How to get a first

Looking to get a first? Attaining the top degree class is a great achievement, but it’s not one that comes easily. Tom Mountford, who has done it all before, shares his experiences.

  • Last updated Jul 23, 2019 9:31:01 AM
  • Tom Mountford and Tuula Petersen

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 are all things I did that I believe contributed to achieving a first-class degree classification.

Choose your modules carefully

There are seven modules that formulate the core of your law degree—any law student studying in the UK is required to take these. Generally, you will be able to choose four other law-related modules to complement the compulsory ones during your final year of an LLB. It’s wise to choose these modules carefully and strategically since they will most likely constitute a larger percentage of your final grade.

Some people choose modules on the basis that they know the tutor is a lenient marker, but this is probably not the best way to go about it. Students tend to achieve their best marks in the modules they are most interested in because being engaged by a subject makes the reading and research much easier and more stimulating.

Choose your seminar leaders carefully

If 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 they recommend—find out which seminar leaders offer clear help, guidance and thought-provoking debates.

Seminar leaders are there to explain the more difficult parts of the course and offer advice on coursework. If you cannot engage with a seminar leader’s teaching style, this can make the seminars dull, or you may feel apprehensive about seeking their advice.

Read!

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

Instead of wading through lots of unnecessary material, stick to reading the recommended material, then ask the seminar leader or lecturer which of the further articles are most relevant.

It’s important to remember that the recommended reading or the information gained from lectures is never enough. For each essay over 2,000 words, I read between two and six textbook chapters, around ten articles, and consulted several other sources as a minimum.

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

Plan!

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

Starting early is the best thing to do. This ensures you have time to thoroughly think over the topic and critically evaluate your own work. Choosing your essay questions and titles early will enable you to start your research before the books you need disappear from the library on loan to other essay writers!

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”. This means writing down the key ideas and creating a flowchart or 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. Aim to 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 will usually mark your coursework. If they suggest one of your arguments or points is weak, it’s wise to leave it out of the essay and pursue a line of thought your seminar leader hinted at or recommended.

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.

Discussing ideas with my seminar leaders resulted in essays that put forward novel ideas and viewpoints that I would not necessarily have come across myself. These discussions enabled me to step away from a conventional train of thought and approach the essay question from an unexpected perspective.

If you’re struggling to develop an idea when embarking on a piece of coursework, it could be useful to revisit the relevant lecture and see if you can pick up on a thread the lecturer had mentioned, often as an undertone to the main lecture.

Discuss ideas with your friends

If you can find some friends on your course with a similar standard of work as your own, ask if they would be happy to swap essays and read each other's work. This allowed me to discern issues in my own work that I would not have picked up on without my friends’ help. Returning the favour also helps to formulate new ideas and forces you to consider an alternative perspective to an essay question. 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. This was because 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’re fed up with writing your essay, your dissertation or revision, take a break, talk it over with a friend and go back to it in 20 minutes time. Finally, good luck!

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

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