How to Turn As and A*s at School into Firsts at University

Image shows a pair of glasses lying upside down on a table.

As a straight-A student, you may have your sights set on achieving similarly impressive marks once you get to university.

Aiming high is admirable, but you’ll need to be realistic about the fact that it’s rather harder to achieve a First at university than it is to get top A-level grades. It takes a huge amount of hard work and determination, and, as we’ll see, it’s important to think carefully about what you want from your university experience before going all out for a First. In this article, we’re going to give you some pointers to help you take on the biggest challenge of your academic career to date.

Skills required to achieve a First

Image shows a black and white photo of a student studying outdoors.
The skills required to get a First at university go far beyond
those required at A-level.

Naturally, the specific skills required to achieve a First vary according to what subject you study, but broadly speaking, First-class students differ academically from other students in that they:

  • Think critically, forming their own opinions based on intelligent deduction.
  • Support their opinions with evidence, and express them clearly and articulately.
  • Ably pull together ideas from a number of sources, and see connections between different sources.
  • Understand the question and answer it – sounds simple, but plenty of students slip up on this one.

You don’t have to be a genius to get a First. In many ways, the skills needed for a First are a development of the skills you needed at A-level. The big difference is that you won’t be able to get away with jumping through hoops in the way you did at GCSE and A-level. Your brain will be pushed much harder and you’ll be required to think for yourself a lot more. The sooner you can start developing your own opinions, the better.

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Top tips for achieving a First

As you will already have gathered, getting a First isn’t a walk in the park. It takes the right attitude, intelligence and lots of sheer hard work. Here are some tips to give you the best possible chance.

Pick the right subject(s)

Image shows a space shuttle taking off.
The percentage of Firsts in subjects like Physics is higher.

It goes without saying that in order to attain First-class standard at undergraduate level, you will need to choose a degree that you’re genuinely interested in – otherwise you’ll soon grow tired of it. It’s also worth bearing in mind that some subjects award more First-class degrees than others. Mathematics is known for awarding one of the highest proportions of First-class degrees, as are other science subjects, such as Engineering and Physics. Language degrees also award high proportions of Firsts. This is probably because sciences and languages are more objective and fact-based, meaning that there is such a thing as a correct answer; humanities degrees – such as English or History – are more subjective, relying more on interpretation, and it’s hard to get a mark over 75. Naturally, your own interests and aptitudes should matter more in your decision-making process: you’re highly unlikely to get a First in a science subject if you’re overwhelmingly a humanities student.

However, your careful subject selection doesn’t end with the choice of your overall degree. Within your degree you’ll have module options, and just because you’re interested in the subject as a whole, doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to be interested in every single module option available to you. You’ll need to give careful thought to your choice of modules, choosing the subjects you’re both interested in and that you think you stand a chance of achieving a First in. You’re going to be devoting a lot of time to the options you choose, learning about them in more detail than you’d have thought possible, so make choices you’ll be happy with.

Be determined

You’ll need a certain mindset to achieve a First. It requires total commitment, and a positive, ‘can do’ attitude. There will be times when it feels impossible, and you need the mental strength to weather the storm.

Get to know the library

Image shows a grand-looking university library.
You’ll soon get used to having your own spot in the library,
which you will defend ruthlessly.

You’ll often want to get down to the library for opening time, and there will be plenty of times when you’ll be there until it closes – with the odd break for lectures and classes, of course. Getting to know the layout of the library and where everything is will help you find what you need quickly. The library is also a distraction-free environment in which to study, and you’ll quickly come to think of a particular library desk as “yours”.

Get up early

If you’re really determined to get a First, you’ll need to say goodbye to the student stereotype of lying in all morning. Getting up early frees up more time for studying, allowing you to make use maximum use of the day. Allow yourself just one lie-in a week, at the weekend. You’ll have earned it!

Hone your research and note-taking skills

First-class students excel at academic research, so if you want to join them, you’ll need to hone your research skills. You’ll need to become adept at finding information, sifting through piles of irrelevant information to find little nuggets of useful stuff, and taking helpful notes that you can then work up into an essay or revise from.

Never miss a lecture…

Image shows a lecture theatre seen from behind the podium.
Lectures might not be compulsory, but it’s still a good
idea to go.

Skipping lectures isn’t an option when you’re aiming for a First, so be sure to attend all your lectures religiously. Not only will it help you get that coveted First, but it will also mean you’re getting maximum value from those hefty tuition fees.

…but accept that lectures are only the beginning

Though you should never miss a lecture, you can’t rely on lectures alone to get you a First. You’ll need to put it lots of your own research time as well, not just for essays, but following up on what you learned in lectures and reading the books in the bibliography on your lecture handouts. Always go the extra mile, and you will be rewarded in the long run.

Debate and ask questions

Get involved in academic discussions in class, offering your opinion and asking intelligent questions to help drive the debate forward. Not only will this impress your tutor, but it’ll mean you learn subjects in more depth, and you’ll be better able to argue a point in an exam.

Don’t let others drag your grade down

Image shows a group of students working together while sitting on some stairs.
You might have to do a disproportionate amount of the
work, but it’s worth it to preserve your grade.

