Five Qualities you need for a First-Class History Degree
Updated: Mar 3, 2021
Achieving a first-class degree in history was probably one of the most rewarding achievements of my life so far. I’m a first-generation student, so I didn’t have a support network around me of people who had been through the university system. Trial and error helped me to work out how to score high marks, develop great research techniques and enjoy a varied social life throughout my course. I didn’t achieve those marks from the start, but instead built up my skills over the first year of my course to allow me to succeed in the rest. Navigating marking criteria at university is a complicated process as it is often quite vague, leading to the constant feeling of ‘winging it’, which doesn’t help your confidence. First year is the time to make mistakes, but if you want a head start or are still confused about what you need to do, I’ve listed below what are, in my opinion, the top five qualities you’ll need to assist you in getting a first.
This is hard to juggle, what with doing adult things, managing your social life, a part-time job, and your mental health. However, being consistent in the amount of effort you put into your work will help you to improve over time. Setting up a schedule each week to plan out what you need to get done will help massively in holding yourself accountable and is much easier to manage than an ad-hoc approach. Essay writing involves planning, research, writing, proofreading, and editing, so it’s vital you allocate enough time for each task. Much of my feedback in my first year concerned my essays reading like a first draft, most likely because I never left enough time to do major editing to strengthen my argument. If you’re consistent in your approach to your work, the weeks will flow by filled with productivity instead of dread! I always finished work around a week before it was due so I could tinker with it. I know that I am a perfectionist by nature, so I gave myself time to read essays through to satisfy my nit-picking personality. I found that I was less stressed than my peers running up to submission time as I had started much earlier in the term, set achievable goals, and didn’t feel rushed.
Life gets in the way sometimes, and it’s unrealistic to assume that you can be consistent all the time, especially with how life is at the moment. If you’re someone that struggles with procrastination, doing something towards your goal every day will make you feel more accomplished. When I wrote my MA dissertation there were often days where I couldn’t face the writing process but writing as little as 200 words made me feel better, so don’t give up! If you have a habit of leaving everything to the last minute, start your essays closer to the start of term and gradually fit in the research around your seminars and lectures instead of attempting to do everything in two weeks. I really think that the consistency of my schedule, work ethic and organisation was a big factor in getting a first in my essays during second and third year. By doing a little every day I knew that my goal was getting closer and closer without the stress!
This goes hand in hand with consistency, you could say they were sisters! Keeping your lecture and seminar notes carefully filed and formatted will save you a lot of time. If the thought of coming up with a filing system is not for you, maybe it’s time to switch to digital notetaking! Keeping everything online means that you can print only what you need, have access to your notes on any device and be able to search your notes for the information you need without scrolling endlessly through the text. I found moving my notes online a massive timesaver and would recommend it to anyone who is short on time. If you are using paper notes, file them away as soon as you can and try to keep on top of them.
I don’t believe that notes, exam revision or essay drafts need to be colourful or presentable as they’re written for me. As long as what you submit at the end is nicely formatted to your department’s standards, it doesn’t matter what the prep looks like! Along with organisation, consistency in collecting your notes will really help you out. Make sure you actually attend your seminars and do your reading even if it’s really dry and boring. At the end of the day, you’re paying for what is on offer!
Using a planner is a great way to stay on top of everything and I’d advise you invest in one ASAP, whether that be paper or digital. There’s a lot going on when you’re at university, so try your best to make a record of your plans so you don’t overbook yourself.
3. Growth Mindset
I’ve had a growth mindset for years but have only just realised that’s what it’s called! Focusing on self-improvement over the need for perfection allowed me to engage in some healthy self-criticism and act on feedback given. In turn, this made it easier for me to ask for help when I was struggling and engage with lecturers outside of classes. Feedback is a really important part of success at university and can come verbally or in a written format. Focusing on the mark is the easy part, it is after all the contributing factor to your overall classification, but please don’t rule out feedback! After your marks come in, don’t be afraid to arrange a meeting with the lecturer to discuss your work, as they’ll be able to provide you with more in-depth feedback and advise you on what works and what needs work. It is intimidating to reach out after you’ve submitted something that hasn’t done well, but it’s necessary if you want to improve. I copy-and-pasted my feedback each semester into a work document so when I submitted new work I could look back and make sure that I was applying any advice given. If you’re confused or unhappy about a mark, please go and actually converse with the lecturer! They’re not doing it to punish you and it’s not personal.
