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ADVICE: ‘How Can I Get a First Class Degree?’

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‘Mike’, who has just begun an undergraduate law degree, wants to know what it takes to get a first. His email is below…

Dear Alex,

I’ve read your article about recruitment concerns that surround going to an ex-poly, but I would like to ask a further question:

1) What about the difficulty of achieving a first class law degree? Could you provide me with an estimation of the daily workload or effort I should put in during my first year?

Thanks in advance,

Yours sincerely,

Mike

Hi Mike,

Before we begin, you should know that I didn’t get a first. In fact, I didn’t even get close, narrowly scraping a 2:1 in my English Literature degree. I later did the GDL, which I got a commendation in – again, not the top grade. So don’t take this advice as gospel. Happily, Legal Cheek has plenty of readers who did get firsts, so hopefully they’ll post comments pointing out the flaws in my advice – and offer some tips of their own.

Looking back (and it is going back a while now), one uni memory that stands out is the lecturers telling us in the first week how much harder a degree was than school. I remember my teachers at school telling us the same thing about A-levels in relation to GCSEs. In hindsight, I can see they were just trying to freak us out – not consciously, but in that initiation-type way that serves to get students’ attention, and big up the lecturers’ sense of their own importance.

Actually, uni isn’t really harder than school, or a job.

So how do you get a first? On reflection, I think it boils down to two things.

1. Being on top of everything.

That means being diligent, consistently. Just by attending all lectures/tutorials, concentrating during them, writing notes that you don’t lose etc. you’ll place yourself at a big advantage over most students. And no I can’t provide you with “an estimation of the daily workload or effort”.

2. Giving something extra in your essays/exam answers.

Once you’re on top of everything, think about the knowledge you’ve absorbed, and write something interesting about it. Not so interesting that it’s overly complex to a point where you don’t fully understand what you’re writing. Or actually not-very-interesting-at-all, because what you’ve come up with is really just lazy regurgitation of facts. Just normal interesting – of a level of interest, for example, that may hold the attention of a group of friends in a pub as part of a conversation on which you’re all pre-briefed in the relevant subject matter.

That’s the standard of a first.

I only worked this out after I became a journalist – mainly because I knew lots of people would be reading what I’d written, and didn’t want to come across as a) pretentious or b) an idiot. In hindsight, I wish I’d been similarly bothered about what my uni tutors thought of me. But, hey, a 2:1 is no disaster.

Good luck with those daily workload/effort calculations,

Alex

14 Comments

Olivia

Hi,

Just wanted to leave a comment as I have just graduated from an ex-poly with a 1st in Law and thought I could give some advice!

1. Work comes first. The problem with ex-poly Universities is that they offer a vast array of degrees with varying workloads. This means that your friends/housemates might only have 5 hours of lectures a week and one essay to write a term. Therefore, they are going to be gracing the clubs with their presence four times a week, especially in first year. Unfortunately, to get a 1st, you have to do the work and this means staying in a few more nights a week whilst your friends are living the student dream. In my final year at University my social life virtually ended and unfortunately I am now doing the BPTC full time so my social life is still non-existent but seeing ‘1st Class’ on your degree certificate makes it all worth it!

2. Do a dissertation. Law exams can be quite difficult and if you do not act well under pressure in exam conditions, a dissertation is the perfect opportunity for you to showcase your talents and get a first in your final year. Dissertations vary in credits but provided you understand the work involved, go for the largest one you can in order to gain marks that you might lose in your exams.

3. Don’t give up! At University, whenever I couldn’t understand something (which was quite often as the level of teaching isn’t always at its best at non-Russell Group Universities), I read around the area of law until the cows came home. I detested Property Law and ended up getting 87% in my final examination merely because I had practically read every textbook from cover to cover. This is a difference between a 1st Class degree and a 2:1 – the 2:1 student might not go into as much detail in the area merely because they are confused, the 1st Class student will be determined to find the right answer and understand it!

