Update: How to Get a First – the book, now available on Amazon.
In my final year of University, I managed to go out 2-4 times a month (in terms 1 and 2), co-founded and run an entrepreneur’s society where I acted as the Vice President and despite maintaining a fairly active social life and being involved with organising numerous society events, I still managed to graduate with a first class degree in Accounting and Finance (2010), taking home the prize for the highest dissertation mark, as well as sharing a prize for the highest mark in a challenging Finance module.
Could it be that I am some kind of super-smart-naturally-talented-student? Not really. My IQ is only slightly above average and on numerous topics, I had to ask my classmates for help, whereas in other areas I resorted to 12 hour days in the library in the final term to really grasp the more difficult topics. To a number of friends, the fact that I graduated with a first was surprising because in my first and second years (where I had a lot more non-academic pursuits), I actually averaged a mid-level 2.1.
Some people think that to get a first, you either have to be naturally very smart, or you need to spend every living hour in the library. I would argue that both of these premises do not need to hold and that a student of average intelligence can do extremely well without leading a boring student life where they spend every free moment studying.
Reflecting back on my time at University, I have identified a number of behaviours, ideas, and principles that helped me succeed, and I believe that if other students adopt them, their chances of achieving a first class degree would be greatly enhanced. Here’s how to get a first class degree:
This is perhaps the most important of all the points but yet also the most ambiguous. The ‘right’ degree could be a subject area you enjoy, one where your strengths lie, or one you believe will help you enter a certain field of work. Either way, you should do a degree in which finding the motivation to work your ass off is not a problem. To me, this is a key factor in determining the ‘right degree’.
When people ask, what are you aiming for, you may lie and say; “I am aiming for a first so that worst comes to worst, I will get a 2.1”. But when you talk to yourself, never beat around the bush. If you want a first, you must believe that by putting in the effort, you will get it. As corny as it sounds, positive self-talk works. Believe that by putting in the effort you can do it, and you will. Think otherwise, and you will probably not get a first in your degree.
What worked really well for me was that I had a core group of friends with whom I went to the library and study zones with on a regular basis; not necessarily to work and study together in a group (we only did this once or twice a month for 2 hours to discuss some topics), but to know that we were not at it alone. We would go into the library and sit in a quite zone to work solo, only getting up to ask each other questions when we were really, really stuck. The main advantage of having such buddies is that they can motivate you to work harder and to focus again if you start to get lazy. For example in the final term, there were days when I would get up to leave the library early, only to sit back down after being mocked by a friend: “You only been here 6 hours and you are leaving already?!?! You are getting lazy man!”. Having study buddies also means you can moan about how hard things are and do a bit of venting about the struggle from time to time, which is healthy.
80%-90% of my studying was done at University in a quiet zone. You have to get yourself in a good environment to study effectively. It’s like going to the gym. You work harder there than you do at home because in a gym you see other people sweating it out on the bench and treadmills and automatically you are motivated to push harder. Therefore, stay at University as long as you can to cover all the work that needs to get done such that when you get home, you can relax and enjoy the rest of the night.
I will admit, I did not attend all of my lectures and missed quite a few in years 1 and 2. But in your final year, you should aim to attend all lectures and take as many notes as you can. When taking notes, it does not matter if understand them at the time or not, write them down anyway. As you return to revise, armed with more knowledge, those once illusive notes will begin to make sense. Also, by attending all lectures, you will pick up hints as to what could come up in the exams. The lecturers usually emphasize these topic areas, or say things like, “this would make a nice exam question”. If you have to miss a lecture, then ask a friend to record them for you on a usb recorder to listen to later, or at least copy some notes from a friend.
Tony Buzan, a world leading expert on the brain and learning who has experience advising Olympic athletes suggests that having a healthy mind requires a healthy body. This means that you should aim to get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, and minimize the amount of junk food in your diet. In terms 1 and 2, I would hit the gym 3-4 times a week and in term 3, I cut it down to 2-3 times a week. Spending time on the treadmill and lifting weights made the crucial revision period near the end of the year less monotonous and boring, and I felt much more energized after breaking a sweat.
In the first and second terms of my final year, I went out on most Saturday nights and hardly ever said no to invites to parties, as long as they were on days that did not result in me missing lectures. Human beings are very social animals and it appears that the more we lock ourselves away to study all alone and isolated, the more we become miserable and this ends up affecting our work. If you are not the going out type, there are many other things you can do with friends and family on the weekends. Having a day, once a week, where you can simply relax and enjoy the company of friends and family can do wonders for your efforts in achieving a first. More on this in our how to make the most out of university post.
Do more than is expected in all the work that you do. For example, do more reading. This is particularly important in subjects that involve essays and a fair bit of writing. I recommend however that you first understand and learn all that is taught within the syllabus and then complement that information with additional knowledge that you may not be expected to know. For example, when I was revising certain topics in my final year, I would go the the eLibrary and search for all journals and articles related to the topic, pick out the interesting ones and with a pen in one hand, start to read them while taking notes. Lecturers are always impressed by a student who mentions relevant knowledge not taught directly in the lectures.
If you made it to the end of this rather long article and found it useful, perhaps you can help me assess whether it would be appealing to write a much more extensive purchasable guide as an eBook. This would be over 100 pages long and consist of more detailed strategies, ideas and motivational tips to greatly increase your chances of getting a first class degree.
more info at How To Get a First Class Degree
Update: The book is now available from Amazon
Featured image: Chris Gilmore