If you find your performance stagnating, take some time to figure out a possible cause. It may be that you are not engaging with enough primary material, or your essay is well-researched but lacks a strong argument. Maybe you’re not giving yourself enough time to edit or your referencing needs work, these are all things I discovered held my marks back at times. Recognising your failures is something we are not taught to do in school, Success is marked by high scores from when we first enter the education system so it’s normal to lack the skills to be self-analytical and receive constructive criticism and act upon it. There is always an explanation as to why you’re not improving, so don’t assume it’s your intelligence!
Reaching out for help and advice enabled me to act on feedback and realise that everyone just wanted the best for me. I’m still a perfectionist but I now take the time to step back, read feedback and get the support I need to help me to succeed.
Decide why you want a first and act on it. Sounds simple but you must find a driving force to enable you to work hard, make sacrifices and excel in tough times. Whatever reason you decide on, know it’s valid and don’t be afraid to write it down and display it in a prominent place to remind yourself. If you’re at university for the experience of living away from home, getting a degree and enjoying a student lifestyle then a first-class may not be necessary or important, but if you need a first for your intended career, further study or personal achievements then you need to remain focused on the end goal and be prepared to do what it takes.
I don’t advise doing well to spite other people but if that’s what gets you through on a hard day then it’s not the end of the world. I got a C in history at A-level which has haunted me ever since results day in 2016. It has taken me a long time to accept that I probably wasn’t entirely to blame for this, due to the lack of support and encouragement from my school to pursue a university education. My sixth form was interested in the high-flyers, the ones that were Oxford, Cambridge or medicine candidates, and were pretty ambivalent towards the rest of us. Thankfully I had friends and family that encouraged me to go to university, but my results were always a point of regret. When times got tough during my degree, I often thought of those staff that had neglected to support my ambitions and the careers team who had argued that studying history wouldn’t make financial sense, (I’ve got nothing against STEM, but not everyone has the aptitude, as my D in biology shows) to help me push through. I’m sure many people would be shocked at what I’ve achieved over the past few years!
There will be times at university where you must miss a night out, a social gathering, work opportunities or self-care to catch up on work and push yourself to the next level. My advice is to surround yourself with a core group of friends who respect your work ethic and support you all the way. I have an incredible group of friends from school and university who have been nothing but supportive all the way, and I’m proud of what we’ve managed to achieve so far. I had a great social life at university which was balanced out with productive work sessions and a part-time job, so I don’t have many regrets. I don’t feel like I missed out on anything important if I had to say no to my friends which is a testament to our mutual respect for each other’s motivations.
You can’t love history all the time, but unless you really engage with your work, you’re not going to want to put in the hours you need. I am definitely an over-reader; give me a reading list and I’ll double it immediately. It’s never backfired on me and it’s something that really drives my writing. I found that as soon as I started reading more background texts, doing more preparation for seminars and putting my new findings into my essays that my marks shot up. In second year, all but one of my coursework submissions was a first class. I applied my love of reading and research to everything I wrote, and I saw the results instantly and consistently across the year. By exam season I had a wealth of knowledge and historiography to include in my answers and could answer every topic on the exam paper without having to put in extra work at a high-pressure time of the year. It sounds arrogant, but I promise that actually reading outside of the reading list sets you apart from other students in your group.
Core texts provided for seminar reading will set an important foundation to your learning and will develop your source-analysis skills, so make sure you take advantage of the resources given. Next, ask your lecturer where those sources came from and look at similar examples. Feed that back into your essay and exams and your work will stand out. It’s a method that works but relies on your ability to write a good essay as well. If you struggle to write a concise argument I would advise concentrating on that aspect before feeding in a lot of reading as it could exacerbate the problem. Utilise the indexes and footnotes in reading list texts and work outwards to look at new resources or controversial opinions. This extra work takes passion and definitely isn’t for the faint hearted as it’s easy to get bogged down in the reading and lose what you’re actually looking for. An important note is also that simply reading lots of texts, squashing them into an essay and listing them in your bibliography doesn’t mean that you’ll get a good mark. Hiding behind your reading will not help you grow as a writer, so try your best to balance developing your essay technique alongside your research.
These five qualities are not exhaustive, and I can definitely think of more attributes that make a first-class history student, so I might add to this list in another blog in the future. If you are having difficulty with any aspect of your degree, it’s important to reach out for support as soon as possible so you can get on with your assignments and succeed. Work hard and work smart!