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,


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,