How to get a first

  • Last updated 03-Jan-2016 16:55:11
  • Tom Mountford, LLB Graduate, University of Kent

Gaining a first class honours degree is never going to be easy. In order to obtain the often elusive 70+ marks, it really is necessary to step it up a gear.

Having recently graduated with first class honours, I was one of the lucky ones, but I didn’t consistently achieve first class marks during my first and second years. It was the final year that really made the difference.

Below you’ll find a few bits of advice for obtaining top marks in your coursework and exams. These are all things I did that I believe contributed to me achieving a first class degree classification.

Choose your modules carefully:

There are the seven compulsory modules exempting you from the first stage of professional exams, but after this, with a few exceptions, you will usually have more freedom when picking your other modules.

Some people choose modules on the basis that they know the tutor is a lenient marker; however, this is probably not the best way to go about it.

> my best marks were achieved in the modules I was most interested in

> being interested in a subject makes the reading and research much easier and more interesting

Choose your seminar leaders carefully:

If, like I was, you are able to choose your seminar leaders for second and final year modules, talk to students in the year above to find out who is good.

Seminar leaders are there to explain the more difficult parts of the course and offer advice on coursework. If you can’t get on with their teaching style, this can make going to them for advice difficult and seminars dull.


As a law student, it often feels like you’re being swamped by never-ending reading lists. If I’d read every piece of recommended reading and further reading for each module, I would probably still be reading now.

Instead of wading through lots of unnecessary material:

> read the recommended material

> then ask the seminar leader or lecturer which of the further articles are most relevant 

> remember that the recommended reading or information from lectures is NEVER enough. For each 2000+ word essay I read between two and six text book chapters, around 10 articles, and consulted several other sources as a minimum.

It may seem like a lot to get through, but if you make notes whilst reading it will help you navigate back through the material when planning your essay. Just reading a few extra articles gives you the edge when it comes to seminars, essays and exams.

It is also particularly important to do your research before writing an essay or piece of coursework.


A thorough plan usually leads to a good essay and good marks. A good plan also makes writing the essay much easier; it’s almost like filling in the gaps. Starting early is the best thing to do.

> choose essay questions/titles early so that you can start your research before everyone else has the books you need on loan from the library

> a plan should be like a walk-through guide for your essay, taking you from one paragraph to the next.

If you’re not sure where to start after reading lots of sources, and you feel slightly overwhelmed by the information you have available to you, a good tool to use is ‘water logic’.

> writing down key ideas and creating a flow chart/spider-style diagram, where each key idea has an arrow or arrows pointing to other key ideas.

> once you have a web of ideas flowing in various directions identify the main themes by looking at the ideas with the most arrows flowing to or from them

> redo the diagram at least once more to organise and reduce the material into a more coherent and logical flow diagram

The main themes can then be used as the main ideas you develop throughout your essay, with the smaller ideas used to fill in the gaps or as short interesting digressions.

This process really helped me to find a focus for my essays and made my work clearer, more logical and easier to follow.

Discuss ideas with your seminar leader…

It’s always a good idea to discuss your essay plan and ideas with your seminar leader before you start writing. Firstly, this is because your seminar leader is usually the first marker for your coursework. If they tell you something is a weak idea, then you shouldn’t go ahead with it.

Secondly, seminar leaders will often pick holes in your plan and help you identify problematic arguments that you may not have thought about. This will deepen your understanding of a topic and add a new level of complexity to your work.

By discussing ideas with my seminar leader, my essays presented novel ideas and points of view that, although not necessarily the traditional and expected way of addressing the question, were valued by my seminar leader.

If you are stuck for an idea when embarking on a piece of coursework, it’s often a good idea to revisit the relevant lecture to see if you can pick up on a thread the lecturer has mentioned, often as an undertone to the main lecture.

If you’re bold with your ideas and discuss them with your seminar leader, your essay will stand out from the crowd. As long as your research and argument is good, the higher marks will follow.

Discuss ideas with your friends…

If you can find some friends on your course with a similar standard of work as your own. 

> swap essays and read each other’s work. This allowed me to see problems in my work that I would not have picked up on without my friends. Returning the favour also gives you ideas and allows you to broaden your perspective on a problem.

> Swapping essays at the end of the year for revision purposes is also very helpful, provided your friends have marks as good as your own.

Answer the question…

This seems like a cliché, but it’s really worth emphasising. When I was revising for my finals, I met up with friends to go through the course and do some revision.

Several days before the exam, I was worried that they knew more facts, cases and dates than I did. However, when it came to the exams, I came out with some of the best marks in the year.

The reason for this was that I had answered the questions set and not just tried to write as much information down as I could in three hours.

I planned my answers, knew the key facts, expanded on the main ideas with some additional knowledge and kept my writing concise and to the point. All of this paid off and I achieved the degree classification I wanted.

Last word…

Obtaining a first class degree is, for the majority that manage it, not an easy task. There is a lot of hard work involved and it doesn’t just happen.

If you are fed up with an essay, your dissertation or revision, take a break, talk it over with a friend and go back to it in 20 minutes time. Last of all, good luck!

Remember, it's not simply your grade though that will get you into the career you want. You'll need some legal work experience! Head over to our Legal Opportunities section for a list of options.

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