What does it take to graduate from university with a First?
Mark McArdle, first–class degree holder from the University of Lancaster, tells how he did it.
Don’t spend too much time at the student lounge, do turn up for most lectures and tutorials and do submit all coursework – eventually. That, I was told by a PhD student during freshers’ week, was all I needed to do to get a 2:2. For a 2:1, I’d require a better attendance record and have to work harder, but not at the expense of being cut off from civilization. And for a First I would have to become some sort of social outcast, go to even lecture and tutorial (scribbling notes madly), spend every waking moment immersed in academic books, and be among the last to be thrown out of the university library at 10 pm closing time. Well, I did not give up my life for study. I didn't attend every lecture and tutorial. I didn’t write down every word spoken in lectures. I didn’t get 80% or more in every essay, project, test or exam. I was usually behind with my reading and occasionally mystified by the syllabus. Sometimes I couldn't be bothered to go to university and stayed at home instead. But I always knew where I was what I had to do and what not to bother with. And I always worked hard on the things that counted: assignments and exams.
Getting a degree is about learning, but it isn’t just about learning biology, history, English or whatever. It’s about understanding what you need to succeed − what, in fact, the university wants from you and what you will get in return. You have to have a feel for the education market and really sell your inspirations. What does the lecturer want? What is the essay marker searching for? Some students try to offer something not wanted. Others want to give very little − they steal the thoughts of others and submit them as their own. But they all want to be rewarded. Exchange, but don’t steal, and you’ll get a degree.
I could guarantee every book on my reading list was out on long loan from the university library within five seconds of the list being issued. This was worrying at first, but I quickly learned that it was impossible to read all of the books on an average reading list anyway. I sought shortcuts. Collections of selected readings or journal articles were excellent sources that often saved me the bother of reading the original texts. References in books dragged me all over the place but with all the courses I had to do, there wasn't enough time to be dragged too far. I would flick through the book, read the introduction, note any summaries, look at diagrams, skim the index, and read any conclusions. I plucked out what was needed and made my escape. I revised by discarding subject areas I could not face revising, reading, compiling notes, and then condensing them onto one or two sheets of A4 for each subject area. Leading up to the exam, I would concentrate on just the condensed notes and rely on my memory to drag out the detail behind them when the time came. I didn’t practice writing exam questions, although it was recommended. I prefer to be spontaneous and open– minded. I don't want pre–formed conclusions filling my mind.
And nor should you; there is no secret to getting a First – this is just an account of how I got my First. Be a happy student by striking the right balance between working and enjoying yourself. Take what you do seriously and do your best. And, no matter what you do don’t forget to appreciate every day of your university studies: it is one of the greatest periods of your life.
University degree classifications in the UK:
– First class
– Upper second (2:1)
– Lower second (2:2)
– Third class (3)
Question 35: Why did the writer not practice writing exam questions?