How to Graduate with a First at University
I'm guessing if you've clicked on this post, you are currently at university and are hoping to get a first. Getting a first is often easier said than done. I am someone who never got top grades at school, failed a lot of my exams, yet I was still, somehow, able to graduate from university earlier this year with a first. And if I can do it, then so can you.
To get a first, you need to achieve 70% overall in your exams/assignments. To some, this may not sound too far-fetched and easily achievable. However, if you are like me, getting 70% is actually quite a big ask and takes hours and hours of hard work, determination, and quite a lot of crying with a mouth full of chocolate if I'm being completely honest.
I feel that for full disclosure I should just point out that my degree only involved assignments and I didn't have to do exams. The no exams wasn't due to COVID but were instead because my tutors said that exams don't represent the real world and they would much rather we were marked on stuff that better reflected the careers we were likely to go into; so we did essays, reports, presentations, posters, and e-portfolios. I am only saying this because I am 99.999999% certain that if I had to do exams, my degree grade would have been a completely different outcome altogether.
The first thing you need to do, which is probably already pretty obvious, is to not put things off to the last minute. All I ever heard at university was students saying that they'd completely forgotten about an assignment or exam and having to cram it all in at the last minute; or that they just hadn't been bothered to make a start on it and had left it to the last minute. To be fair, those things are probably what everyone has done at one point or another (I include myself in this) and it's also really easy to make a start on something ahead of time, think you have more time than you actually do to get it done or end up getting a bit further ahead and become a bit more relaxed with the time you have left and what you've already done, only for it to get to a week or so before the deadline and you realise you actually have a lot more to do than you previously thought and not much time left to do it, so you end up having to cram everything in last minute. Plan your time out carefully, because it's more than likely you'll have multiple assignments and exams to do that are all due in around the same time. I always plan out my week on my phone and on each day of the week I would put in which module I was going to be working on that day. This would help me have a clear idea every day of what I was going to be doing and would also stop me from spending more time on one module than another; particularly if there was one module that I favoured over another or found another module easier than another. Look at the deadlines for each one as when you've got a number of weeks before the hand-in date, you can often afford to just take it in turns each day to do each module and as it gets closer to the deadline, you then have a better idea of where you're at with each module and if you might have to start spending a few more days on one than the other to make sure you have everything you need before you hand it in.
One of the most important things you can do in order to get a first from university, whether that is overall or in a single assignment, is to read the criteria. The criteria state every single thing you need to consider when it comes to writing your assignment. The criteria should (or at least, it was at my university) be broken up into four criteria and then each of those should be separated into what you need to do to achieve each grade (fail, third, 2:1, first). Keep referring to this throughout the planning and writing of the assignment and try and make sure you have done everything you possibly can to achieve the grade you want to achieve.
Of course, sometimes the grading criteria can actually be quite confusing. Luckily for me, my tutors made us a fit to submit (not sure if this is the case at every university, so if you're not sure whether yours does this, it's always worth asking). The fit to submit breaks down the grading criteria and pretty much tells you exactly what your tutors are expecting you to include in your assignment. This can vary from recommending books you should read, theories you should include, questions and points to consider, etc. I would always copy and paste this into the document I was writing my assignment on in red writing and would break it down per paragraph/section and then once I had included something from the fit to submit in my assignment, I would either turn the red writing into green writing, just so I still had it there just in case when I read back through it I realised I hadn't quite included everything I needed to or would get rid of it.
This is a given really, but it is really important for you to attend all of your classes. I know with university it's too easy to realise you have a 9am and then you wake up and it's cold and dark and possibly raining outside and you just think you can't be bothered, so you turn your alarm off and go back to bed. At the end of the day, you're paying to attend university (even though most of you reading this have probably taken out a loan, but to be fair, even though none of us will probably be able to afford to pay it all back, there is a lot of interest on this loan), so you might as well try and get your money's worth (even though university definitely isn't worth the nine grand a year, especially when you have to pay that in a pandemic and are essentially paying to sit in your room watching a YouTube video). Yes, it can be frustrating when all the lecturer does is read off the PowerPoint for two hours, when you probably could have just read through it and made notes within an hour. But when you attend your classes, it gives you the chance to discuss with your peers and tutors the content, to help you gauge more ideas to help you with your assignments.
Before starting your assignment, it is important you do plenty of background research on the topic. Your tutors should have used plenty of references within their lectures, so refer back to those and look at their reference list (which I'm aware they don't always put up - so annoying!) as this is always a start. They should also provide you with a reading list, which is also useful to refer to. Within these starter texts, there should be more texts for you to be able to refer to; as well as providing you with plenty of ideas to include in your assignment and search for various terms mentioned in the texts to add more depth to your discussion.
As well as using those texts, you should also use recommended texts. Tutors often expect to see the recommended texts within your assignment, which shouldn't necessarily be all of them, but at least a good few. In showing you have used the recommended texts, this is showing that you have engaged with your studies and were aware of what was expected of you. But it is also important to show your wider reading. A combination of the two shows that you are further exploring the ideas set out in the recommended texts; therefore being able to show a deeper understanding and also bettering your chances of getting a first.
Some of you may be entitled to an extension. The extension is offered to people who are under extenuating circumstances, such as the death of a family member, mental health needs, or special educational needs, just to name a few. You do need to provide evidence of why you need an extension, as they don't just hand them out to anyone. I'm pretty sure the extension extends the deadline by ten working days, although this may vary by university and due to what you need the extension for. You may also be able to defer the deadline to the resubmission date (the date given to those who failed the assignment), or it may well be advised that you defer the year entirely. If you think you might be entitled to an extension, it is always best to have a word with your tutor to see what they think and they will be able to point you in the right direction. We were given an extension on our final assignments this year due to being put back into a third lockdown and I initially wasn't going to use it as I just wanted to get it over and done with; but taking that extension was the best decision for me as it gave me more time to think through my ideas and not stress too much about having to hand them in on time, causing my work and grades to suffer in the process.
Finally, the most important way to get a first is to not become overworked. I get that at times it can become impossible to not be overworked as you have no control over how much work your tutors set you. But it is important for you to take time out when needed. Burnout is very real and one thing I realised towards the end of my studies is that it is much better to take a break, whether that be an hour, half a day, or even a full day or two, instead of forcing yourself to do the work when you're not in the headspace to do so. Trust me, you will produce much better work if you take a little bit of time out to give yourself time to take a breather and maybe reflect a little on what you've already written and what you could add to it. Giving your work a fresher perspective is much better than just spending hours staring at your computer screen because you are burnt out and have no idea what else to add to your work.
Hopefully, you have found this post helpful. These are the tips I followed when writing my assignments and was somehow able to graduate with a first. If you're reading this post and have also graduated with a first and have any other tips you feel are of use, please feel free to comment them down below. Or if you're wanting to graduate with a first and have any more questions, please feel free to leave a comment, email me, or DM me on Twitter or Instagram.
Best of luck with your studies and I really hope you get the grade you want (and deserve)!
Love Beth xx