4. The one thing I had which helped me to get a 1st class degree was my pushy parents. I had received top A Levels but decided to reject my chosen University on results day (which has just been voted the Sunday Times University of the Year) because I was 18 and rebellious and just out of boarding school. My parents were obviously unhappy with my decision and they would not let me forget how unhappy they were. If I got a 2:1 coursework grade, they told me to try harder, and therefore my desire to please my parents led me to working as hard as I possibly could in order to be getting the 1st Class degree!

One final thing to remember, a degree on its own is not quite as valuable as it once was! Your degree means nothing to a prospective employer if you do not have extra-curricular activies (Mooting, Debating, Sports etc) and work experience (the fact that my University is so low down in the league tables has meant I now have 2 months worth of legal work experience under my belt as I needed to find the wow factor from somewhere!) This does seem daunting on top of your workload, but provided that you keep on top of everything it can all be fitted into the student life!

Hope this helps!

(14)(1)

Angus MacCulloch

Alex’s advice is pretty sound, but I’ll add a few pointers.

Degree level work probably isn’t harder than that which has gone before, but it is certainly different. The onus on being prepared and engaged with the material shifts heavily to the student – that is the biggest change that you will need to adapt to.

Don’t expect to start getting 1st Class results straight away, but start changing the way you work to put yourself in a position to be able to begin to produce that quality of work.

The thing that most UGs struggle to do in making the leap from Upper Second to First Class is to really engage with the secondary literature and show that they understand and can confidently discuss it. As Alex says, you need to be able to discuss, in the context of a string of assessments, that you are familiar with the material, you can select those most pertinent to the question, and structure a sensible evaluation of it.

Most decent students can indicate that they are aware of the material, and even show familiarity with the content, but not many really engage with the material in an interesting way.

Good Luck …

P.S. Get to know your Degree Regulations – if you know what you need to do overall to get a 1st Class degree you’ll understand what your degree scheme looks for. It might be consistency or a certain number of 1st Class Modules.

(3)(1)

Edward Machin

Have to say it’s not simply a case of attending every lecture and writing copious notes – I certainly didn’t, and actually think doing so can be a waste of time. It’s a case of working smart, not hard.

What I did was quickly identify that my strengths lay in coursework over exams (which I could never seem to get first-class marks in, no matter how hard I revised – Christmas day anyone?) and, when the option became available in the second and third years, choose only coursework-based modules. Result: first-class marks from there on in, without having to rote learn the textbooks we all found so dull. Only one other person in my year made the same strategic move, and ended up one mark from a first.

Another tip I found useful: it never hurts to reference articles and books by the professors teaching your modules; nothing like a bit of ego stroking. Also simply asking them what it takes to get first-class marks – whether in exams or coursework – is something that worked for me. They are, after all, generally the ones grading your papers.

(6)(1)

Andrew

Read a good newspaper every day (especially the comment/opinion sections) so that you get really good at making succinct, controversia, and well-supported argumetns

(4)(1)

botzarelli

Text books? As an undergraduate there was almost no sin worse* than obvious reading of the standard text books and it certainly wouldn’t get you anywhere near a First to have done so (they were tolerated as an aid to be used only if you couldn’t get to your own view of the relevant law from cases and articles to be followed up by rereading the cases). Citing tutors’ own works was also generally to be avoided because they had an unerring tendency to respond that “that wasn’t what I said or meant at all”.

Obviously once you get into practice, unless you are doing some money no object advisory work for a client going against the leading line of authority, or appellate counsel, all that fine intellectual practice goes out of the window as you hastily crib together advice notes based on your own experience and a quick skim of PLC…

* Limiting yourself to headnotes of cases was probably slightly worse

(1)(2)

Mini-pupil wannabe

I haven’t yet completed my degree but my firsts in previous years were down to my relationships with my course tutors.

I simply kept going to them to get info and they gave me that info.
I also kept giving in essays for them to mark and received feedback on them. Essays which were not compulsory – essays which I received 0 marks, no grades, nothing serious. It was all work, work work.

I also was able to do related extra-curicular things like advocacy.
My social life included emailing my friends 2-3x a week. Which was a bit excess.
I also took regular breaks to remind myself why I was working so hard.

(5)(0)

caseb

Study the questions and look at past papers, go back several years and you will see patterns, there are only so many central themes in things like Contract and Tort.

