helped me to achieve consistently high marks. None of these are particularly revolutionary, but I really think that they made a difference.

· Recording feedback and making sure I applied it to subsequent coursework.

· Choosing coursework questions early in the term to allow time for planning and creating a great essay structure.

· Engaging with lecturers by completing formative (non-marked) work to enhance my understanding, supplying essay plans and attending supervisions to make sure that I was on the right track before I began writing.

· Leaving a week to edit, reference and proofread essays, enabling me to make my coursework cohesive and apply earlier feedback without being rushed.

· Attended every lecture and seminar, doing all required preparation and activities to the best of my abilities.

· Making cohesive notes that didn’t copy from slides, reviewing my notes and making my own revision guides from these in the summer term.

· Over-reading, by reading beyond the reading list, checking indexes, and using Google Scholar to find more academic material to add to essays.

· Starting exam revision as soon as possible, giving myself time to not only learn the material but also to practice applying it in timed exam practices .

· Picking essay topics that legitimately interested me, but that were also the most straightforward to plan and answer, which gave me more time to do the reading and editing needed.

· Studying when I knew I was going to be most productive, and making the most of those sessions so I could enjoy my free time.

I’d also like to point out that I combined study with employment, flexible working being a great way to earn money throughout my degree. I was often unproductive past 2pm in the winter, especially when it gets dark really early, so I’d often pick up afternoon shifts to make the most of the free time I had. I didn’t spend my entire life studying, which is a common misconception of students who are aiming for a first. It’s more about making the most of your time studying, rather than spending all your time in the library.


What can a first do for you?

It’s a fair question to ask what the point of working towards a first-class is, especially when most graduate schemes, postgrad degrees and jobs simply don’t require one. Honestly, it can be a personal pride thing, especially if you have family members that have done really well at university. In a practical sense, getting a first can be a way to put yourself ahead for funding opportunities. Although it’s by no means a sure-fire method to get money (I can personally testify to this), most applications for PhD stipends require you to have a first-class, making you uncompetitive if you achieve anything lower. I’m not sure whether I agree this is fair, but that’s the way of the world at the moment, so it’s something to consider if you’re thinking about your future in the long-term.

Getting a first will also make your application to jobs stand out, even if it isn’t required. However, it is important to remember that it’s what you do alongside your degree that helps to make you appear as a well-rounded individual to employers, so do take some time to prove that you’ve been enhancing yourself outside of your degree. This can be hard to balance with studying, but I found a few ways to do this that were a low time commitment, such as:

· Getting involved with departmental conferences and events, even if it’s just a bit of volunteer stewarding.

· Writing for university or departmental blogs, newspapers, or social media.

· Volunteering to help younger students at university or in secondary schools for a few hours a week.

· Working for the university at recruitment days, graduations, and outreach events.

These are just a few ideas, and don’t forget placement and study abroad activities too. Finding time to add in a few extra-curricular activities is a worthwhile investment in yourself, and it’s something to add to your CV. If you’re interested in finding out more, I’ve written a few posts on jobs, volunteering, and placements, so I’ll link them to this post for you to read.


Is a first-class degree worth the extra work?

This concept of “extra work” is all a mindset, and it won’t be additional stress if you adopt the work as part of your everyday routine. Life is busy and stressful, but if the work is making your life a misery, it may be worth rethinking your attitude towards your work, and trying to reframe it more positively.

For me, once I realised that I had the potential to do well, I made the most out of the opportunities that were presented to me to enhance my personal development and my academic progress. Getting a first in my undergrad set me up for success in my MA, which put me on a great path to succeed at PhD level. It wasn’t part of some great master plan, it just fell into place, but I’m still grateful that I put in the hard work early on.

It's worth saying that motivation is key when aiming for the top, as a lot of my success as a history student came from spending time practicing for exams and refining my coursework. This was really tedious at times, especially when I was working on multiple things at once. I’m glad that I surrounded myself with a really great group of friends who were there to support me, and I’d recommend finding people with similar ambitions to you if you want to aim for the top grades, especially when life gets stressful.


Ultimately, getting a first-class degree is by no means going to get you everything you want in life, nor is it necessary. I think it’s well worth the effort, and it’s very achievable as long as you use your time wisely and productively. The good news is that even if your first-year grades aren’t looking how you want them to, there are plenty of opportunities to use the feedback you’ve been given and aim higher the following year, so don’t loose hope. If you’re just thinking about university, don’t let anything I’ve said here scare you. Show up, acclimatise and then decide if you want to try anything that I’ve mentioned.

Happy studying!