You will almost certainly have to take part in group work as part of your degree – that is, working in a small group of other students. You may not have any choice about whom you get grouped with, and the chances are that others in your group won’t be as serious about getting a top degree classification as you are. Unfortunately, there will always be those who don’t pull their weight, and that means that you’ll need to compensate for them if you’re to stand a chance of achieving a good grade for this work. One way of getting around this is to put yourself forward as the person responsible for collating all the work for the project, as this allows you to make sure everyone else’s work is up to scratch as well as yours. It’ll mean extra work, and it may feel galling that it will reflect well on those who haven’t worked as hard as they should have done, but if it means a better grade for you, then so be it.

Start work on essays as soon as you get them

If you’re aiming for a First, you’ll not be able to leave essays or other assignments until the last minute. You need to allow enough time to conduct detailed research that gives you a full, deep understanding of each and every topic. Start work on an essay as soon as you’re set it, so that you have time on your side. This means you’ll be able to produce a polished, thoughtfully considered essay that does full justice to the question, rather than the rushed work most of your friends will probably be submitting.

Shine in your dissertation and your exams

Image shows rows of exam desks.
The exam technique you learned at A-level will still be
relevant at university.

Dissertations and exams require different kinds of skills, but you’ll need to be the master of both to be in with a chance of securing a First overall. Your dissertation will give you the chance to demonstrate your research skills, and will probably count significantly towards your degree, but you’ll have lots of time to work on it. Work on your exam technique by doing mock exams and getting your tutor to grade them, so that you can see what level you’re operating at. If you fall short of a First in the mock, ask your tutor what you could have done differently to secure the top marks.

Write your references and bibliography as you go along

As someone who’s aiming for a First, you’re going to be looking at lots of different books, journal articles and other sources of information, and it can be difficult to stay on top of all your references. Make your life easier by writing them as you go along. Your bibliography is your chance to impress your tutor with the titles of all the books, journals and other resources you’ve been using. Even if you don’t directly cite all of them in your essay, it’s still worth including everything you’ve read as you prepared for the essay.

Get your spelling and grammar perfect every time

Image shows someone making notes in red pen on a printed essay.
Always proofread your work.

You’re not going to give a First-class impression by submitting work littered with spelling and grammar errors, even if the content is First-class material. Before submitting any work, proofread it thoroughly to ensure that the spelling and grammar is spot on throughout.

Don’t take criticism personally

If you’ve received disappointing feedback from your tutor about an essay you’ve written, don’t take it to heart: learn from it, and don’t make the same mistakes again. If the criticism isn’t clear, approach your tutor and ask them to elaborate on what they meant.

Don’t do it alone

Don’t feel that you need to be alone in your pursuit of a First. It can be isolating to spend long hours in the library by yourself, so find a like-minded friend who’s also set on achieving a First and see how you get on studying together. You’ll motivate each other and keep loneliness at bay.

You can also seek the advice of your tutors on what you can be doing to get a First. If they know that that’s what you’re aiming for, they’ll be able to offer you the guidance they think you need. What’s more, you should be assigned a pastoral tutor, so feel free to ask them for advice too – particularly on the lifestyle side of getting a First. They’re there to offer you the support you need to reach your full potential.

Don’t take on too many extra activities

Image shows a row of archery targets.
You’ll only have time for one or two activities.

Unfortunately, Firsts come at a price. Part-time jobs are going to be pretty much out of the question if you want to achieve a First, and you’ll need to limit your socialising. It’s still a good idea to join a student society, as this will give you a well-earned break, help you make new friends and give you something extra to put on your CV; but you may find you have to limit your commitment to one group a week.

Give a great impression

Show that you mean business by always being early to every class or lecture, always dressing smartly and always submitting essays well in advance of the deadline. That might sound like ‘teacher’s pet’ behaviour, but that’s not such a bad thing, particularly at degree level.

Eat for success

You need to be in tip top physical condition to get a First, so don’t let your studies detract from your diet. Ensure you eat healthily at regular intervals (by healthily, we mean not Pot Noodles), as this will also give you a break from studying. If you don’t eat healthily, you risk being tired, lethargic and unable to give your full concentration to your studies.

Managing your expectations

Image shows a black and white photo of a student at a desk making notes in a notebook.
Don’t be disappointed by a 2.1.

We end with a small dose of realism, because many students go to university with unrealistic expectations and end up disappointed. You’re unlikely to get Firsts in your essays as soon as you start your degree course – certainly not at the top universities. It takes time to develop the skills needed for a First. What’s more, you’re never going to get 100% for a humanities subject, so if you’ve been used to scoring top marks for A-level History, English or another humanities subject, you’ll have to adjust your expectations for university. Also, be prepared for the fact that your studies are going to take up the vast majority of your time if you’re looking to achieve a First; if top grades at A-level came easily to you, don’t expect the same to be true of university.

Finally, remember that not ending up with a First isn’t a bad thing. At school, you may have felt that as a top student, there was a stigma attached to getting a B instead of an A or A*, but there’s no such shame in getting a 2.1 at university. Indeed, some employers would rather you had a 2.1 degree and a host of extracurricular achievements (which teach non-academic skills that are useful for the workplace) on your CV than a First and no other activities. So, think carefully before sacrificing every other aspect of university life for a First. If you get a 2.1, it certainly isn’t the end of the world.

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