Make mind maps – use colours and plot a route on a subject, like a journey. I used highlighters and felt-tip pens and made posters which I plastered all over the house. I could shut my eyes and easily visualise all the issues surrounding e.g. the duty of care or consideration or GNM.

Work hard and treat it like a job… up at 7.00 start at 7.30, an hour for lunch, an hour in the gym, back until 5.00, 2 hours for tea, work till 9.00 or 10.00.

Take good structured rest breaks, the ‘muscle’ builds during the rest and recouperation phase.

Do not ignore that which you do not understand… make sure you ‘get it’, try and contextualise everything and understand why laws are what they are (public policy etc).

Be interested in the subject, it’s difficult (unless you are a genius) to excel in something that you are only doing to pass the time or to please parents.

Get the most out of your tutors, ask them questions and remember, YOU are the boss, you are paying their wages and you want GOOD value for money. (admittedly, I was quite a formidable mature student but I once held a tutor hostage who had a habit of giving short and sweet tutorials and then skipping off, made him stay with me answering questions for the duration of the session. .. you take my money, you give me VALUE mate)… don’t be fobbed off.

Do all the above and come exam time you will have the confidence to write something interesting about the subject and not just regurgitate because you will understand and appreciate what you are doing… do not waste your time and money getting second class results, this is a business where first class is key.

(..I got Distinctions in both GDL and LPC and came 1st in year on the GDL, hope advice helps)

(7)(0)

DC

All these people saying that they’re giving up their social lives to get a first- you will regret it. If you can get a first and still have a good time then it’s definitely worth it. If you spend the entirety of what should be the best three years of your life locked away in a dark room then it’s probably not. Put in a semi-respectable amount of work in over the year, go mental in the library in 3 months running up to exams and see what happens. You’ve got the rest of your life to waste working hard.

(2)(6)

Nick

I’m surprised no-one has suggested looking at your university’s marking guide (or any other university’s, they are pretty much the same). In essence a first requires you to be able to synthesise information and arguments into something more original, and it helps to use unusual texts or sources that no-one else uses. That’s it. Spending all day in the library, sucking up to tutors, submitting extra work for which you get no marks will not help, unless they assist you in performing at the level I described above.
Good luck!

(3)(1)

Danny Sroda

I agree with Alex’s advice. That little bit (sometimes a lot) of extra effort/thought/analysis makes all the difference!
Best of luck in your efforts!
Dan

(2)(0)

Ali Y A

Maybe it’s premature for a person like me to be giving advice on how to make a first, since I’m in my final year of an English degree now. However, having a 4.77 CGPA probably says something too.

The key, to me, has been this next sentence. Study each lecturer at the very beginning of the course, and do everything possible to impress them throughout the semester.

(1)(2)

Chris

Work consistently and go beyond the reading list. You are being asked for YOUR reasoned opinion on the law (not your tutors).

(2)(0)

kris

I teach law and mark papers. Schmoozing me will not get you a First.

You’ll get a First by producing Distinction-worthy writing.

You will grab my attention with a structured and comprehensive approach to the questions.

I’m immediately attracted to writing which identifies the issue, states the law – and then clearly and precisely applies the law to the facts, drawing a clear conclusion.

As for essays, we like to see introductory paragraphs containing a precis of your conclusion – and the steps you propose to take which will lead you there. If you can then you spend the rest of your essay proving your point, so much the better.

My only other advice is to RTFQ.

I’ve taught law for the past 10 years – and with each passing year, there’s been an increase in students lobbying me for better marks. They unrealistically expect to attain first class results straight out of the blocks. Many don’t seem to appreciate that, like any skill, law questions and essays require practice.

I know the pressure’s on – and you *need* that First to be competitive in the job market.

I would shift that focus to “how can I nail this issue”.

If you can do that, the Distinctions will follow – and clients and future employers will love you for your ability to get straight to the heart of the matter.

(9)(0)

kris

PS:

Olivia said: “This is a difference between a 1st Class degree and a 2:1 – the 2:1 student might not go into as much detail in the area merely because they are confused, the 1st Class student will be determined to find the right answer and understand it!”

Amen.

(11)(0)

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